It was 1973 and I had just moved from Cleveland to Detroit when I made my way to the Eastern Market for the first time at Mack and Gratiot near Detroit’s city center. At this point in my life, my open-air market experience was limited to the West Side Market in Cleveland, established at the same time as Eastern Market, but much smaller. All this was prior to my travels to India, where I became certain that my vocation in life would center around food and cooking.
The atmosphere, although intimidating to a young man, was fascinating. I was entranced by this labyrinthine food system and wanted to learn more about it. Eastern Market has been the culinary soul of Detroit since it began in 1841 on Cadillac Square. It was moved to its current location in 1891, the former Civil War parade grounds where General Grant and Colonel Custer marched their armies. This was also part of an Indian burial site and one of the avenues to Canada for the Underground Railroad.
Over the decades, markets evolve. In the 70’s, Eastern Market was very different than it is today–a meat packing center with wholesale produce surrounding the public sheds and rough and tumble workers barking out orders, often in Italian.
Warehouse carts (like the ones Restoration Hardware sells today as period coffee tables) stacked with wood crates full of produce, were noisily pushed down the streets. It was an era before pre-packaging, shrink-wrapping and frozen foods; orders and receipts were hand-written; all telephones had the same ring and chains rattled on manual warehouse door-lifts.
Wafting through the air were the intoxicating smells of spices from Rafal Spice Company, nuts roasting at Germack Pistachio Company and Rocky Peanut Company intermingled with hops cooking in the Stroh’s Brewery nearby. Farmers came from all over the Midwest to sell in the public stalls and most commercial business had been conducted by 7 am.
For 170 years, Eastern Market has nourished millions of people while maintaining its status as a cultural treasure. Until recently, the surrounding neighborhoods were full of homes mixed in with industrial sites. Since the decline of manufacturing, many residential neighborhoods of Detroit, especially around the Eastern Market, have suffered from decades of abandonment and dilapidation. Open fields are dotted with worn structures where bustling neighborhoods once stood, making the entrance to the market somewhat dramatic.
In the last few years, the market has embraced the modern food revolution and is redefining what a market means to a city. Once again, it has become the heart of Detroit, pulsing with nourishing energy and showcasing urban farming, certified organic farms, such as Hampshire Farms as well as the usual commercial farms. The meat packing and wholesale vegetable houses have mostly given way to warehouse operations of dried and frozen goods, restaurants, urban living and public markets–a vibrant community, revitalizing the market for a new generation.
Recently, I recorded much of what makes Eastern Market unique. It is a must-stop destination when visiting or living in the Metro Detroit area. Join the party!