Monday, April 2, 2012
To the left are some photographs from my trip to NYC this weekend with most of my family. Kim and Beriah were vacationing in Ireland, flew into Newark, and spent the day with us in the city. Our time in the city seemed like a tribute to my second favorite thing in the whole world (Just after Jesus and right before hayrides): farmer's markets. I am hands down, totally infatuated with a farmer's market. My heart starts pounding, my breathing becomes shaky, and the world around me is blurred by sensory overload. When movies use these phrases to describe a relationship between two romantic leads, I am the person in the theatre thinking, "These people clearly haven't been to PSU on a Saturday morning..."
I think I can trace my love for marketplaces back to my family's annual trek to Philadelphia on Good Friday, which, coincidentally, is a mere four days away from now. I completely acknowledge that I have an odd devotion to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, which are traditionally the Debbie Downers of Christian holidays. If Ash Wednesday is about embracing personal and global suffering, Good Friday is when we are face to face with God's. So it makes complete sense that on this day, my father would pack the three of us kids into the van, and head out to Philly for cannoli.
I don't have a very clear notion of when we started this tradition. All I know is that there's a routine. The first stop is always at Isgro's Bakery for the world's best cannoli. And when I say stop, I mean my father literally stops the car in the middle of the street in busy Philadelphia, right in front of Isgro's. He thrusts a wad of bills at me, and tells me he'll see me in a little bit. My response has become automatic (out of sheer survival instinct). After I dodge through the line of cars, I am supposed to go inside the bakery, grab a number, and wait my turn. Isgro's is almost always jammed shoulder-to-shoulder on Good Friday. I don't mind this much, because it means that I can wait outside, right next to the bakery's grates. These grates, which lead down to the baking hub of Isgro's, are like the gates to Heaven. You're completely enveloped by myriad baking smells, but mostly it's the butter that makes you swoon. This state of sugary euphoria, however, is dispelled as soon as you step foot inside the bakery. Once you're in, it's all business. When I was much younger, I didn't say my orders loud enough, I'd constantly apologize for bumping into someone, and I was frightened by the brusque, demanding way in which the cashier lady said, "Number 86...what can I get you, hon?" in a thick Philly accent. Indecision and insecurity at ordering time does not fly with the seasoned cashier ladies at Isgro's Bakery. Their movements are quick and their patience is limited. Over the years, I've learned to toughen up a bit and have become much more efficient in my ordering. I'm still a fairly insecure mess of a person most days, but this Friday I will walk into Isgro's with a smug confidence that befits someone who not only knows what she wants, but has the (very large) order written down in neat, organized categories. The cashier ladies (the same ones have been there for as long as I can remember) will acknowledge me with an approving nod and quickly go about boxing up my orders. My father will join me inside and as we wait, we will exchange knowing smiles at the flustered, Isgro's novice shoppers; these are the ones who ask "The rig-aw-ta pie is HOW much per pound?" and will send the cashiers jogging up and down the long, glass case full of pastries because of their indecision. Once our orders are finished, the (increasingly grateful) cashier and sometimes, the owner's son, will then bring our order out through the back door (so as to avoid the crowd in the bakery, but Dad calls it the VIP treatment) and wish us a Happy Easter.
I apologize (<--See what I mean?) for this somewhat over-zealous description of Isgro's Bakery, but if you've ever had one of their marscapone cannoli, you'd understand. From here, we do a tour of the Italian Market. We get fresh pasta, we walk by St. Paul's church, we stop in to Fante's for mudslide coffees and so that I can ogle the kitchen supplies. My father, a man who once lined me and my sisters up outside of Disney World and forced us to chant in unison that "Mickey just wants our money", will drop some serious bills at a farmer's market (This has since made a serious impression on me because a few years ago, I was strolling around Downtown Disney guffawing at the overpriced kitsch that parents were buying for their whiny kids. And yet, I won't even blink at spending $20 on a pound of Parmiggiano-Reggiano). He will glance over any decent form of produce, cheese, or meat, hand me the wad of money again, and say "Yeah, yeah, that looks good. Ang, get a couple pounds of that." I'll traditionally protest, "Mom doesn't need 4 lbs of green beans, Dad" to which he'll wave me off saying, "Yeah, yeah, I know what your mother said. Just get the beans." In years past, my father's Good Friday spending has resulted in purchasing 5-lb bags of grated locatella, four flats of strawberries (of which I ate half before we returned to New Jersey), a side of salmon, and the holy grail of all our trips: artichokes. Because it is a Good Friday tradition for my mother to make stuffed artichokes, my father will scour Philadelphia for them. They're rarely in season this time of year, but when we do stumble upon decent ones my dad will tell me, "Ang, you know your mother will pitch a fit if she doesn't get her artichokes. Here's the money and if they look good, just buy the box of 100 artichokes."
Over the years, my sisters and I have invited various honored guests to join us on this trip to Philadelphia; we've even expanded the trek to include Reading Terminal. I'll admit that the trip is never quite the same as when it's strictly Livesay, though. Perhaps it's because we (I) project our (my) own built-up excitement onto our fellow companions and they never seem quite enthusiastic enough for our (my) liking. More often than not, I end up wanting to shake them a bit and shout, "We are in DiBruno Bros House of Cheese (pause to allow this fact alone to sink in) and there is a 7ft log of aged provolone hanging from the ceiling! Come on, you are in the HOUSE of amazingness!"
All those years of Good Friday Philadelphia trips established within me a deep appreciation for all things locally produced. Whether it's the cashier ladies at Isgro's or the Egg Man at PSU market, they are not faceless fragments of a transaction to me. They are part of a sacred family tradition and are therefore sacred themselves. Even when I drive over to the Buzby farm to pick up my annual flat (or four) of strawberries, it's almost like witnessing a miracle. I'm collecting berries from Dawn or Martie, whose family JUST picked thousands of perfect berries that are a result of decades' worth of experience and careful cultivation. All of these things are nothing if not small reminders of God's blessing. And so when I go to a farm or a farmer's market, it's an experience akin to walking into Notre Dame (the cathedral, not the college), and I see evidences of God everywhere and in everyone.
And that's exactly how I felt last weekend as I strolled around Chelsea Market, Union Square, and Eataly with my parents, sister, and brother. Had Christina and Osa been there, I would be able to say that it was a wholly perfect day. As it was, I got to once again see my father, in perfect Good Friday form, take out the ol' wad of money to a pickle vendor in Union Square, and announce, "Wasabi pickles on a stick for all of us!" And while admittedly, it's a bit of a stretch to connect the Cross with...well...a pickle...on a stick (unless you count the rather sacrilege similarity between a crucified Jesus and a lanced Kosher pickle), I am never more aware of the Truth behind Good Friday than when I am in a place full of the Creation that bears its promise.