Despite Seattle Washington’s budget woes, the 50 million dollar shortfall that threatens every sector where Seattle’s workers punch their time clocks, at least one jewel in the city’s crown is still a fountain of funds. The Pike Place Market has been a magnet for tourists and locals alike for over a century, and everyday, up and down its many halls, people come, wallets in hand, and spend. It is one of the oldest continually running farmers’ markets in the nation, and on any given sunny summer day, is likely to be a first weekend stop for literally tens of thousands of people from near and far.
Whenever my travels take me to Seattle, the Market, as it is known locally, is my playground. Hundreds of visits later, beginning with that first when I was a Seattle-raised toddler, its tastes, colors, sounds, smells, music, and flow, still fascinate. The Pike Place Market remains the place faux-entertainment venues, such as Disneyland or Las Vegas wish they were, with a pulse, style, and infinitely varied form that attracts 10 million visitors a year, and yet it remains authentic. The market, now around 600 vendors strong, is so imbedded in the hearts and histories of the area’s population, that when politicians and developers wanted to tear it down in the early 70s to build stadiums, a hotel, and office buildings, a ground swell of opposition arose from every neighborhood. In 1971, a “Keep the Market” vote assured the Market’s future, at least for the present. Seldom has so humble a conglomeration of shops and stalls occupied such expensive and gloriously sea-scaped an expanse of urban real estate.
The Market is not a quasi-farmers’ market, set up to lure folks so that fast-talking hawkers can unload a cargo hold of souvenirs, although there are souvenirs aplenty amid the rabbit warren of shops, alleys, passageways, and cobbled streets. No, all through the Market are real produce and flower stands bowed gently under the flavorful weight of vibrantly colored blooms, local fruits, and fresh vegetables. Frank’s Quality Produce long ago snagged my sister’s custom, she who lives at the end of the market in a wonderfully placed 8th floor condo. Lively banter, fast, fast service, and a real knowledge of what’s in season and what to do with it, mean that the sidewalk in front of Frank’s is always thigh to thigh with people buying, people who have already purchased and are trying to move away, and people who are just watching the process and looking at the luscious offerings. Frank’s associates are masters, too, at suggesting something else to go with whatever is on your list. “How about some orange raspberries to go with the red? They’re delicious and I’ll give you a break on the price.” I wasn’t a hard sell. Six hours later, our Stratiacella gelato, from the Botega Italiana Gelato, also in the Market but on 1st Avenue, was graced temptingly with fresh blueberries, red raspberries, plus the orange second thoughts. Total cost for four desserts, maybe $10, but given that one of the diners was a ten-year old girl who spooned up each cluster of gelato and berries as if it was a tasty treasure, the memory of those bites will live on.
People bring their children to the Market as if it was a super-park attraction. They plan their visit by route, stops, and purchases. First stop is often the Daily Dozen Donuts Company stall right as you enter the arcade off of 1st Avenue. Of course, the adults might want to linger at the First and Pike News stand where hundreds of magazines and multi-language newspapers are on sale, but the kids will push their recalcitrant parents and guardians forth to the 35 aroma-laden square feet of the DDDC. Here, the humble donut takes on only three variations: plain, cinnamon, and powdered sugar. No frosting, sprinkles, or nuts are needed for this place to sell out of stock almost daily. Sad is the day when, already salivating for a half-dozen of these nuggets of sweetness, I see the sign, “Sorry, we’re out,” and must move on. The attraction here is process, since you can watch the donuts being made, and just seconds later have a warm, well-shaken sack in your hand. The shaking is to distribute either the cinnamon or powdered sugar. Very low tech, but ohh, so good.
No, no, you can’t eat them yet. They will still be warm in the twenty minutes it takes you to wander down through the market to the park across Western Avenue and its little berm of a hill from where you can watch the boats and the people. Past the donut stand is a less caloric taste treat, this one from the apple lady, who stands at the corner stall across from the salmon-tossing fish mongers. Simply the Best is not just one of Tina Turner’s mega-hits, it is also the name of a dried fruit company that is free with samples and long on information about the benefits of dried fruits and vegetables. I was happy to see Simply the Best still in its usual spot, given the move a few years ago to “renovate” the market. The plan would have displaced or forced out of business a half-dozen or more of these unique shops. Fortunately, the bite out of that financial apple has not turned toxic for the Market owners and regulars. I blessed the gods of good taste as I crunched on a generous piece of dried Fuji apple.
Mere inches past Simply the Best stands the face of the market, which isn’t a face at all, but a large bronze statue of a pig. Her name is Rachel and she’s the mascot of the Market, bringing good luck to those who rub her snout and funds for the Market Foundation’s social service programs when visitors drop coins and bills into the slot on her back. One good suggestion for families visiting the market is to say, “If we get separated, we’ll meet at the pig.” Even better, the kids can climb on Rachel’s back and ride off to BLT heaven or just stand beside her for a phone or camera shot such as the myriad you’ll find on Google images.
The salmon-tossing fishmongers at the Pike-Place Fish Market entertain the crowds as well as any circus juggler, adroitly pitching whole salmon and other finned creatures through the air and over the heads of an admiring audience, mouths agape, from iced display case to the distant “catcher”. While I know the receiver must miss occasionally, I’ve never seen it happen. Perhaps this is a moment for a confession. Despite being raised in Seattle, home port for a vast fleet of fishing boats, anything fishy is low on my list of food faves. The exceptions are an occasional deep fried shrimp meal and the huge Dungeness crabs my dad would buy for special occasions, break up into legs, claws, and body parts, and serve us with the requisite ketchup and mayonnaise dip and buttered French bread. Now, I’m getting hungry.
Moving north down the main corridor of the Market proper, flower stalls, artisan handicrafts, and food stands punctuate the space, inviting the visitor to stop, sniff, browse, test, and spend. Strangely, while the exchange of debit, credit cards, and cash is essential to the Market’s continuation, the actual theme of the place is community. Visitors to the Market become essential elements of the market, as much as the young man who plays his guitar while its riding atop his head, the drummer who taps out beats from a world away, or an artist who captures the Market’s dynamism in a palette of water colors or oils. Without the visitors, the Market would have gone the way of high rises and echoing office spaces long ago, and so the perfect synergy of capitalism continues, but in a refined and distinctive manner. Walking away from the Market’s acres carrying recyclable bags filled with fresh cumin, French bread, fruits, vegetables, a silk scarf, dried apple chips, and, of course, donuts, I feel as if I’ve been wandering in the closest thing America has to bazaar from the Arabian Nights.