The cumulus layer that's settled in the Cincinnati sky over the past few months has intensified my longing for renewal this year. Finding myself mentally, physically and spiritually malnourished, food is the most recurring element of my strategy for springtime regeneration. I need to bridge the gap between midnight-munchies trips to the supermarket and the continuity of the food cycle as I experienced it in childhood, when the dinner table was laden with morel mushrooms hunted in the woods, wild blackberries plucked from roadside bushes, fish from the pond and milk from our goats. I'm not taking artistic license: My life was straight out of Little House on the Prairie, except I suspect my parents grew some herbs the Ingles did not.
Some may find supermarkets therapeutic; I find them depressing. Wander the produce aisle looking lost, and chances are no employee will tell you how to know when a plantain is ripe for the frying. Natural smells are rendered undetectable by floor sanitizers. Automated self check-outs are the last straw. Come summertime, there's no place I'm happier on a Saturday than Cincinnati's historic Findlay Market (est. 1852), the second oldest open-air market in the country.
People come to Findlay searching for the best prices on ribs for an upcoming barbecue, exotic specialty food items from places like Mediterranean Imports or Saigon Market and the connection to local farmers they find in the Farmer's Market shed, where everything is locally grown or produced, and often organic.
The spirit of rejuvenation is in the air at Findlay Market as it celebrates the progress of a revitalization plan initiated in 1995. Renovations of the indoor market house's east wing — changes that drastically improve ventilation and refrigeration, pedestrian circulation and natural lighting while preserving the historic character of the cast-iron structure — are nearing completion. The wing reopens on June 21 with a summer solstice celebration.
It's all part of the vision conceived by Bob Pickford, director of the Corporation for Findlay Market, and his colleagues for a thriving market district that gives small businesses collective energies and visitors from all walks of life a collective meeting ground centered around the simple joy of good food.
"The market is being renewed with the expectation that it will be part of the renewal of downtown Cincinnati. If you're trying to renew your body and spirit, fresh food and delicious specialty products should be part of that," says Pickford.
With these words in mind, I take my number at Krause's, which specializes in German sausages and domestic and imported cheeses and is one of the many businesses that has been around for generations preserving Over-the-Rhine's German heritage. I think of Italo Calvino's essay, "The Cheese Museum," in which he ruminates on the existential intricacies of cheese shopping: "It's not a matter of choosing the right cheese, but of being chosen. There is a reciprocal relationship between cheese and customer: Each cheese awaits its customer, poses so as to attract him, with a firmness or a somewhat haughty graininess, or, on the contrary, by melting in submissive abandon."
I survey the practical choices. Vermont white cheddar. Smoked Mozzarella. My number is called. My mouth opens to request an affordable log of herbed goat cheese. Suddenly I find myself demanding a quarter-pound of decadent, truffled pecorino ($15.95/pound). Stepping outside, I fumble with the paper-wrapped wedge and break off a piece, savoring the intoxicating aroma before the flavor fills my mouth — melting, yes, in submissive abandon.
Outside, the beat of African drums coincides with the rhythm of women scouring rows of produce in a vicious race to bag the best mango before it lands in someone else's canvas sack. Spicy, aromatic sausages sizzle outside Kroeger & Sons Meats. An African-American girl, a neighborhood resident, tends the grill. After asking if I want onions on my Andouille, she doles out street wisdom to her suburban-born, blonde coworker, who asks why a panhandler is being led off market grounds by a policeman. This sort of dialogue makes the market a vital force in the healing of Over-the-Rhine beyond economics.
Findlay Market isn't the only alternative to supermarket shopping. The Ridge Market, which opened last year and features many familiar merchants from Findlay and around the city, is the place to shop midweek, or on a rainy day. The indoor market simulates the open-air charm of Findlay with high ceilings and skylights. In the heart of Pleasant Ridge, its offerings include breads, produce, lunchmeat, seafood, wine, birdhouses and flowers.
My first stop is always the juice and smoothie stand, where a variety of nutrient- and supplement-loaded beverages promise to heighten your alertness enough to be able to pronounce their name: Suttschenko's. My usual is a 16-ounce "P.B.J." ($4.99), with apple juice, banana, strawberry, raspberry and the delicious enhancement of pumpkin seed butter. Prices peak at $10.99 for some 32-ouncers, but the drinks are made without ice, using mainly organic ingredients. A quote from the owner on the take-out menu reads, "Money is funny, compared to the wealth of health."
Ridge also features a branch of Findlay's most popular specialty organic produce vendor, Madison's, where you'll find the sorts of ingredients that warrant check-out line recipe swapping; things like purple asparagus, morel mushrooms, quinces and fiddle-head ferns from all over the country, and plenty of products from the Madisons' farm in Adams County. On a recent visit, I get the golden beets I can't find anywhere else. Sweeter and milder than red beets, they make a great salad tossed with blanched green beans and goat cheese.
For personal encounters with an older generation of suspender-and-flannel-wearing, sun-worn farmers, go to the Lunken Airport/Columbia Tusculum Market. Walter Snyder of Snyder Farms in Batesville, Ind., got up at 3:30 a.m. to pick the mustard greens he's stuffing in a bag as I pass him $2. "Mama," (his wife) offers her recipe for mustard greens cooked in bacon fat.
Although it's slow now, traffic will pick up with the sweet corn harvest in late June/early July, likely a few weeks later than usual. Like everything else this spring, even the corn is cautious with its energy.
If you're looking for adventure and human interaction in summer shopping, cut up your Kroger card and hit the road for the city's supermarket alternatives, including the many smaller neighborhood and tailgate markets (see listing above).
West Elder Street, Over-the-Rhine
Hours: Wednesday & Friday 7 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday 6 a.m.-6 p.m. (Check with individual merchants for hours on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday)
6142 Montgomery Road, Pleasant Ridge
Hours: Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; Saturday 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
4100 Hamilton Ave, Northside
Hours: Wednesday 3 p.m.-7 p.m.
Court Street Market
Vine and Court streets, Downtown
Hours: Tuesday & Thursday 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
Columbia Tusculum/Lunken Airport Market
Hours: Monday-Friday 2 p.m.; Saturday 9 a.m.
College Hill Farmer's Market
Corner of Llanfair and Hamilton Avenue, College Hill
Hours: Tuesday & Thursday 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Tailgate Markets, Inc. (beginning in July, from 3:30-6 p.m. on designated days)
Monday: Nativity Church, 5935 Pandora Ave., Pleasant Ridge
Monday: St. Lawrence Church, 3680 Warsaw Ave., East Price Hill
Tuesday & Saturday: Swifton Commons Mall parking lot, 7030 Reading Road, Bond Hill
Wednesday: St. Jude Church, 5928 Bridgetown Road, Bridgetown
Thursday: St. Theresa Church, 2516 Alexandria Pike, Southgate
Friday: Northminster United Presbyterian Church, 703 Compton Road, Finneytown
Ohio Valley Fruits and Vegetables Growers Association Farmer's Markets
Tuesday 2 p.m.-6 p.m., Sports Page Café parking lot, 453 Cincinnati-Batavia Pike, Mount Carmel;
Wednesday 2 p.m.-6 p.m. & Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Big Lots parking lot, 825 Main St., Milford;
Sunday Noon-4 p.m., Auxier Trucking & Excavating parking lot, 1275 Ohio Pike, Amelia