Tuesday, January 30, 2001

Findlay Market offers food for thought

This is, I promise you, not another story about a struggling grocery in a depressed neighborhood. Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine is the Music Hall of lamb, the Coliseum of lettuce, the Stadium of sausage, the Walnut Hills of rutabaga.

        In other words, this is about more than groceries.

        By 8 a.m. on Saturday, most of the shops are open. It was a little dark yet in the new parking lot, but I felt safer than I did the last time I shopped in my neighborhood during a special on Bounty towels. I still have a shopping cart gash on one heel.

        At Madison's the aroma of good coffee mixes with smell of fresh produce. A young woman — visiting from Germany, she tells Matthew Madison — inquires about the provenance of his mushrooms. He grins and answers in her native language.

        This Adams County farmer studied international affairs and German at the University of Cincinnati. He carries around something Thoreau wrote about maple syrup and listens to NPR.

Paper or plastic?

        Findlay Market is not your basic “do you want paper or plastic?” experience. You can get beans from the person who pulled them off the vines. If you don't like the strawberry count in your pint container, you can complain to the boss.

        Dobbs Hill Farm sells chicken and lamb. “All naturally raised, no chemicals,“ says Mark Dobbs, who works the third shift at Airborne Express in Wilmington during the week. He hands me an essay, “Why Grass-fed is Best.” He can't understand people who spend $40,000 for a car then feed their kids fast food. Another farmer says he is banking, literally, on “folks who are concerned about fitness.”

        Yet another scratches his head in the time-honored farmer way and wonders why somebody would fork over thousands of dollars for a stove from Frontgate “then cook a Tyson chicken on it.” But not everybody is there to fill a recipe for black truffle risotto.

The back porch
        “The primary customers are people from the neighborhood,” says John Kornbluh, president of Friends of Findlay Market. And although shoppers can buy a wedge of Spanish Pyrenees Idiazabal cheese from Krause's or smoked venison sausage with dried cherries from Kroeger Meats or order pomegranate oil from Mediterranean Imports or lime-ginger butter from Patty Piatt, there are plenty of people buying hamburger and eggs and iceberg lettuce.

        All very fresh. And purchased with the sounds of Handel's Water Music in the background. This is a very special place.

        “We're the city's back porch,” says Paul Sebron, proprietor of Mr. Pig's Ribs. “I understand the importance of the riverfront — the city's front porch — but this is important, too.”

        This market, which will be 150 years old in 2002, is a piece of an urban quilt other cities are trying to fabricate. But chicken tortellini sausage and strawberry scones were not built in a day. And I can't imagine trying to recruit merchants like these. Or a neighborhood like this one. Historic, tenacious. And, of course, that most misused but crucial word, “diverse.”

        Work on the market house will begin this spring. Overdue. But not too late. Maybe you'll have to step around some construction. It's worth it. Free parking and a free look at a living landmark. A small business incubator. A piece of history.

        And, incidentally, exceptionally fine groceries.

        E-mail Laura at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call (513) 768-8393.


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