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Market eclectic

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Published 9/29/2004

In the decades since World War II, the American public has been sold a brave new world of convenience and speed. The result is that we’ve become easily frustrated people always in a hurry. Few things can bring this disconnect into clearer view than a Saturday visit to Historic Eastern Market, where people shop the old-fashioned way. The market harks back to a time when people had time, and knew how to let it spread out with all five senses.

The 201-year-old market has been at its present location — between Russell and Riopelle streets and north of Gratiot Avenue— since 1891. It’s smack in the middle of a bustling 43-acre area that’s home to wholesalers, retailers and the prominent sales sheds. The Eastern Market Merchant’s Association estimates that 70,000 tons of produce arrives each year in the area, and that almost 50,000 people crowd into the market each Saturday in search of farm-fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, spices, and, last but not least, flowers. Each spring, the market has its “flower days,” when the site is awash with the color and perfume of thousands of plants. The annual event is reckoned to be the world’s largest bedding flower sale.

In the shade of the sales sheds, parents buy vegetables while their children squat below the table to marvel at cages of bunnies. Couples and families walk the sawdust strewn floors, the salty small of fresh popcorn in the air. Outside, the market is ringed with family-owned stores where one seems able to buy anything edible. Instead of the wide aisles and predictable brand names of a supermarket, these stores attract people who are drawn to the elbow-to-elbow shopping experience and the wide variety of distinct wares.

For instance, Rocky Peanut Company, an Eastern Market fixture since 1975, offers cheeses, olives, nuts, lunchmeats, candies, cookies, crackers, dried fruits, spices, flours, noodles, condiments, jams and jellies, soup stocks, coffees, sauces, and the odd box of beignet mix.

Gratiot Central Market, which was destroyed by fire in 1995 and reopened in 1999, houses a white, clean mini-mall of meat, selling everything from American classics like thick-cut bacon to foreign favorites like ready-for-the-grill kebabs.

If food isn’t your thing, browsing the large, two-floor antique market can be a tempting but cost-free pleasure, especially in the more remote nooks, where wares sit awaiting buyers in a no-pressure sales atmosphere.

And for those who grow puckish from tramping the market, the variety of restaurants — such as Sala Thai, Bert’s or Vivio’s — cater to all tastes. And they’re busy. On a recent Saturday afternoon, Russell Street Café had a full house, with at least a half dozen people waiting outside in the shade of the awning.

Though the market is open six days a week, it really bustles on Saturdays, providing a stimulating tonic to the senses, whether your pleasure is poring over shelves of high-end chocolates, sampling vats of delicious olives, judging flats of plants, pricing cords of firewood, or just watching people go by.

And what makes the people watching so great is that, in a region dogged by division, here is a place where folks from the city, the suburbs and the farm all come together. The resulting contrasts play off each other. Here you’ll find out-of-towners and city dwellers mixing with innocent suburbanites down for their first visit and elderly former Detroiters reconnecting with the city. Young and old, haughty and humble, gourmand and granola all rub elbows in search of sustenance and satiety. It’s an inspiring reminder of what cities are supposed to be like.

Michael Jackman is the copy editor of Metro Times. E-mail mjackman@metrotimes.com.

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