You visit or move to Philadelphia. You love food, people and history. But where do
you begin? South Philly? The Italian Market? University City? Old City? Farmers’ markets? The food trucks scattered all around town? Meet Mary Rizzo. She grew up in central New Jersey. An historian, Mary visited Philly a few years ago for a conference at the Convention
Center. She walked into the Reading Terminal Market and instantly fell in love. Metropolitan Bakery was her first purchase: a memorable raspberry-filled brioche bun. When Mary later moved to Philly in 2009, she figured a blog, Eating/Reading, would help act as motivation to systematically explore all that the Reading Terminal Market has to offer. There are 80-some vendors at the Terminal, and Mary decided to eat and/or purchase something from every single one. It’s not a speed race; instead, Mary sets out to have fun and examine each Terminal vendor that she ventures to and blogs about. We caught up with Mary at (where do you think?) the Terminal itself. We relaxed in the middle of the Terminal and discussed, not only food, but the history of the Terminal, as well. After all, a “chocolate covered memory” is just as much about history as it is about food.
What are your earliest childhood memories of food?
My mom is a great cook, and, even with her Italian-American heritage, she was always
willing to try new stuff and experiment with new ingredients. I remember being a young
child, and all my classmates would bring cupcakes into school for their birthdays. Well,
my mom decided to make cream puffs one year for me instead, which I probably didn’t
appreciate as much at the time because it was too “different.” Funny, now that seems simply amazing, considering the work involved.
And everyone in the family hangs out in the kitchen. To this day, when we get together,
everyone always hangs out with mom in the kitchen while she cooks. And we’re all
Where does your love of food stem from?
My love of food definitely stems from my mom. Food and cooking were a big part of my
childhood. Everyday, my mom cooked from scratch.
There was a pattern, that has since ended, that cooking was something done by every
other generation in my family. I’ll be kind and just say that my grandmother was a … “sub-par” cook. Following our family “pattern,” my great-grandfather, who I never knew, was a great cook who could cure his own salamis. So my mother actually took over cooking because my grandmother was so “average” with the pots and pans. As my mother tells it, she and her twin sister would barely be able to reach the stove, but they’d climb on stools and follow instructions until they could handle it on their own.
What foods remind you of childhood?
My birthday is often near and sometimes on Thanksgiving, which meant that my
birthday “cake” was usually a pumpkin pie. That holiday has always been extra special
for me. After all, it’s a holiday that’s focused on food. My mom makes a stuffing filled
with ground meat and Italian sausage that is amazing. Our dinner the night before
Thanksgiving is just the stuffing—probably not the healthiest, but definitely the
tastiest. Every family has Thanksgiving traditions, and, in my family, they usually involve
some kind of ritualized conflict. Without fail, my father would sneak into the oven, trying
to get early bites of the turkey while it was still roasting, to which my mother would reply,
with increasing volume, “You’re going to get salmonella poisoning!”
Also, when I was growing up, my mom used to cook a whole pot full of Italian sausage, meatballs, braciole, pork chops and chicken pieces in a homemade sauce. That sauce would cook for hours, and then we’d eat it with pasta. Someday I’d like to perfect that, but, to be honest, I haven’t even tried yet.
The one recipe of my mother’s that I salivate for still is eggplant parmigiana with her
homemade sauce. [More about that later in this interview, though …]
Any food memories/stories that you want to share?
You know what they say about two or more people being in a kitchen at the same time:
it’s often a tug of war between conflict and cooperation. To this day, my mom will stand
behind me acting like a backseat driver: “No, you’re not doing that right.” In fact, this is
the reason that I started baking cakes and bread, because those were the only two things
that she didn’t make.
There was this one time in high school when I was baking a cheesecake from scratch for a friend. I was using a handheld electric mixer and my mother rightly noticed that the cream cheese was too cold. Full of stubborn pride, I ignored her. Of course, when smoke started coming out the mixer, I probably should have admitted I was wrong. Just like an obnoxious teenager, I finished it by hand and bought her a replacement.
So, for non-Philadelphians, what’s so special about the Reading Terminal Market?
I find the Reading Terminal Market to be one of the best ways to explore the diversity
of Philadelphia while remaining in one central location. Where else can you find local
Amish selling their homemade goodies, South Philly fooderies selling traditional hot
roast pork sandwiches and Italian hoagies, a greasy diner and even a gastropub all in one
This public space is a unique collective of a cross-section of people in Philadelphia.
Tourists. Locals. Regulars. Suburbanites. In the early morning, you’ll see elderly folks
shopping while all is quiet and uncrowded. Later the families come in from the suburbs
with their children. There really are few places like this in the country to have such
diversity in both the crowds and the food.
Any favorite Reading Terminal Market foodies, in particular?
So far, obviously Metropolitan Bakery, as it was the place that I first discovered that
sparked my interest in the Terminal. It also is the best bakery in Philadelphia, in my
opinion. I really like Beck’s Cajun Cafe. And, if you want a random gem, order the
cornbread at Franks-A-Lot hot dog/BBQ stand. I don’t even eat hot dogs, and I’d wait in
that line over and over again just for an order of their cornbread.
What do you think of the modern foodie world?
I am not a fan of the word “foodie,” which is closely connected with a certain amount
of economic privilege. This is clearly evident as the “foodie” world has blossomed into this
gigantic business and industry in this last decade or so. As the saying goes: “‘Whole
Foods’ equals ‘whole paycheck.’” The real problem here is the way in which healthful
eating is out of many people’s reach. This is the big socio-economic issue that is
often being overlooked by the food world.
They say that being healthy is a choice, but status and class always come into play, especially for food. I currently work in Trenton, New Jersey, which is not the most thriving area, and there is maybe one real supermarket there with fresh fruits and vegetables. Most Trentonians, if they don’t have cars, probably buy their groceries from the corner store, which we all know is usually stocked with cheap, processed foods. It leads one to ask whether we actually have the freedom of choice that the FDA thinks we do when it encourages us to make certain food decisions.
At the same time, admittedly, it’s difficult to avoid this conundrum. With the help of
others in my neighborhood, I am trying to start the South Philly co-op. We’re committed
to making it representative of the community, yet most of the original people involved
are just like me: well-educated, transplants to Philly and white. That being said, we all love food and want to do something positive for our community.
The Reading Terminal Market is so special, because it exemplifies these tensions. It’s
not a utopian place. There are class and racial differences. It’s a “cheek by jowl”
melting pot for food shoppers of all backgrounds. All these different people use the
Reading Terminal Market for their own different reasons.
Any family recipes you want to share with us?
My mom’s eggplant parmigiana was not necessarily a dish that my mom made when I was a little child. Instead, she probably started regularly making it after I became a vegetarian in college, a choice that completely threw my mother into chaos. Never mind that I ate seafood or my mom’s pasta aglia olio. To my mom, a meal means meat. So my mom would try, year after year, to sneak a chicken into my diet. But the eggplant satisfied her desire to make me a full meal and satisfied my desire for comfort food. That’s the sweet thing about my mom, next time you came over, your favorite treat would always be waiting for you, and you would feel a little bit warmer inside at the knowledge that she cared this much. Enjoy my mom’s Eggplant Parmigiana.
Last spring, my housemates and I decided to throw an Italian-themed potluck dinner. For the occasion I concocted a vegetarian lasagna based on the colors of the Italian flag—red, green and white. The party was a great success—we found room, somehow, for thirty people to have a sit-down several course dinner. More importantly, it was a great example of how food really brings people together in celebration and joy. Enjoy my Italian Flag Lasagna.
Mary Rizzo has written about food, in some fashion, ever since college, where she briefly
wrote a cooking column in the campus newspaper. Her love for food stems from
her family background, where cooking was a daily act. In another life, she’d probably
be a pastry chef but has, instead, connected her interest in food with her academic
background in history. She’s published pieces about food co-ops in Minneapolis in the 1970s in Eating in Eden: Food and American Utopias and about a café in Baltimore in Dixie Emporium: Tourism, Foodways and Consumer Cultures. Her blog, Eating/Reading, is a chronicle of her attempt to eat at every foodery in Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market. More than just reviews, she tries to connect food with Philadelphia’s history, contemporary issues and whatever other random things float through her mind while she’s chewing.