Lancaster, Pennsylvania, most often thought of as the center of Pennsylvania Dutch culture, and it is. But many visitors drawn to the area by the Amish restaurants, museums, exhibits and the plethora of tacky attractions that has grown up around them, never get into the city of Lancaster itself.
Which is a shame.
It’s an interesting and historic city, with interesting shops and museums, including the home of the painter Charles Demuth. For trivia fans, it was one of the first inland towns in the U.S., the terminus of the first long-distance paved road in the U.S., home to the first Woolworth store and, for one day in 1777, it was the capital of the U.S. The Conestoga wagons that took settlers west came from Lancaster, as did Robert Fulton, inventor of the steamboat.
And, it’s the home of the Lancaster Central Market, which claims to be the oldest continuously-operated farmers market in the U.S. I’ve enjoyed it a number of times over the past 25 years, most recently in early March. In that time, Lancaster’s population has changed, with growing numbers of people of Hispanic, African-American and Asian ancestry.
Greek specialties from Stella's; she arrived in the U.S. in 2010 and the market in 2011. European sausages from Rooster Street Butcher and African tastes from Rafiki's Deli; the husband-and-wife owners arrived in 2003 from Uganda and Kenya, respectively.
Those changes have made small-city Lancaster a much more diverse and interesting place, and that’s reflected in the market, with more variety of ‘ethnic’ foods and ingredients on sale. But in another way, the market seems not to have changed at all: it is still largely a market for the products of the rich agricultural area around the city.
S. Clyde Weaver has the biggest stand; this is their 100th year, and 91st in the market. I'm still slowly eating my hoarded supply of their bacon and ham. In lower photo, notice at rear the wildly-red eggs: local favorite, dyed with beets. Here's an even more extreme version from another stall.
While we're on a color roll, check these out. I bought a pint each of the orange and green to try; they were OK, but not to die for. Or to buy again. I skipped the pink strawberry and purple blueberry versions. I also did not buy those pretzels, but it was a near thing.
And after all, isn’t the strong undercurrent of Pennsylvania Dutch foods and recipes ‘ethnic food’ to begin with? Perhaps the biggest change has been not the flavor, but the appearance of more organic labels and products. Of course, some of those old-time foods were organic all along!
Baked goods, oh my. I kept myself to two small pieces to eat on the way back to New York, but the choices were endless and lovely. Oh, yes, and bread.
The market isn’t a boutique; it’s pretty-much a one-stop shopping for almost anything that’s not paper or commercially canned; in winter, that means that fruit and vegetables may be imported, but there’s also a growing number of local hydroponic farms that produce local veg in winter.
Some farmers sell directly at the three-day-a-week market, but many of the stallholders are long-time market families that buy locally to sell at market; some, like a few of the major meat and baked goods stands, also have stores.
Linden Dale is the longest-serving stallholder—nearly 125 years.
Quite a few of the market stalls are fairly recent, opening in the past few years, while others go back as far as seven generations in the market. One family supplies its stall from a farm that’s been in the family since 1797 and there are a number of other hundred-years-or-more vendors. But there’s also Greek food from a 2010 immigrant, and authentic Latin and Middle Eastern foods prepared by other recent immigrants.
As some may have noticed, I love markets, and especially I love markets that are aimed at feeding the masses, that are a place where people come to find good fresh food at reasonable prices. Markets make great and beautiful tourist attractions, but when they lose their original purpose, they lose soul and they lose their very reason for existence. I'm happy to say that hasn't happened in Lancaster!
And, happily, I was able to do half my week's shopping to carry home, along with a variety of perishables for my freezer. Including some of these truly excellent jams, including a double cherry (sweet and tart), strawberry rhubarb and black raspberry.
A touch of Cuban cuisine and sugar cane drinks...
And just a nice display shelf.
If you decide on a day or so in Lancaster, plan carefully; the market is open on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, although in the present crisis, Saturday is on hold, but you won't be visiting until that's over. While you're in the Lancaster area, consider the Amish Farm and House, which has a sensitive and interesting tour of Amish life without the cutesy tourist samplers and stuff.
If you're a railfan, keep in mind that you will be minutes away from the Strasburg Rail Road, the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania and the National Toy Train Museum.