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To Eastern Market, With Love

Discovering The Market
I first came to the District in 1993, a graduate student working at the Library of Congress. I settled on Capitol Hill with my now ex-wife, renting an English basement on Seward Square.

In those days, The Hill was down on its heels. Beautiful historic homes with lush gardens coexisted with homeless encampments, punctuated by ubiquitous piles of trash.

The closest Safeway was a dozen blocks away. Without an automobile, it was a nearly unnavigable distance. Taking a cue from many of my neighbors, I began to shop for groceries at the Eastern Market.

So began a love affair.

Falling in Love
The first thing one noticed walking into the Market in the early 1990’s was the fetid smell of food, produce, meat, fish and trash. In the absence of adequate air conditioning, the odor grew worse in the summer months.

Unlike now, the Market in those days possessed no center aisle. Glancing north from the southern end of the South Hall, the view was obstructed by huge freezers, now housed underground. It was a maze.

In the South Hall, a large meat stall occupied the majority of the south end. A tiny bakery was tucked into the southeast corner. The northeast corner, then as now, housed The Market Lunch, but with little or no seating, across from a much larger fishmonger.

Thomas Calomiris, Jr.,
Calomiris Fruits and Vegetables

A pottery studio with a working kiln occupied the upper floors of the Center Hall, above where the bathrooms now sit.

In the North Hall was a funky, Afrocentric, non-profit gallery, operated by John Harrod who was responsible for the weekend craft and flea markets. On weekends, artisan booths and farmers stands garlanded the Market’s periphery and northern plaza.

However, while architecturally striking on the outside, what really distinguished the Market was its merchants, farmers and vendors. It was a chaotic, charming old world venue populated by a cast of colorful characters.

The bakery, a Jewish institution, was helmed by Doris and her brothers Irv and Moe. Once one got past her brusque demeanor, reminiscent of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, Doris was a charming raconteur.

Union Meat’s Bill Glasgow. Photo: Andrew Lightman.

Next door was a meat counter run by Mark Glasgow. I don’t remember Mark ever having any customers. Mostly, he sat with his elbows on the counter glowering at passers-by.

Mark and Doris were grumpy exceptions. Maria and Chris Calomiris were more the norm. Proprietors of Thomas Calomiris & Sons, the couple always greeted me warmly, asking after my family. Maria, known to all as “Momma,” was a fount of recipes. Her baklava and other Greek foods powered me through many afternoons of dissertation writing.

Chris told me stories about selling vegetables in his youth in the metallic stalls that still stand behind Union Market, rusted witnesses to a different age. To this day, no child leaves the Calomiris stall without a gifted banana.

Mike Bowers, Bowers Fancy Dairy Products

The Market was a social hub where one exchanged news with neighbors and shopped with friends. My shopping trips soon turned into a daily ritual. Eastern Market taught me the art of “slow shopping.”

Shopping Slow
While the “Slow Food” movement has received a great deal of press, journalists have yet to turn to their attention to the subject of “slow shopping.”

Most Americans travel anonymously to a supermarket where one never has to share more than two to three sentences with another human, or they shop on Instacart and never leave the house. Slow Shopping, on the other hand, embeds the purchase of food in a thick social context. In simpler terms, slow shopping is buying what you eat from people that you know. It is an antidote to the demands of this hyper-connected, distracted world, where many cannot walk the streets without gazing at a tiny screen.

To this day, I do the vast majority of my food shopping “slowly” at Eastern Market. I buy cheese from Mike. Cross examining me on my culinary plans, he unerringly selects the perfect fromage for any occasion. Handing out samples to everyone in line, Mike provides a running commentary on his selections, politics, the Eastern Market and vagaries of modern existence.

Jose Canales, Canales Quality Meats and Canales Deli

Billy Glasgow at Union Meat is my go to for culinary advice whenever trying a new cut of beef or lamb. A devotee of Asian cuisines, I rely on Joanne, the proprietor of Capitol Hill Poultry and Paik Produce for Korean, Japanese and Indian ingredients. Where else can one find kaffir lime or bitter gourd? Certainly not at “Whole Paycheck.”

Members of the Canales clan have tutored me in the mysteries of fine Spanish hams and El Salvadoran delicacies. Their fresh pasta succors my soul, while their cuts of “the other white meat” delight my palate, reminding me of my allegiance to “The Pig.” Angie decorates my dining room table with artfully arranged blossoms.

Outside the Market’s doors, I shop with farmers who drive from as far away as Pennsylvania to serve Capitol Hill customers. Even the Amish join us on Tuesday evenings. While I peruse their produce, we commiserate over the weather, discuss the merits of seasonal planting and chat about my garden. My kitchen is enriched by the prizes I purchase such as duck eggs, ugly heirlooms, seedless yellow water mellow, oyster mushrooms or fresh garlic.

Always more than a building to its patrons, the Market was and is the collective gestalt of its merchants, vendors and farmers.

So today, despite the explosion of grocery options in Ward 6, you will still find me shopping slowly at Eastern Market. While Doris may no longer be around to bend my ear, I choose to spend my money with friends. These rich interactions form a community that transcends the Market, creating the village in the city that we call Capitol Hill.

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