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Lancaster's Historic Central Market

Historic Central Market Brings Consumers Back to Earth 

The greatest destinations in the world don't always have a backdrop of beautiful scenery or warm weather year around. Sometimes, the warmth comes from the people who live there and the beauty can be seen in the fruits of their labor. Central Market in Lancaster, PA Amish country is one of these destinations. This bustling center of trade is a living history, dating back to 1730 when the town was founded. Central Market, Lancaster, PA

"It's the oldest continuously operating publicly owned market in the country," according to Michael Ervin, Market Manager. In the early days, standholders sold fresh meats and produce from makeshift sheds or truck beds at the site; then the town built the current marketplace in 1889. The red brick Romanesque Revival-style building is rich with architectural detail, including ornate stone, arches, and twin towers with Spanish tiles and terra cotta finials. Ervin noted that it's the most photographed building in Lancaster.

The market, located in the heart of town at Penn Square, has more than 60 stands featuring a range of local products -- everything from fresh meat, cheese, produce, herbs, flowers and baked goods, to regional specialties, such as Pennsylvania Dutch sausage, scrapple, shoofly pie, and chow-chow, and also authentic Amish and Mennonite crafts and furniture. "Many of the stands have been operated by the same families for several generations, some more than 100 years. They've become an institution and have a loyal following. Customers interact with the standholders and conversations often turn into friendships. It's relationship selling," Ervin expressed.

"Meet me at market" has always been part of Lancaster County's lingo, according to Joel Cliff, Media Relations Manager at the PA Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The market is a real meeting place, a long-time tradition and point of pride. It continues to survive and even thrive after all these years. Folks come out to nurture and support it," he said. People are becoming disconnected from their food sources, according to Cliff. Through the market, he said they can reconnect with their food, put a face on it, and at the same time build relationships and strengthen communities, socially and economically. "Here we have a real authentic piece of history to share. The locals often shop at the market several times a week so they can have fresh products for their evening meal. Visitors get caught up in the great smells, the tastes and sight of fresh produce and homemade items. They find that a crisp apple from Lancaster County simply tastes better than one trucked across the country. But they're also drawn to the idea of taking part in our everyday life," he stressed.

I remember my first "market experience" in the Shires of England and how I, too, was drawn into the lives of producers, artisans and consumers. We had just moved to the UK for a few years and I was fascinated with market day, steeped in its history and tradition. All my senses danced to life as I strolled through the festive atmosphere where locals were buying everything they needed for the week, from fresh foods and flowers to bolts of fabric and wooly-knit hats. I especially remember the elderly cheese monger, a delightful chap who smelled like briny sea and wore a tweed newsboy cap. He was offering generous samples that day and asked me what kind of cheese I liked. When I naively replied "Kraft," he took me under his proverbial wing, introducing me to a variety of cheeses and talking about the nuances, textures and flavors. I couldn't get past the smell of some, like Stilton -- a market day favorite, but surprisingly I kept an open mind for a pretty strong Double Gloucester. In the end, I bought a nice chunk of Red Leicestershire, an orange-hued cheese with a creamy-rich sweetness. As I left that day, the cheese monger said, "Keep in mind, love, cheese is a living food; it needs to breathe like you and me, so don't wrap it too tightly."

Like the time-honored British markets, Central Market offers something for everyone, including a huge slice of the past -- a time when folks chatted while choosing an eggplant for a dinner casserole or shared recipes and family news over a fresh sticky bun and coffee. I noticed this first at a produce stand, and again when I stopped at Willow Valley for a pumpkin whoopie pie, an unbelievably decadent treat with a creamy rich filling sandwiched between cake-like cookies. I'm not sure how the pie got its name, but I can assure that when you sink a sweet tooth into that first bite, you'll be thinking "whoopie!" Michael Long

My next stop was at Michael Long's Horseradish stand. I've never been a big fan of horseradish, but it was actually a fan than drew me in. Long was grating pure, fresh horseradish, releasing the root's strong, pungent aroma as a pedestal fan spread the news that he'd soon be preparing and bottling a fresh batch of the popular condiment.  "The fan is our best sales tool. We've never felt the need to advertise," he said.

Long's family has owned and operated the legendary stand, a market icon, through five generations. As he unfolded the heart-warming story of his great-grandfather's uncle coming from Germany and starting the business, and talked about his dad running the stand for 55 years, my eyes teared up -- but it had nothing to do with nostalgia. He simply smiled as I reached in my purse for a tissue. No one else took notice of my tears because the locals know that most everyone weeps when Long is grating horseradish. Within minutes, I realized that my sinuses were clear for the first time in months, maybe years! The stuff is pretty potent, and it's quite popular worldwide. No wonder it outshines his other top-of-the-line fresh products like pickles, honey, hot mustard, tangy barbecue and cocktail sauces, saffron, table syrup, lemonade, and even the old-fashioned barrel molasses which is the main ingredient for shoofly pie, a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch dessert.Michael Long grating horseradish

Long began selling horseradish at the family stand when he was 13 years old, so the locals have watched him grow up over the years. "I didn't enjoy those early years at all. They took up every Saturday of my life from 6 a.m. until 3 p.m., but there was a little bakery at the market that sold the best cream-filled donuts I've ever tasted, so that was nice!  Now, I think of the market as a fun place to work. My kids help out during the holidays, but I'm not sure if they see it as fun just yet," he said.

In the early years, his family members grew horseradish in their backyard city gardens and overwintered it in root cellars. They also bought it from other local growers. "Most people had dual occupations back then. They were usually busy autumn through spring, but come summer, especially before refrigeration, they were vendors, selling seasonal items." he said. Times have changed. Today, most of Long's horseradish is supplied by growers in the Mississippi River Valley. He noted that horseradish was just named “herb of the year” by the International Herb Society.

With horseradish, people either "love it or hate it," according to Long. "It's something you have to acquire a taste for. I started out with a mild cocktail sauce with shrimp and then moved on to the more zippy stuff," he said. My introduction to the sharp taste was also in a mild shrimp cocktail sauce, and I guess my taste buds began the "acquiring" process. Although I wasn't a big horseradish fan the day I stopped by Long's stand, I now have a growing appreciation of the overwhelming root. It came after ordering a memorable chicken sandwich, stepped up with horseradish mayo, at a local deli. Mmm mmm!

As much as Long enjoys promoting his horseradish and other products, he said "The real beauty of the market is getting to know the customers who come in regularly. There’s a real sense of community and a connection between consumers and producers here. This is the spot in Lancaster. People plan their days out around it. There’s a great mix of products.”

Although I only spent an afternoon at the market, I enjoyed a bit of that mix. For lunch, I chose the S. Clyde Weaver stand which has featured smoked meats and specialty cheeses at the market since 1920.  Earlier in the day, I had heard someone talking about one of their baked ham wraps, so that’s what I ordered; it came with a layer of tasty fresh pineapples and pineapple cream cheese, tomatoes and lettuce.

Since I'd already splurged at least a month’s ‘calories on a whoopie pie, I chose a ginger gold apple to eat later for dessert. It was locally grown in the orchards of Kauffman's Fruit Farm. The stand was opened by Amos Kauffmann in 1915 and is currently operated by the family’s third, fourth and fifth generations. Customers were milling around the stand, and a few had jars of apple butter spread in their hands. So I decided to try a jar too, and chose the one with sugar, cinnamon and other spices. I could have spent the entire day, and then some, browsing through the market, but it was time to get on the road for home, a 12-hour drive.

HBrie, left, and Cyndi, right, at Amish Family Recipes, their family standowever, on the way out I made an amazing discovery at the Amish Family Recipes stand. While famous for the jam, pickled veggies, salsa, marinade and dressing recipes that have been handed down through generations, it was the quirky cocoPops that drew me in. These airy-fairy wafers were shooting through a bright yellow and lime green machine – pop, pop, pop, with such fascinating force that a shield had to keep them from flying clear across the market. Come to find out, the multi-grain treats are a healthy choice snack with no sugar, fat, cholesterol, or preservatives – and just 16 calories!  Of course I had to bring a bag home, eating a few along the way. They’re great plain, when fresh, but after a few days they’re better slathered with Kauffman's apple butter and a sliced banana.

That evening, I stopped at a supermarket to pick up sandwich. Half-dazed shoppers, hurried and exhausted, were standing in line at the deli counter, waiting for fried chicken and other take-out dinner choices.  My mind wandered back to Central Market where people socialized while buying fresh and wholesome local products; the contrast was staggering.  No wonder there’s been a renaissance of farmers’ markets across the country. My mind returned to the cheese monger who taught me that cheese is "a living food ...  it needs to breathe." These are the things that feed our hearts on market day.

So, if you're ever in Lancaster County, or anywhere within a three-day drive, stop by and embrace the taste sensations at Central Market. For sure, it's not a tourist trap. It's Americana at its finest. The market was recently recognized nationally as one of 10 Great Public Spaces in America by the American Planning Association who called it "the crown jewel of downtown Lancaster." When planning your trip, keep in mind that the market is open every Tuesday and Friday from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Saturdays from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., except on holidays. Then, it's open the day before the holiday. For more information, visit www.centralmarketlancaster.com or call (717) 735-6890.The Fulton Theatre

Another Historic Downtown Lancaster Highlight - The Fulton Theatre, also known as "The Grand Old Lady of Prince Street," was built in 1852. The Victorian beauty, a National Historic Landmark, is considered the country's oldest continuously operated theatre. Many legendary stars have graced its stage, including General Tom Thumb, Ethel Barrymore, W. C. Fields, Alfred Lunt, Al Jolson, and Mark Twain. The theatre was named after Robert Fulton, the county's steam engine pioneer. For more information, visit www.thefulton.org or call (717) 397-7425

Lancaster County - The county is surrounded by stunning countryside and offers a variety of getaway options, including Amish, heritage and covered bridge trips, hiking, biking and birding, shopping and dining, visits to museums, galleries, wineries and breweries, and numerous cultural and entertainment activities. For a visitor's guide, visit www.padutchcountry.com.


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