As soon as I heard that Cooking Light magazine declared Baltimore one of the top 20 American cities that eat light I went down to the Lexington Market, my old lunchtime haunt. For more than a quarter of a century, I never ate light there. And if the scribes at Cooking Light had visited the Lexington Market before creating their list, I dare say they wouldn’t have libeled us as light eaters.
The magazine says its mission is to “Eat Smart, Be Fit, and Live Well.” How a town with a fabled homicide rate, a cuisine starring the deep fryer and a population of people who have not seen their toes, much less touched them, in years, got onto the list was not explained. Holy smokes! (Or holy smoked sausage.) Baltimore is no more a light-eating town than it is a ski resort or a surfing destination. Why not come here for the hot springs? The running of the bulls? The locally grown citrus?
I live in Baltimore, a proud size 16 city. City of the big waistline and high cholesterol level. City of Boog’s Barbecue and Berger Cookies and Lake Trout and Fried Chicken and crab fluffs. Do the editors of Cooking Light know what a crab fluff is?
Baltimore is a big, bulging, beer-bellied backwater, a light-eating wasteland. Surveys and studies abound that support this. Everyone, from Johns Hopkins Hospital to the Centers for Disease Control to the Journal of the American Medical Association to the American Council for Fitness and Nutrition, has weighed in, so to speak. Little-known fact: while the population of Baltimore has declined in recent decades, the collective weight of its citizenry has remained the same! Amazing!
Cooking Light says 27 percent of Baltimorons go to the Waverly Farmers’ Market on Saturday to stock up on bushels of fresh corn and tomatoes (not in the bleak midwinter they don’t, but let that pass). But that means that 73 percent DON’T. And that more or less confirms the national concern about obesity as an epidemic in a country where being overweight is said to be the second-leading cause of preventable death. Even the slimsters at Cooking Light admit that two-thirds of the nation’s citizens are overweight.
But let’s get back to Lexington Market, shall we? Once upon a time this was the city’s pantry. I know it will eventually have to be demolished to make way for a prayer garden or an expansion for Mercy Medical Center, but today it remains a city-block-size hall of fast-food stands and, for the social scientist, an enormous Petri dish. The smell of gyros warming, chicken frying, collard greens steaming in bacon, corn bread rising, steak subs simmering— not to mention crabs steaming— is overpowering. The doughnut is a primary food group here. You can get eight of those bad boys for a buck at Donut Delight.
I stopped by John W. Faidley’s, where the folks behind the counter were getting ready for the raccoon and muskrat season. (Attention Cooking Light: roadkill is not light eating fare.) I paused at Esta’s, where no part of the pig goes to waste. “Say buddy, you ain’t lived ’til you had a pigtail,” the counterman advised. They were doing a brisk business on pigtails, pig’s feet and pig’s ears. (I think those were ears.)
The market is one of the last places where you can still get old-time soul food, big, steaming tables of the stuff. You can still get a hog maw, chitterling or pig’s feet dinner at Angie’s Soul Food but like everything else now the shift is from soul to Seoul. The preparers of the food and the owners of the stalls are mostly Korean. But regardless of who is manning the deep fryer, fried chicken is still No. 1. You can also get a lot of chow here that might be broadly called “Chinese food” — orange chicken, orange pork and orange shrimp, slathered with what looks like fluorescent marmalade, were the specialties on my visit.
You can travel from Hampden to Highlandtown and not see a single light eater. Or find one at Harborplace, Little Italy, Camden Yards or Ravens stadium. Every single ethnic festival here is about E-A-T-I-N-G. Traditional Greek fried dough, traditional Irish fried dough, traditional German fried dough, traditional Polish fried dough, traditional African fried dough, traditional Korean fried dough. Other than an occasional sop to the old country— spanakopita or pirogis (which still involve dough)— it’s carnival midway cuisine.
I walked around Lexington Market for two hours during the lunchtime rush. The place was standing room only, with nary a light eater in sight. White folks, black folks, Asians, Latinos. Folks in suits and folks in sweat suits and everyone in between. And I thought it was just as well that John Francis Kafka did not live to see us branded sprout-nibblers. The city knew him as Polock Johnny and his passing left a seat forever vacant at the feast. He used to call around to my office to ponder metaphysics and the sausage-eating contest that he sponsored in the days of our youth.
Polock Johnny has been gone a long time now, but Cooking Light should know that you can still get a Polish sausage with “The Works” at Lexington Market. And that ain’t light eating, friend.