CINCINNATI — When traveling, it is hard to resist public markets, but in the United States they can be disappointing. Some are merely glorified food courts or amusement parks where tourists can ogle a $7 heirloom tomato or watch fishmongers toss striped bass around, rather than a place to buy good ingredients for dinner. It’s a bad sign when you notice that far more people have cameras than shopping bags.
That is never the case at Findlay Market here. Shoppers are lugging totes bulging with feathery fennel, shiny red peppers, and neatly wrapped white butcher packages. They grab numbers at cheese counters, smell the cantaloupes, and pepper butchers with questions.
Cincinnatians have been shopping for groceries at Findlay since 1855, making it one of the oldest markets in the country. It outdates the city’s two major historic claims, the nation’s first suspension bridge, the John A. Roebling Bridge, and the first baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds. A forward-thinking engineer used a little-known technology to build the cast and wrought iron market frame, which runs the length of two blocks and rises to an airy peak down the middle. Back then, before refrigeration, public markets were a necessity. They were the primary way for city-dwellers to buy fresh, perishable food from surrounding farms.
The large market was sited in what was at the time the city’s densest neighborhood, the Over-the-Rhine. As the name implies, the brick row houses were the homes of German-Americans. They drank beer at 2½ times the national average. You can still find “Biergarten” etched into the bricks of some buildings, but the area has long since changed into a rundown neighborhood of peeling paint and forgotten, weedy lots. Still, shoppers have never stopped coming, and the German heritage lives on at the market’s abundant butcher counters.
At Kroeger Meats, you’ll find a long stretch of sausage shimmering in the voluminous case’s bright light. There are four kinds of metts, brats made from a recipe brought from Germany, orange-y andouille, chorizo, and a pork sausage made with Vidalia onions. Here the clerk can explain the difference between a southern German frankfurter and a northern German frankfurter. Or you can buy both and taste for yourself.
At the extremely popular Silverglades, which can be tough on a shopper with a touch of claustrophobia but worth the suffering, you’ll find more sausages as well as German cold cuts, such as coarse teawurst, bloodwurst, and pfefferwurst, as well as disc after disc of cheese. To give their orders, customers have to crane their necks around stacks of bread loaves and crackers on the high case, but its amazing what you can put up with when you want some black forest salami.
Besides this is market time, when you enjoy shopping instead of racing through a grocery store tossing yogurt into your cart. Findlay Market feels like a world unto itself, a kind of mini village within the city. The streets to either side of the original building are closed to traffic and have seats here and there so you can sit down and devour a pulled pork sandwich or a stick of landjager. All the refrigerated food, the planks of ribs, the ruby colored-crawdads are inside the building. Fresh produce stands line the outside, no matter the weather. Small shops such as Dean’s Mediterranean Imports, where you can pick up a jar of almond jam or a bottle of rosewater, ring the market.
When Findlay was renovated 10 years ago, devotees held their breath for fear it would be
Disney-fied. They needn’t have worried. There are more food vendors, including the very fine crepes at Taste of Belgium and the fresh spring rolls at Pho Lang Thang, but they have not overtaken the market. Nor have the soap sellers and street musicians. Instead they’ve made the market more of a fair in a good way and brought in more people, and noticeably more families.
What hasn’t changed is the kinds of people you’ll see at Findlay. All kinds, as in all ages, incomes and colors, still shop here. It is one of the few places in Cincinnati where people from all walks of life mix.
And what has the power to draw them? Food, of course.
Findlay Market, 1801 Race St., Cincinnati, www.findlaymarket.org