Lexington Market, a historic food market on the western edge of Baltimore’s downtown, is the world’s largest continuously operating marketplace. It’s also about the closest thing to a snapshot of Baltimore itself that I have found yet. In a city divided by lines, all ages, ethnicities and classes can be found within the throng around its many stalls.
Stepping into the busy marketplace is an assault on the senses. With the many aromas, the noise of the crowd, and all of the different things to look at, it can be hard just to keep from being run over, much less choose what to eat. All around me I see food: fish markets, fried chicken, butchers, delis, fruits, vegetables, collard greens, barbecue, Chinese cuisine, bakeries, sushi, okra, tilapia — everything from simple pizza and fries to oddities like chicken necks and, yes, muskrat. A sea of people and vendors hawking their wares flows around me.
The first time I went to Lexington Market, I got yelled at within two minutes. “Walk in a straight line!” an irritable old man said after he finally succeeded at getting around me — I had been gawking at the signs and paying little attention to where my feet were going. Not 10 minutes later, I was defended with equal vigor — and with just as little solicitation on my part — by a total stranger who felt that I wasn’t being “respected.”
“This young lady is in line!” she said, brandishing an umbrella at another customer. “Don’t you be thinkin’ about jumpin’ her spot!”
This was going to be an in-your-face kind of place, I thought. I was right. No chance of fading into the crowd here. No, this was the kind of place where strangers talked — and yelled, and laughed — with each other as a matter of course.
The market is housed in two large buildings. To one side, an open room is filled with counter-height round tables — no chairs — that people cluster around, eating their food standing up while they chat and eye the crowd. At noon, the place is packed with people stopping by to grab lunch on their midday break. Customers range from a few men in suits, coming from the subway and offices downtown to eat their crab cakes and gyros, to the far seedier. I try not to stare at what looks like a drug deal going on in the corner. From where I stand, I can hear three languages being spoken; a busker plays an acoustic guitar, fighting to be heard over the din. Many stalls— even the one for sushi — have placards announcing that they take food stamps.
When the market began in 1782, it operated without sheds and stalls. Farmers would load up their horse-drawn wagons with ham, butter, eggs and produce, traveling from nearby towns to sell their wares from dawn into the afternoon. Eventually, what at first was known casually as the “Western Precincts Market’” was renamed “Lexington Market.” The market grew; by the mid-19th century it was being hailed as the largest and best market on earth.
Today, the market is home to more than 140 vendors. In its current incarnation, it is an air-conditioned, brick and glass structure, the product of a midcentury rebuild and a 1982 two-story, 20,000-square foot addition funded by the city.
Depending on whom you ask, the market, like Baltimore itself, has a somewhat dodgy reputation. The local alternative press voted the vibrant urban market “Best place to take out-of-town visitors,” citing it as a microcosm of the personality of the “real” Baltimore, as opposed to the more groomed, tourist-oriented attractions of the nearby Inner Harbor area. Then again, the same publication also voted Lexington Market “Best place to buy guns and a snack,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to the scandal earlier this year revealing that the UTZ snack vendor was running firearms out of his stall. Despite this reputation, people from all walks of life can be found there, and the festive variety of good food easily explains why.
I jump when the woman fixing my lunch hollers at me. “Hon! You want lettuce and tomato with this crab cake? You sure? Why on earth would you just want tomato and no lettuce? No, don’t you let me bully you into it … just tomato it is.”
From my perch at a counter’s edge, hunched over a hodgepodge lunch of crab and sweet potato, I watch the crowd. Groups of women cluster around tables, laughing and chatting, strollers, toddlers and shopping bags in tow. Two middle-aged tourists make their way cautiously toward a table through the din, their faces changing from anxious to near-reverent after their first bites of Faidely’s famous crab cakes.
This market is like the town. It’s not always polished, but if you give it a shot, it’s well worth your time — with something for almost every palate.
Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at email@example.com