The West Side Market: Cleveland’s Secret Ingredient

Cleveland is alive at the West Side Market.  The oldest publicly owned market in the city, it dates back to 1840.  The impressive tawny structure of the grand old food hall has stood in the Ohio City neighborhood for ninety-nine years.  I visit with my mother and sister, and our senses are stunned as we enter the recently renovated, main building.  Jazz acoustics reverberate against the tile of the high arched ceiling, and what we initially take to be a recording is a live band playing in the upper balcony.  We inhale the enveloping fragrance of grilled freshness while nearby stands contribute with hints of spicy meat, sweet pastry and coffee that alter as you move through the market.

This is my hometown.  Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about what Cleveland has meant or will mean.  Is it alive or dead?  Hopeful or jilted?  Revitalizing or feeble?  My grandparents remember its majestic days past with a wistfulness devoid of hope for revival.  Every new initiative and proposal is met with great optimism but little follow-through (and let’s not even discuss sports).  We struggle to hang on to an idea of what Cleveland was?  With rose-colored lenses, we fumble with what Cleveland can become?  But what is Cleveland now, at the present?  There is no easy answer.

The West Side Market is packed this Saturday morning; busy but not hectic, peopled but not overwhelming.  We feel comfortable, welcome.  Chicago has its share of stellar farmers’ markets, but I am shocked when a chef friend admits that for such a foodie-centric town it has no central food hall.   At the West Side Market, over 120 vendors gather in two buildings, many of whom have inherited booths from relatives.   Vendors have grown up working at the market for generations and passing the stalls down.  Their kids scoop our gelato and make change for the produce we discerningly select.

A favorite quality of my hometown is its ethnic diversity.  Cleveland is a mélange of Eastern and Central European cultures which are represented in the ethnic delicacies served at the market: Slovenian sausage, pierogies, polichenkas, goulash, and so on.  As I glance across the milling crowd, there are less babushka-crowned heads than I imagine there were in times past.  Many of Cleveland’s ethnic enclaves, the “old neighborhood”, have eroded or, like my grandmother’s, are hanging on delicately.  Links to “old Cleveland” and the even older worlds they came from, these neighborhoods dangle like the links of sausage on display at Czuchraj’s or Dohar’s booths.

“The city as a place may or may not be special, but what I love is the people,” explained a friend recently visiting home.  He’s lived, and worked, and studied out-of-state for the past seven years.  “Maybe there are weird and unique factors of place that contribute to it, but something about this city creates such great people, and they are what make Cleveland special.”

This is a market for real people.  It isn’t stuffy, not too high brow or new age.  It holds countless stories of families who have been shopping at the West Side Market for generations, tradition enduring through the dilapidation of Ohio City during the 1970’s and 80s and recent revival, back before pig face and pomegranates were trendy.  It is incredibly affordable, whether you come for your weekly groceries, prepared foods, or those secret ingredients for your Slovak grandfather’s stew recipe.  Just across the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge from central downtown, the market is accessible with free parking in an adjoining lot.  Devoid of any uppity pretense that can plague some en vogue organic markets, you see that many stands accept food stamps – a humbling reality for much of Cleveland. Convivial vendors ask about the bulky cast on my arm, my holiday plans, where I come from and how I am.

The quality of the food, the flavor, the freshness can’t be over expressed.  We snag some Croatian potica, the rings of nut roll thinner than the kind our grandma makes but just as sweet and moist.  I envision the hrutca my mom will fry up the next morning as she inspects the case at the Hungarian meat stand.  We like it fried until the skin achieves a crispy outer layer, innards of spicy rice and meat oozing out onto the pan.  I remember bringing hrutca back to my college apartment after a visit home.  My roommates cringed warily at my breakfast of generously over-salted foreign meat scooped onto fresh bread, and greedily consumed with a cup of coffee.  A hungry line snaking from Steve’s Gyro stand along the back wall and up into a stairwell announces the Travel Channel has been back recently to film the stand. Too stimulated to stand still in line, we opt for a gyro from the less crowded Middle Eastern Grille.

Meandering through the market mom buys fresh brie and apricots which she’ll bake tonight en croute.  I can’t resist a sampler of gourmet olives, stuffed with feta, chevre, sundried tomatoes, and paté.  Glass jars line the walls of one corner shop exhibiting an intoxicating array of spices, where I pick up some zaitar to blend with olive oil for dipping pita.  Visitors push strollers and peruse crepes, coffee, and caramel popcorn, fish straight from the lake, and loaves straight from the oven.  Meat cases display fresh cuts of pink marble in both recognizable and incredible forms.   Ever the pastry chef, my sister admires enticing colorful confections.  Ogling cannolis, we buy enough to share with my brother and dad who are indulging in football Saturday at home.  “These are great to just sit down and share – to talk and enjoy the cannolis and enjoy each other,” says the vendor as she handcrafts each one for us.  We head up to the balcony to do just that.

My family turns to me smiling as the balcony band starts playing the song that is my namesake, the one with no words.  We admire the antique tile patterns, deliberate on cannoli flavors (hazelnut is our favorite), and contentedly take in the view from our perch.  Looking down on the bustle of activity, there’s a lively appetite in this old hall and I’m happy to be home.

The Fruit and Vegetable Arcade, located outdoors in warmer months, is adjacent in a smaller building.  You’re assaulted by the essence of the fresh, sweet aroma from the moment the door swings open.  We are first struck by the smell of more exotic fruits we can’t quite place, before the familiar scents of banana and pineapple are identified.  A brightly colored gauntlet, the vendors call out to you, beckoning with samples of their wares too gorgeous to pass up, “Fresh pomegranate!  You come try!”  Their cultural backgrounds as different as the skin tones on fruit piled high, the vendors invite you to taste. Ripe figs are thrust at us, dripping in succulent juices that stain our mouths.  We’re reminded of Croatian wedding receptions, where you are greeted at the door with a shot of slivovitz (plum brandy) and a fig!  Patrons greet vendors by name as they gather groceries for the week, dragging their kid from stand to stand to get home in time for the game.  Across the arcade voices shout, “What’s the score?”  While Ohio State trounces Michigan, we load up on leafy romaine, robust portabellas, and persimmon – just because we don’t know what it tastes like.

The West Side Market is a key factor in last month’s announcement that Cleveland will host the Project for Public Spaces international conference in 2012. The market’s centennial celebration and Cleveland’s expanding local foods scene helped the city beat other finalists including London, Toronto, and Seattle. “It’s one of the most stunning indoor public markets in the country, and there are not many left in the United States,” said Project for Public Spaces Senior VP Stephen Davies. “There are some 150 of them, and Cleveland’s historically is probably the grandest of them all.”*

Cleveland is not a flash in the pan town. It’s not the showy dish of flames and foam at this week’s culinary hotspot. It’s your favorite dish; the one with fresh and elemental components that you always end up craving again – Hungarian split pea soup, in my case. It’s a city of quirks and flaws, past triumphs and embarrassments – but they are what build character, reveal personality.  All of these characteristics are wrapped up here in the West Side Market, symbolized in this sausage sandwich I’m holding.  Juices and mustard drip off the flaky roll; it’s satisfying and flavorful, but missing a little of the heat that I like.

Cleveland comes together at the Westside Market.  From disparate neighborhoods, generations, economic strata, and ethnicities we gather.  Like the market aromas, the ingredients in the recipes we fulfill, the differences are distinct but complement each other in an appetizing array.  The Westside Market could be another Cleveland relic, but it’s alive as ever in so many shades and flavors.  The history, the tradition, the architecture are of the place are exquisite, but the people are what enriches the atmosphere, are what makes it special, are what ensures it’s alive indeed.

The West Side Market
1979 West 25th Street
Cleveland, Ohio 44113
Monday & Wednesday: 7am – 4pm
Friday & Saturday: 7am – 6pm

*”Cleveland, West Side Market tapped to host International Public Markets Conference in 2012″

Anthony Bourdain visits The West Side Market on No Reservations

8 Comments

  1. Well worth the wait my friend. Great, great post. For those of us who’ve been there, you’ve captured the essence (and further increased my sadness of not going home this weekend) of such a great Cleveland landmark and for those who haven’t I hoped you’ve added a new destination to their list.

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