I walk in off the street, leaving one hustle and bustle for another. I leave the swarm of cars and sounds of construction on Filbert Street only to walk head on into a business woman hurriedly scarfing down lo mein from the Golden Bowl, probably on her way back to the office. All around me there are people chatting, eating, and shopping.
Reading Terminal Market is a lunch time Philadelphia hub of busy people meeting coworkers for lunch and tourists buying knock-off Flyers’ t-shirts. To my right is Iovine Brothers Produce where people collect fresh ingredients for tonight’s dinner; tomatoes, potatoes, apples, and bananas. To my left, Chocolate by Mueller has a line of those waiting to purchase oddly shaped chocolate treats. I watch as a frazzled mother hands her screaming three-year-old a milk chocolate ear complete with a sprinkle earring.
All my senses are accosted by the onslaught of stimuli. I hear languages, Arabic, Dutch, Spanish, and even a bit of Italian, coming from Termini Brothers Bakery. I smell tomatoes cooking in marinara sauce, sauerkraut bubbling from the Dutch cookery in the middle of the market, brownies cooling on trays from the bakeries, and the smell of french fries frying from possibly every sandwich shop in the Market. The entire place is burning hot from all of the restaurants cooking and the overwhelming flow of people trying to squeeze down the all too narrow aisle ways packed with foot traffic and strollers.
Aisle after aisle, the place is filled with families ogling the hundreds of choices for food and treats, while regulars of Reading Terminal weave in and out of the tourists heading straight for their favorite Dutch diner. A group of Amish folk in their conservative clothing, talk to each other in quick Dutch as they carry boxes of pies to their bakery. An obvious tourist stands in the front of an Amish candy store digging in her purple fanny pack for a digital camera stopping the flow of traffic.
Personally, I am making a B-line for Spataro’s Cheesesteaks, because who could go to Philly and not partake of the most famous food to come out of that city? I order steak, onions, and peppers with American cheese from an olive-skinned man speaking with a thick Philly accent saying “wud-er” when he reported my order for a bottled water over his shoulder.
Behind him, co-workers spring into action, throwing beef down on an already sizzling flat top grill cutting open a fresh roll. I watch a man in a white t-shirt and a grease-spattered apron wielding two spatulas continuously beat the edges against the browning beef on the grill, cutting it to bits. He throws a handful of green peppers and onions on the flat top next to the beef. By this point, my mouth is watering in anticipation of the Pennsylvanian delicacy.
Once all the beef is browned, the cook configures the pile of beef, peppers, and onions into a shape that mirrors that of the bread and lays three slices of white American cheese on top of the pile. He places the roll insides down on the beef and slides one of the spatulas under the pile of food and, in a movement as old as Philadelphia, flips all of the beef into the roll, sprinkling whatever bits are left on the grill on top of the sandwich. He wraps the whole ordeal in foil and slides it onto the counter.
I grab my sandwich and begin the search for a seat in the ever moving market. There is a small sitting section in the center of the Market, but the chances of actually finding a free seat amongst the chaos is slim to none. All the plastic patio chairs around their matching tables are full of patrons digging into the many delicacies the market offers. There was not a seat in sight, so I find myself awkwardly leaning against a window near an exit unwrapping my cheesesteak.
As is to be expected, the sandwich is delicious! The first bite is a delectable mouthful of beef, fried onions, and cheese. It tastes like everything I remember of my first cheesesteak, which coincidentally was purchased at Spataro’s.
At age 15, I enjoyed my first authentic Philly cheesesteak, a big step up from the boxed steak I had previously had my whole life. My parents had taken me and my cousin, Rebecca, to visit the historical sites at Independence Mall. My mother had the idea to take us to Reading Terminal Market for lunch where I instantly requested a Philly cheesesteak. As I dug into my first experience with Philadelphia culture, it instantly became my new favorite food.
My first experience with the Market was much different from now. Instead of walking around in wonder, I knew my way around. I felt like I belonged there rather than the outsider I was as a teenager.
I people-watch while I finish up my lunch. A family is sitting in the dining area, the mother wipes ketchup off her son’s cheek while he redunks a chicken finger. The daughter is playing with a novelty snowglobe with the Flyers’ logo floating in the middle, while her dad leans back in his chair scrolling through his iPhone. A man in a suit sits down to a bowl of Chinese food and unbuttons the top button of his shirt. I wonder if the market has always been like this.
Reading Terminal has turned into precisely the place its forefathers had envisioned. In the beginning, when Philadelphia was first established, open air markets reigned supreme among the settlers who needed a place to buy and sell goods in a centralized location. Through population growth, it became impossible to have such a large area in the city opened for markets because they took up space which could be more valuably used for roads. Soon it was decreed the markets would be disbanded due to the hygienic issues of having an outdoor market as well as the space they were taking up.
In Philadelphia, two markets remained; the Farmers’ Market and Franklin Market. These two indoor markets would merge to become what is now Reading Terminal Market. The new market opened its doors to approximately 800 vendors in 1892.
Due to the Market’s proximity to, and the booming industry of, the railroad, housewives of the age would take advantage of a grocery service provided by the Market. Suburban dwellers could place an order to be filled at the Market, which would then be placed on a train destined for their town.
When the train shed above the Market fell into bankruptcy and stopped operating, the city of Philadelphia decided to begin a conversion into a new entrance way to the Philadelphia convention center. With much public outcry, the Market was saved from being dismantled and began a slow economic upward climb.
Since that time, Reading Terminal Market has boomed, becoming a staple place for Philadelphians and tourists to get a meal and an experience. The Market is not just the grocery-type market it used to be. It has climbed to “must see” attraction level in the city. The entrance is walking distance from The Fabric Workshop and Museum, as well as the infamous Love Park, the oversized Monopoly game pieces, and the giant Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese noodle. It is a bit of a farther walk, but visitors to Philadelphia can walk from Independence Mall to Reading Terminal Market without much trouble.
Today, the Market is a flurry of
activity from open to close with barely a slow time in the day. Reading Terminal will always be a go-to place every time I pay a visit to the city of brotherly love. It is a place that has made its mark on a city, and the people who live in it. The market is more than a midday lunch stop, or a grocery stop on your way home from the office. Reading Terminal Market is well worth a visit by anyone who has the ability to go.
Cassandra Debroisse is a third-year student majoring in English writings with a minor in French. She can be reached at CD776803@wcupa.edu. 

Leave a Comment