Lessons at the Reading Market

Two households, both alike in dignity…


As many of you know, Sandy and I were in Philadelphia a few weeks ago for the Army-Navy football game.


The game itself we have talked about (extensively), but that is not the purpose of this blog. Rather, I want to use this platform to discuss the intersection of seemingly disparate subjects: capitalism, racial and religious integration, Epicureanism, informal systems of order, and, finally, “brokenism” vs “status quo’ism”.


Stay with me on this trek… admittedly the air is going to get a little thin where we are going…


The week before Sandy and I headed out to Philadelphia, I was in court down in San Diego with the LTC. As we were wrapping up the proceedings the LTC mentioned to the judge that I was going to be at the Army-Navy game that weekend. (Judge Gallagher down in San Diego Superior is a huge Army fan.) The judge lit up and suggested… no… demanded… that we go to the Reading Marketplace while we were there, and to make sure we went “hungry”. Evidently he had been there numerous times on his sojourns to Philly. I told him I would certainly try.


The day before the game I was looking at Google maps for places to eat around our hotel and noticed the aforementioned “Reading Market.” I told Sandy what Judge Gallagher had said and she agreed we should go.


Now, if the name Reading sounds familiar to you, it should. When Monopoly, the board game, was commercialized by Parker Brothers’ Charles Todd, a Philadelphia native, he used local names and institutions as part of it. The Reading Railroad really does exist… and by the main terminal stands the Reading Market.


Imagine a marketplace roughly double the size of a modern-day Costco. Now line the entire place with rows of eateries populated by local entrepreneurs providing culinary experiences ranging from the ubiquitous Philly cheesesteak sandwiches to wild game, to Dutch pies, soul food, and even traditional Kosher delis. (Incidentally, I have been on a quest to find a decent pastrami sandwich outside of Canter’s for years; the first one I have found that makes the grade is Hershel’s in the Reading Market).


The sights, sounds, and aromas were mesmerizing. Proprietors were doing their best to draw in potential customers.


And it is all done outside of government regulation.


In fact, the whole thing is actually nothing more than a co-op. Somehow, without the regulatory guidance of nameless Mandarins, this place is able to exist. (We saw something similar in Paris a few years ago that not only operated without managerial guidance, but apparently without any health, safety, and welfare codes as well! Sac re blu!)


What I did notice, and what I want to call your attention to, was a number of Amish eateries worked by the Amish themselves. Most sold Dutch pies, but there were other Amish staples as well. The Amish wore their traditional outfits as unapologetically as any Hasidic Jews would wear theirs. Interspersed among the Amish were black-owned soul food restaurants.


Two things struck me.


The first was that the customer base, which was made up of what appeared to be a fairly even mix of residents and tourists, pinballed between these food stands. One Indian woman was eating a Dutch pie while waiting in line for her order at a soul food stand.


The second was the interactions between the workers of these various stands. I saw black owners and employees behind the counter of the Amish stands talking to their fellow providers and Amish employees and owners behind the counters of the soul food stands. (In one instance I actually saw one of the Amish men helping two of the black employees hand food to their customers who were waiting in line.)


This was not done through coercion or mandate. It was being done because these people, both the providers and the patrons, are decent human beings.


This brings us to “brokenism and status quo’ism”.


Alana Newhouse, the senior editor of TabletMag, coined this phrase and I kinda like it. In my mind it explains quite a bit about our current state. (Well… state of affairs, is what I was going for, but “state” works too.)


She has identified two camps of people who are honestly not really grouped by political ideology. Both groups largely acknowledge we have problems, even existential problems with our institutions and our society. Brokenists believe that the problems are insurmountable and a full-scale, revolutionary upheaval is the only way to potentially “fix” it. (Now, it must be mentioned that brokenists exist on a spectrum. I happen to be a brokenist. I believe the “system” is fundamentally flawed because it exists outside of our original Constitutionalist mandate. Other brokenists go further, demanding a whole new Constitutional Convention, or dissolution, or succession, or whatever they think will bring about their personal idea of utopia.). A status quo’ist, on the other hand, does not believe the institutions are broken… just the people in them. Get rid of the incompetent, and the corrupt and everything will be just fine.


Like I said, a brokenist and status quo’ist is not indicative of an underlying political ideology. 
A brokenist couple can be as divergent as Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders, and a status quo’ist mixer can have Newt Gingrich and AOC in the same tent.


These fault lines are becoming more severe, and will continue to create tectonic shifts in our body politic, as well as our social systems.


Yet, boil down the rage and the hyperbole, the violence and the victimization, you still have these dramatic, simple, beautiful images of religious and ethnic minority groups with little in common but a desire to provide quality foods to their customers, working side by side with mutual respect and cooperation.


I thought about this as I ate the first decent pastrami sandwich I have had in the last 20 years.


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Comments (6)

  • Olaf Kilthau Reply

    We went the Reading Market about 3 years ago on our trip from New York to California and I agree, there was so much tasty food to choose from! There were more people there than at the Liberty Bell.
    Is there such as thing as a Broken Status-Quoist?

    01/11/2023 at 08:58
  • Chris Telarico Reply

    Is there any place nearer to OC than Canter’s? I hate going to LA.

    01/11/2023 at 11:59
  • The Lt Col Reply

    The “Reading Market” was once the “Reading Terminal”, the end of the line for the eponynmous railroad of Monopoly Board fame. In the middle of last century I rode those rails from my home town in Chalfont (35 miles north) to visit “The City”. I ate a delicious sandwich at the Market this past November. My first American ancestor arrived in Philadelphia in 1690. He achieved some success in the New World (his grandson was the third husband of Betsy Ross), but he left no comments as to the food.

    01/11/2023 at 12:54
  • Bill Farone Reply

    The blog ends with the inspiration of the pastrami sandwich which is a combination of soul food, religious food and Libertarian ideology. Top it off with good mustard on rye and a family to share the experience with and you have an antidote to both the Brokenist and Status Quoist states of mind. The bonding experience of good meals shared with people who are not trying to gain personal political advantage (at the moment at least) is worth further thought as a solution to human coexistence and political progress against extremes such as government control of every facet of lives based on poor science used as an excuse. But the government is going after those meals. That rye bread will likely be the next proclaimed allergen by the FDA joining milk, eggs, fish, wheat, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, soybeans and sesame seeds. And of course that pastrami is bad for the environment at many levels.

    01/13/2023 at 11:37
  • Michael Reply

    OK…Lets get to the “meat” of the problem, Yes, Canter’s in L.A. was the best. However, there is a wonderful little deli right here in the OC with great pastrami and other great deli delights. It is called Kosher Bite and it is near you Steven in Laguna Hills. It is owned and run by a Jewish charmer named Mary Ann…and has been there since 1992.

    01/14/2023 at 14:38
  • Norm Ellis Reply

    Have you tried Benjies NY Deli in Santa Ana?

    01/26/2023 at 17:08

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