PHILADELPHIA — The city’s Reading Terminal Market is celebrating long-lost foods that were formerly Philly staples, from teaberry ice cream to fried oysters with chicken salad.
The third biennial Festival of Forgotten Foods, which takes place today at the 121-year-old downtown market, is offering about a dozen examples of foods that were the hoagies, soft pretzels and water ice of their day: available everywhere and strongly associated with Philadelphia.
“They’re quirky foods people might not have seen in the course of their lives,” said Sarah Levitsky, marketing and event manager at the Reading Terminal Market, a bustling home to butchers and fishmongers, sandwich stalls and Amish farmers. “We weren’t sure at the beginning how (the festival) was going to work out and the response was beyond that we expected.”
Everything will be offered in small sizes so intimidated eaters won’t be overwhelmed and adventurous foodies will be able to taste everything, she said. “Some of the foods are old-fashioned kinds of foods that are part of Philadelphia’s culinary history,” Levitsky said Friday, “and some we sell every day in the market ... like snapper soup and raw milk.”
Pepper pot soup — a thick stew of tripe, vegetables, lots of black pepper and other spices — is sometimes called “the soup that won the Revolutionary War.” According to legend, it’s credited with restoring the strength and fighting spirit to Gen. George Washington’s troops during the harsh 1777-78 winter at Valley Forge. Nowadays, pepper pot is served at a couple of niche restaurants and as an occasional special at the Reading Terminal’s Down Home Diner, which is making a batch for the festival.
For the tripe averse, there’s fried catfish on a waffle with pepper hash — arguably the cheesesteak of the Victorian era, when catfish were a plentiful catch in the Schuylkill River. There’s also a combination platter of fried oysters and chicken salad, served side by side and known as the “Philadelphia Special” in the 18th-century taverns where it was a menu essential. Home cooks will be able to buy freshly made horseradish as well as hard-to-find local produce like fiddlehead ferns, ramps and chickweed.
Local ice cream maker Bassett’s has revived for the occasion its teaberry ice cream, which has a bright pink color and unusual wintergreen flavor that come from the berries of native teaberry shrub. It may call to mind the taste of Pepto-Bismol, although a far tastier version, which might have a little something to do with why its popularity waned in the 20th century. Other sweets being served up by the market’s Pennsylvania General Store include Cara-Mellows, handmade marshmallow dunked in caramel by fourth-generation local sweets-maker Asher’s, and Wilbur Buds chocolate drops, made in Pennsylvania since 1894.
“There’s a cycle I see where food traditions fell out of favor because people didn’t eat the sort of foods of their grandparents anymore but people are returning to them,” said Michael Holahan, who with his wife has run the General Store since 1987. “The things that kind of disappeared, you now have 30-year-olds and 20-year-olds rediscovering.”