Our second stop on our urban food systems field trip to Baltimore was the venerable Lexington Market. Lexington Market is a representative of the thriving city market system which was once the way most city dwellers got their fresh foods prior to the advent of grocery stores. My English 101 students were there to learn more about this system and how it functions to help with issues of food access and food insecurity.
Lexington Market is the oldest continuously operating market in the United States and has the history cred to match. It was established in 1782 when a Revolutionary War hero donated land to Baltimore for a public market that would serve as a retail outlet for farmers and fishermen. The 1800s to 1900s were the heyday of the market with over 1000 merchants and the market spread over three city blocks. Today Lexington Market is still thriving but on a smaller scale with just under 100 merchants and vendors. The current market building was put up in 1950 after a major fire. Even this recent building has some historical significance; it was one of the first buildings in Baltimore to have air conditioning and the inside is still mostly original, including the uniquely sloped floor. Baltimore is a city that has been known for its culinary delights for many years. In 1859 Oliver Wendell Holmes remarked, “Baltimore…the gastronomic metropolis of the Union. Why don’t you put a canvas-back duck on top of the Washington column? Why don’t you get that lady off from the Battle Monument and plant a terrapin in her place? Why will you ask for other glories when you have soft crabs? …if you open your mouths to speak nature stops them with a fat oyster or offers a slice of the breast of your divine bird.” If Baltimore is the gastronomic metropolis of the Union, then Lexington Market is its capital.
Our guided tour began with market manager Stacey Pack walking us around the block to the basement of the opposite market building. We entered through the parking garage and passed through an abandoned night club. The students very quickly got into the spooky atmosphere since it had been left more or less intact with many of the menus, dishes, and such laying about in an atmosphere of dust and decay.
After passing through the abandoned night club we descended a narrow set of concrete stairs into the vaulted catacombs beneath the market.
It turns out Baltimore has many catacombs like this beneath the city which can make any sort of road work or underground digging a challenge. These catacombs were discovered in the 1950s when ground was broken for the new market building and parking garage. Many of the lengthier passageways were sealed off for safety’s sake.
These catacombs were originally built for cold storage of meats and vegetables for the original market. Later they were used during Prohibition for more illicit purposes, ahem. Now they are open by reservation for tours. Our energetic and knowledgeable tour guide gave an overview of their history and fielded questions from the group.
Up top and back in the market building we walked through the market, hearing more about its history and layout from Stacey. We began with Faidley’s Seafood which has been around for many years and serves what many contend is Baltimore’s best crab cake. (Me included!)
It also sells various fresh seafood and other, shall we say, Chesapeake Bay-area unique ingredients like muskrat. One of the market employees on the tour with us shared that her grandmother often cooked with muskrat, enjoying it in a stew.
One student claims he saw a raccoon carcass for sale too but I’m not sure whether I should believe that. We also passed by the Berger‘s bakery stand which is known for its beloved soft chocolate icing encrusted cookies.
Stacey guided our group outside to check out the peanut roasting stand for Konstant’s Peanuts and to try their freshly roasted peanuts, tossing the shells on the ground for the hopeful pigeons which appeared as if by magic. Tasting the salty crunch of the warm peanuts, it was easy to understand the pigeons’ interest.
Our guide made a great point that Lexington Market is centrally located in Baltimore‘s transportation hub, with the Metro, the Light Rail and numerous bus lines nearby, making it an accessible food source for Baltimoreans. Standing outside munching on peanuts, it was easy to see that the Market sits at a busy crossroads. Stalls sell not only ready-made foods but also fresh produce, seafood, and meats. There’s also a mini-grocery store within the market. Many neighborhoods in Baltimore are food deserts, so the Market serves a vital purpose for the health of the City.
Apparently Baltimore City has plans to renovate the market yet keep it open during its facelift. I certainly hope that the renovations will help it continue to serve the community as a source of fresh and delicious food at a fair price and not remove its funky, old school charm. I’ve been to markets in other cities that focus more on artisanal and gourmet foods, pricing out the vendors and customers who need them the most. Everyone, no matter their address or income, has a right to fresh and fair food.
Stay tuned for my last blog post about the Baltimore Food Hub in this 3 part series about our urban food systems Baltimore field trip.
You can read about our first stop, Johns Hopkins University’s Food Systems Lab here.
Have you ever been to Lexington Market? What is your favorite thing to eat there?