With the exception of any day at Reading Terminal Market, a summer's Sunday at Headhouse Farmers' Market is Philadelphia's best food shopping experience. And for pure physical per-square-foot concentration of food shopping ecstasy, it is unrivaled. There are good reasons for this.
Headhouse is located between Pine and Lombard Streets along 2nd Street. It sits at the South side of Society Hill and nearly adjacent to Queen Village. In 1745, our forefathers decided their growing city was in need of a new market area to compliment the "downtown" food stalls that lined High Street from the Delaware River to 6th Street. High Street was a sort of generic name, used in England to this day, to identify a town or neighborhood's principal shopping street. Our High Street eventually became our Market Street in recognition of its role as Philadelphia's market area. The newly designated area became known as New Market to differentiate it from the older market area. Today's Headhouse takes its name from theses Colonial origins and the headhouse building on the Pine Street Side along with the "shambles" -- the connected structures that run to Lombard Street with Colonial origins.
This New Market -- up on a hill -- was never Philadelphia's primary food market. After the Revolutionary War, our town fathers decided to fill in the foul-smelling Dock Creek and create a new main market area along the street created from filling in the creek -- Dock Street. Though the streets of Philadelphia were carefully laid out in a grid, the new Dock Street's arc connecting Chestnut and Spruce Streets between 2nd and 3rd, owes its uncharacteristic shape to the shape of the former creek that ran into the river. Dock Street soon became our city's principal food market as pictured above in 1906.
The Dock Street market evolved into Philadelphia's wholesale food market until 1959 when a modern new Regional Wholesale Produce Market opened on Gallaway Street. I spent many early mornings in my early restaurant years along Gallaway Street -- though I was hardly a market regular. In those days - when an eggplant was pretty much an eggplant -- a phone call to our produce supplier seemed to work just fine. After more than fifty years in South Philadelphia, that market is about to move to "state-of-the-art" facility on Essington Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia.
Today, Society Hill is a thriving affluent residential neighborhood that anchors the farmer's market's north side. Society Hill was named for the Free Society of Traders, an elite group of Quakers who financed William Penn's new world land purchase. The Society Hill Historic District includes the largest collection of original 18th and 19th century architecture. It is sometimes characterized as a living Williamsburg.
It is so easy to assume that what is, always was - especially if you are young or new to Philadelphia. I arrived in Philadelphia in September of 1964. It was the year the Phillies lost 10 of their last 12 games and blew a 6 1/2 game pennant lead. The Phillies were pretty awful for many years. Despite Society Hill's 18th Century success, by the later part of the 19th Century our city's elite had moved west including to the area around Rittenhouse Square. By the 1950's, the neighborhood known as Society Hill was run-down. It was not clear that the future of the Society Hill neighborhood that we know today -- and our thriving residential downtown -- was assured.
Between 1960 and 2000, Philadelphia "lost" almost 500,000 people -- 26% of its population. (It is only since 2000 that the long decline ended with a small recent increase in population.) As manufacturing began its shift to the south in the 60's and then globally in the 90's, Philadelphia's manufacturing-based economy suffered from new competition and old structural problems. Our manufacturing was heavily unionized and vertically inefficient. In addition, post-war industrialization of farming reduced the need for farm workers and drove people -- especially poor and black people from the agricultural South into deteriorating northern industrial cities like Philadelphia. With them came new social tensions. These economic and social issues, along with public investment in highways and commuter rail accelerated "white flight" to suburbs as the more affluent sought to escape growing urban turmoil.
In the 1950's, urban renewal's principal tool was the bull-dowser. Knock down and start over. It took the visionary thinking of City Planner Edmund Bacon and Philadelphia reform mayors Joe Clark and Richardson Dillworth to imagine Society Hill as it is today. Bacon, Clark and Dillworth developed a series of pioneering development tools aimed at preserving the unique character of the neighborhood. These development tools -- eventually adopted nationally -- combined public investment in neighborhood infrastructure with private investment incentives in existing residential facades and improvements. Their efforts included moving the Dock Street wholesale market to South Philadelphia and the development, years later in 1977, of the I.M.Pei-designed Society Hill Towers. In total, their efforts resulted in the picturesque and pristine Society Hill that we know today.
As noted, the headhouse and shambles was originally known as New Market to distinguish it from the older High Street market. The headhouse was built in 1805 and housed a volunteer fire department. The "Shambles," the covered arcade, is an English name for a collection of butcher shops. The original "shambles" was knocked down in 1950 and re-built in the early 1960's as part of the public investment in Society Hill. Newmarket, built in the mid-70's and pictured above, was the name given to the ill-fated mixed use complex built along the eastern edge of Headhouse. Newmarket housed the Rusty Scupper, what I believe was the first "upscale, out-of-town chain restaurant" to enter the Philadelphia market -- a market previously the exclusive preserve of local independent restaurants.
It is also of note that at the northern end of the shops that line the west side of the headhouse was Ed Bottone's Lautrec, an often over-looked forerunner of the Philadelphia restaurant renaissance. Nearby, on Front Street, was Janine et Jeanine, the namesake of two female restaurant pioneers, managed by Les Smith. It was for Les Smith and Joseph Hartman's catering company that I had my very first professional job in 1971 -- just before beginning work as a busboy at La Panetiere.
The early so-called restaurant renaissance that brought Frog, Friday Saturday Sunday, Astral Plane and The Garden to the west side of Center City had its east side equivalent in this neighborhood. These included the pioneering Black Banana, Lickety Split and Knave of Hearts.
Queen Village sits just to the south of Society Hill and is the other key neighborhood that contributes to the success of the Headhouse Farmers' Market. Originally settled by Swedes in the 1600's, its original named was Wiccaco, the Lenape Indian word for "pleasant place." William Penn renamed it Southwark and it only became part of Philadelphia in 1854. In 1970, Southwark became Queen Village, in honor of Queen Christina, the Swedish Queen at the time of original colonial settlement. Like Society Hill, only more so, Queen Village experienced a long period of decline through the mid to later part of the 20th Century.
Roadways figured prominently in these neighborhoods development. Southwark's decline was exacerbated by the construction of I-95 at its river's edge. In fact, the construction of I-95 permanently severed both Society Hill's and Southwark's connection to their waterfront -- a legacy that continues to haunt Philadelphia's planners. For many years this community successfully fought the construction of the Crosstown Expressway -- a road designed to replace South Street with a highway connector from I-95 to the Schuykill. But for that community's victory, this area would look very different today. We would have neither the farmers' market or the adjacent South Street entertainment district. The "Crosstown Expressway" was eventually located along Vine Street -- with severe neighborhood consequences for the Chinatown community.
The Headhouse Farmers' Market grows out of long market tradition. But it's success today is due in large part to the uniquely supportive demographics of Society Hill and Queen Village. Though Society Hill is the least dense of Center City's neighborhoods at 12,867 per square mile, Queen Village has a density of 23,616 that rivals Rittenhouse Square at 26,081. Society Hill, as demographically represented by the 19106 zip code, is the most affluent neighborhood in Philadelphia with average household income of $106,817 -- significantly higher than even the $73,393 of Rittenhouse Square's 19103 zip code. Queen Village -- 19147 zip code -- weighs in at a respectable $52,647.
But what is more important with regard to the farmers' market is the family nature of the Queen Village neighborhood. Queen Village developed initially as the "low rent" home for artists and young people who enjoyed its proximity to the newly developing lower South Street bohemian corridor. Remember, South Street was where the hippies meet. While some of the development tools utilized for Society Hill had become institutionalized and served the development of Queen Village, most of Queen Village's resurgence as a neighborhood was more organic -- and I am not talking vegetables here. Price and proximity and sound housing stock all contributed to Queen Village's success. A history of relatively low housing prices, combined with location -- and an excellent public elementary school -- Meredith, eventually attracted young families as long-time white ethnic residents sold and rentals became homes. Today Queen Village includes 2790 households with children compared to 351 in Society Hill and 560 around Rittenhouse Square. Families generally are more focused on at home dining than singles and empty nesters.
It is against this demographic backdrop of concentrated affluence and families that the Headhouse Farmers' Market operates each Sunday.
Most neighborhood farmers' markets are laid out single file, under tents along a sidewalk strip. By contrast, the Headhouse market, operated by The Food Trust, sits within the covered arcade -- the "Shambles" -- with tables lining both sides. The covered arcade provides a more intimate and compressed physical experience. At the same time, the absence of mismatched and low-hanging tents provides a more consistent, open and accessible market.
The market opens at 9:30 so plan to have a breakfast sausage from Renaissance Sausage, recently featured by Rick Nichols in his Inquirer column.
In addition to breakfast sandwiches of Sausage, Egg & Cheese or a Brie and Fresh Peach Melt, Renaissance Sausage offers four sausage options including a vegetarian sausage!
Occasionally a neighborhood farmers' market has a food truck. Clark Park on Saturday has Honest Tom's Taco Truck featuring breakfast tacos. In addition to Renaissance Sausage, Headhouse also boasts Los Taquitos de Pueblo, a 9th Street taqueria sets up in a tent just outside the market near Pine Street.
It's cobblestone street-friendly menu includes Tacos al Pastor with pork, onions, cilantro and a slice of pineapple -- note the pineapple sitting above the pork on the vertical spit -- Chicken Taco, or Quesadilla with your choice of chicken, mushroom, mushroom and corn or zucchini blossom.
If you plan your appetite carefully, you might manage a breakfast sausage, your shopping and then a lunch taco. That's excellent eating. Pull up a step and enjoy.
Wash it down with a fresh squeezed -- and shaken -- lemonade from Twisted Lemonade.
You could settle for a classic, but where else can you get a Carrot Apple Ginger or Cucumber Herb or Ginger or Black Raspberry Lemonade?
Serious produce shoppers have a world of choices. Summer basil is de rigueur at farmers' markets. At Headhouse your basil choices include Purple Genovese and Thai.
Heirloom tomatoes -- in the foreground -- are so yesterday. How about a wide selection of heirloom melons in the background?
Here are two varieties of Italian heirloom cucumbers.
You may not have had Oriental Squash on your shopping list. But the wonder of farmers' markets are not intended for the disciplined shopper. Rather, they are there for you to explore and expand your food horizons.
Here are Asian "Burpless" Cucumbers. Actually, I did not know there were cucumbers that included "burbs" so discovering "burpless" came as quite a surprise.
Where is it written that cucumbers even have to be green? Pale yellow cucumbers are more familiar at farmers' markets in Mumbai. Note the pursulane next to the cucumbers. Does your neighborhood market carry pursulane, a sour/salty green more common in Europe, Asia and Mexico than on Lombard Street?
Long beans come in purple and green.
Late summer sweet and hot peppers abound...
...available in nearly every color in the rainbow.
Pint-sized produce served up in pints.
Stands employ different merchandising styles. This display reads like a recipe. Just imagine fresh corn, shaved from the cob and sautéed with heirloom garlic and a little diced hot peppers.
Slice these tomatoes with some red onion and drizzle with good olive oil and sea salt. If you appreciate the beauty of food, wandering the Headhouse Farmers' Market is the equivalent of an art lover wandering the galleries of our Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Farmers' Markets help us mark the passage of time as produce comes and goes. August's tree-ripened peaches are now yielding to September's apples.
Here are early season sweet and juicy Rebella apples.
These beauties are pears.
Man and women does not eat by produce alone. Here is the legendary Talula's Table from Kennett Square. Each Sunday Tulula's Table returns to its neighborhood roots vending housemade cured meats and spreads. Tulula's Table grew out of Django, a small restaurant that was located nearby. While it was operating, Django was one of the hardest places to score a table in Philadelphia.
A farmer's market life is a family affair.
Naturally, you will need bread from Ric's Bread.
Birchrun Hills Farm offers cheese and hormone and antibiotic free pork and veal. Other stands also offer cheese -- cow or goat, your choice.
Moutainview Poultry offers free range chicken and beef.
I am always on the look-out for meat and poultry providers who provide more imaginative marketing than just a hand-letters sign on a white board sitting above a cooler in need of a good scrubbing. Utilizing vinyl lamb chops and a sirloin is a modest step in more effective merchandising, but hardly a substitute for a small grill, some smoke and a little sampling to engage potential customers.
The ubiquitous Market Day Canele is here for dessert and coffee.
Perhaps a fruit pie so freshly baked it looked still warm!
Of course, flowers for your tabletop.
In extolling the pleasures of the Sunday Farmers' Market at Headhouse, I am not seeking to convert you to some radical locavorism. In fact, I am preternaturally suspect of all things radical. What comes to mind is the scene in the Julia Roberts-Hugh Grant film Notting Hill. It's morning and Roberts and Grant are in bed. Movie star Roberts had sought out the anonymity of Grant's modest blue-doored house to escape the scandal that resulted from the publication of photos taken of her when she was a struggling actress. The photos exposed her breasts. Roberts asks Grant, "What is it about breasts? Half the world has them." Well, this is just produce. It's available all over! Yes, this is beautiful and luscious and sweet or hot or sour -- but still just produce. Or chickens. Or cheese.
It has always been my hope -- both with my restaurants and now with At Home and my blog, that through a love of food I can connect you to something larger -- to a time of year and a place, in this case a city, its history and a neighborhood - and that you will develop and share your own love of food with friends and family at home and, in so doing, build your connection to here and now and your own community.
So this Sunday think about visiting the Farmers' Market at Headhouse.
The next installment in the Philadelphia Neighborhood Farmers' Market series will be very different from Headhouse. It will be Kensington's pioneering Greensgrow. Look for it next week.
I recently visited New York's Hudson Valley and Long Island's South Fork. My report on each will include On the Road, On the Table and a Recipe. The recipe for the Hudson Valley post will be a squash soup served up at a farm dinner at the legendary Blooming Hill Farm. The squash soup -- its more complicated than just squash -- was perhaps the best thing I ate this summer. I am also heading to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Halifax boasts the oldest continuously operating farmers' market in the New World. My likely final installment in this long series will be a return to New York's Union Square Market. It was at the Union Square market last August -- and the resulting lunch for Christina, and friends Pascal, Manou and Maelle, that I began to seriously evolve my blog into what it has become today -- nearly 200 posts later.
As we move into fall and the holiday entertaining season, the blog will shift its focus to helping you plan to entertain...At Home. Learn more about At Home: A Caterer's Guide to Cooking & Entertaining.