THE BLOG
09/01/2010 01:20 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

On the Road: Philadelphia's Neighborhood Farmers' Markets -- Rittenhouse Square

This is the second in a series about Philadelphia's neighborhood farmers' markets.

For the past five years -- since I moved into Christina's apartment and we married, Rittenhouse Square has been my backyard.

Given our record-breaking hot summer, it is hard to fathom that I took this photo this past February. The snowfall -- the second highest in Philadelphia's recorded history created an urban winter wonderland. It was a magical day.

Rittenhouse Square filled with friends, neighbors and nearly 25 carefully crafted snow people in various stages of dress. An amazing snow tableau featured a sitting dog watching television complete with twig antenna.

Christina's the one on the right. By late afternoon, as we sat sipping champagne at a window table at Parc, the 28.5 inches of snow lingered only as flurries.

The Four Seasons of Rittenhouse Square
Winter's snow gives way to Spring's daffodils. Magnolia blossoms fill the square with pink for several days and then litter the ground as they yield to magnolia's broad green leaves. Soon, the trees -- barren since fall -- are filled with green. It always seems as though this happens almost overnight. One day, no leaves and the next, leaves everywhere. Rittenhouse Square helps us city dwellers keep track of the seasons.

Spring marks the return of the Farmers' Market and the rainbow of zinnias sold by the dozen by the Amish farmer.

Trees provide shelter to bench-dwellers from summer's sun while wide expanses of lawn welcome sun worshipers. By late October the leaves begin to fall as peaches yield to apples. Each year, as Christmas approaches, hundreds of lighted balls twinkle in now leafless trees. Though some farmers make it into the late fall and early winter, by the year's turn nearly all farmers have gone. For everything there is a season and the Square bears witness.

A Very Brief History of Rittenhouse Square
Rittenhouse Square was one of five squares designated by William Penn in 1682 as open public spaces -- part of Penn's "green country town." It was known as Southwest Square. The other squares, Southeast, Northeast, Northwest and Center are today respectively, Washington, Franklin, Logan and City Hall. There was little in it's early history to suggest that today our Rittenhouse Square would rank #6 on a list of Best Squares and Plazas in the world by Projects for Public Spaces. (The #1 Plaza is the Piazza del Campo in Sienna followed by Piazza San Marco in Venice.) In its early years, livestock grazed and it was a dumping ground for "night soil." Its clay-like soil was better suited for kilns and than crops. As a result, much of Philadelphia's colonial brick was made at our Southwest Square.

It wasn't until 1825 that the square's name was changed to Rittenhouse, in honor of astronomer and Revolutionary patriot David Rittenhouse. In 1840, as Philadelphia moved westward from the Delaware River, the first "aristocratic" home was built at 1811 Walnut Street by James Harper. The home of his daughter followed at 1821 Walnut Street. By the late 1800's Rittenhouse Square was home to Philadelphia's Victorian-era aristocrats.

Since the early 19th century, local residents have played an important role in the square's maintenance and beautification. In 1913, the Rittenhouse Square Improvement Association commissioned Beaux-Arts trained French-American architect Paul Philippe Cret to design what we know today as the modern Rittenhouse Square. The Association took care of the square until 1976 when responsibility was assumed by the Fairmount Park Commission. Today, the park is maintained by the City of Philadelphia in conjunction with Friends of Rittenhouse Square.

The Life of Rittenhouse Square
The success of Rittenhouse Square as a great public space is the result of a series of factors.

Here is Jane Jacobs' take from The Death and Life of Great American Cities: "Rittenhouse Square, the success, possesses a diverse rim and diverse neighborhood hinterland." She goes on to describe the many uses of buildings that surrounded the square in 1961 when the book was written. She continues, "Immediately beyond the rim, in the streets leading off at right angles and in the next streets parallel to the park sides, is an abundance of shops and services of all sorts with old houses or newer apartments above, mingled with a variety of offices."

From 1977 to 1995, The Commissary, my second restaurant, operated nearly in the shadow of the square's towering trees. Nearly all of my restaurants were within a five-minute walk of the square. Jacob's concludes: "This mixture of uses of buildings directly produces for the park a mixture of users who will enter and leave the park at different times. They use the park at different times from one another because their daily schedules differ. The park possesses an intricate sequence of uses and users."

The square is laid out in a complex set of intersecting connective pathways varying in width and shape -- straight and arcs, circles and diagonals. No path runs purely parallel to the bordering streets.

The square's central artery connects 18th & Walnut to the southwest corner of the square. But even this central artery is not a raceway. It includes a series of "dividers" that split the pathway -- large central planted flower beds, sculptures, and a "gazebo" on a central open plaza. The edges of the pathways are defined by changes in material -- the paths are composed of sturdy pavers -- grass and soil, balustrades and flower beds define both hard and soft edges.

If you are walking through the square from the southeast corner, near The Barclay, to the northwest corner adjacent to the Trinity Church, there are a set of steps to climb from street level to the elevated central plaza.

But no such steps exist on the opposite side or on the 18th & Walnut diagonal. The paths rise to the elevated plaza level ever so gently that you are unaware that you are moving on an incline.

And though the pathways have a symmetry, the square itself does not. The east side of the central plaza has a reflecting pool while the west side has a large densely planted flower bed. The dimensions of the pool and flower bed are the same, but their effect is not. This serves to asymmetrically concentrate the people energy of the central plaza on to the area of the central plaza defined by the balustrades-- balustrades that are favored seating areas for younger folks -- and around the reflecting pool rather than the planted area.

There is a large informal planted bed on the southwest corner that has no equal and opposite on the northeast corner. This subtle mix of physical order and serendipity -- not something you are really aware of day-to-day, gives the Rittenhouse Square an interest and energy rarely matched in urban spaces.

The central plaza and with wide entry at 18th & Walnut are the two primary "entertainment" venues.

Sculptures abound around the square, but are not imposing by their presence...except perhaps for the lions that sit in one of the least inhabited areas of the square. Of course, the friendly stone frog is one on my favorites.

The walls of the square are the surrounding high-rises, sitting in an orderly manner until The Rittenhouse Hotel and Condominiums altered that pattern. As high-rises continue to replace lower density buildings, the square has a more closed in feel than when there we fewer tall buildings.

Scores of benches line the path that circles the square and lines the central pathway. Every bench has a small plaque -- a memorial to one person or another who loved the square. A neighbor in the building in which I live re-counted scattering the ashes of her late husband in and around the azaleas near 19th Street. Some day Izzy and my mother may find a similar final resting place. Many trees have been planted as memorials on the square's perimeter -- this one planted a few years ago by his family in memory of a dear friend of mine.

Walking home last night from Barnes & Noble, the square was filled with the sights and sounds of youthful energy -- music, bicycles, backpacks, close-cropped and shaggy hair, tattoos. Some evenings you can hear Curtis students practicing from Curtis's windows that face the square at 18th & Locust.

You don't have to go to Curtis to play the flute or violin or guitar or drum on Rittenhouse Square.

Despite it's fancy address, it's a very democratic place. The square belongs to all.

Early mornings, dog walkers meander the grassy areas while older walkers briskly circle the square's perimeter. Next, waves of workers scurry through while the workless, both willing and unwilling, enjoy coffee and the morning newspaper on a bench. Later in the morning, weather permitting, mothers, mostly, and pre-schoolers, gather on and around the stone bench that faces the goat on the southwest side of the square. (Again, there is no equal and opposite on the other side of the square.) Lunch is a hop-scotch of lunching bench sitters -- including the FedEx guys who park their truck on the south side in front of the Ethical Society, and seniors watching the world go by.

Bocce ball compete with frisbies. Urban fathers teach young sons and daughters how to catch and throw a baseball. Impromptu soccer and touch football games come and go. That snowy February afternoon included a veritable snowball war by perhaps fifty snow ball fighters.

At the 18th and Walnut corner, the wall is shared by the chess players and bicycle messengers. If you have a petition to get signed, this is the corner to do it.

As day moves into evening, the path of office workers is reversed as workers head home -- or to neighborhood restaurants -- or to meet a friend on a bench for a "picnic dinner."

Overnight the square is home to some homeless, though the addition of a center arm rest on some benches has served to limit where you can lie down.

Warm sunny days differ from cold wet days and weekends are different from weekdays. On weekends, there is less rushing through the square and more strolling and lingering.

Sunday mornings in the spring or fall are my favorite times. The square is its quietest on Sunday mornings, and you can get nearly any bench you want while you sip your coffee and eat your scone from neighboring Metropolitan Bakery and read the Sunday New York Times. The peak the square's activity are those clear blue sky, not too hot, not too cold sunny Sunday afternoons where nearly every inch of grass is filled with blankets and there is a wait for a good bench.

Count yourself gloriously fortunate if you live or work on or near Rittenhouse Square.

The Rittenhouse Square Farmers' Market
And so Rittenhouse Square has a rhythm of the seasons and the days. This is the backdrop to Saturday's Rittenhouse Square Farmers' Market which both borrows from and adds to the energy of the square. There is an abbreviated market on Tuesdays with shorter hours. The Farmers' Market both benefits from and contributes to that rhythm and the success of the square.

The Rittenhouse Square Farmers' Market is sponsored and managed by Farm to City, one of two principle organizers of Philadelphia's neighborhood farmers' markets. The market runs along Walnut Street adjacent to the square. Nineteenth Street is generally an end point. This year, as more stalls have been added -- there are about 25 -- the market wraps around on to 18th Street. Saturday hours are 9:30 AM to 3 PM, though on busy days by 3 PM pickens' are slim. Tuesday's it runs from 10 AM to 1 PM.

At the top of the market at 19th Street is a large and comprehensive stand run by Rineer Family Farms of Lancaster. They also offer grass fed meat and poultry.

The Rittenhouse Square Farmers' Market is the market I know best. I shop here nearly every Saturday. It is where I look forward to asparagus in the Spring, tomatoes and peaches in the summer and apples in the fall. It helps me know where I am in the world. While I worked on At Home, the Saturday farmers' market provided a weekly jolt of seasonal inspiration.

Next door to Rineer is the Fahnestock Fruit Farm, one of two fruit specialty stands. These folks, from Lititz in Lancaster County, specialize in tomatoes, peaches and apples. That's it.

Beechwood Orchards is the other fruit stand with a far wider selection of fruit and berries as well as some specialty produce on a side table.

Here are Beechwood's Santa Rosa plums and Doughnut Peaches and Elephant Heart Plums. Don't you just have a try a plum named for an elephant's heart? Who even knew that there was an Elephant Heart plum?

In the foreground is something I first saw this year. They are variously called husk tomatoes or ground cherries. Under the husk, which you discard, are a little berry-like tomatoey fruit. I have tried them a few times and so far I'm not convinced they are anything but a novelty. But try for yourself.

Not many farmers' markets have a dedicated mushroom grower. Kennett Square, about 45 minutes west of Philadelphia in Chester County is the "Mushroom Capital of the World."

A recent discovery for me -- and one of my favorite stands is Cherry Grove Farm. They produce world class cow's milk cheeses in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. Can the town that named Philadelphia Cream Cheese embrace a cheese as fine as their Toma Primavera? They also offer grass fed beef and lamb and certified Berkshire pork as well as organic eggs.

If your preference is goat cheese, we have that as well.

You can buy standard baked goods.

Christina has gluten-free tendencies and, thankfully, our market boasts arguably the best gluten free baked goods in the region from Amaranth.

While I'm on the subject of baked goods, Market Day Canele divides its Saturday between Rittenhouse Square, Clark Park and Fitler Square and on Sunday, they can be found at Headhouse. Look for them around the corner on 18th Street.

For your tabletop there's Lilies and Lavender.

My go-to tabletop stand is Triple Tree Flowers -- also at Clark park -- where I either stick to Zinnias by the dozen or pick my own summer flower mix. If you make your own bouquet you just keep picking, show them what you've got, they look and think a bit and tell you a very reasonable price. Check out At Home's Simplified Flower Arranging, a double page spread on pages 28 and 29.

An intriguing stand that seems to get little action is Otolith sustainable seafood. From their website I've learned "At Otolith, providing the highest quality seafood and supporting environmental sustainability in the seafood industry are our top priorities." These are admirable goals that maybe just need stronger marketing consumer education at the stand. It is part of the larger problem of how to shine the spotlight on "proteins" -- meat, poultry and Otolith's fish -- when showy vegetables are stars of the show. Perhaps taking a cue from supermarkets where they often cook and give out small samples. It's an easy way to attract attention and engage potential customers.

Wine is not standard fare at farmers' markets. But wine surely is a farmed product. Blue Mountain offers a wide selection of modestly priced wines from their Lehigh Valley vineyards. Blue Mountain wines are also available at Reading Terminal Market.

Just because produce is locally grown does not mean it's organic. But if you are after certified organic local produce, you can get it at Rittenhouse Square.

My favorite stand at Rittenhouse Square is Z Food Farm from Princeton. While you can buy great zucchini and summer squash at every farm stand, Z Food Farm grows and sells more interesting and distinctive products of top quality along with the best specimens of more familiar fare.

The chief farmer is David Zabeck and that is his awfully hard working mother and dad above. In addition to Rittenhouse Square on Saturdays, Z Food Farm is at the Princeton Farmers' Market on Sundays. It's at Z Food Farm that I have found shiso leaves and lemon verbena -- both nearly unseen at area markets. Their tropea red onions have become my standard addition to heirloom tomatoes this summer.

So there you have my neighborhood and its farmers' market. It is a very well constructed market offering a vast expanse of what any cook would be proud to serve to friends and family. If you live in the neighborhood and do not shop at our local farmers' market, you are missing an addition to your Saturday routine that could enrich your life and table. If you are not from here, I hope that you visit Rittenhouse Square with a new appreciation of just how special it is. And I suggest you visit on a Saturday...when our Farmers' Market is open.

What's Next?
There is much in store as we move to late summer into fall and the approach of the holiday entertaining season. Rosh Hashana is next Thursday.

Look for a post this week to introduce you to Shishito Peppers.

Next week: Headhouse Square Farmers' Market. If you have never visited the Headhouse's Sunday Farmers' Market you are missing a world-class food shopping experience. Come along with me on a blog post visit.

Coming Up: Look for an upcoming On the Road post about New York's Hudson Valley and the resulting On the Table, my brother-in-laws birthday dinner.

My Hudson Valley sojourn included a long visit to Guy Jones' legendary Blooming Hills Farm (above). Look for a post about that visit and my five course vegetarian dinner at the farm. For years Blooming Hill has sponsored these dinners by visiting chefs. The visiting chef was David Gould from Brooklyn's Romans restaurant. Also, a recipe post of my interpretation of the squash soup served at that dinner -- a culinary highlight of a summer's eating.

Also on the docket as part of the neighborhood farmers' market series is the Greensgrow Farmers' Market in Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood.

I leave today from Long Island's South Fork and my annual birthday dinner for my brother and family. Posts will follow. Look for more recipes too.

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