Feeding on Tradition: Thanksgiving Eve at the Reading Terminal Market

story by Michael Holahan | illustration by Andy Hood

As a shopkeeper in the Reading Terminal Market, any busy day is a good day. But after 25 years at the Pennsylvania General Store, my favorite is the day before Thanksgiving. The energy inside this more-than-a-century-old public market is unlike any other time of year. Thanksgiving is about bringing together the people we love, to share a meal and to give thanks; as a merchant, it’s a privilege to be even a small part of this occasion.

That Wednesday morning, customers wait outside for the Market to open, making shopping strategies while sipping coffee provided by Market management. While it’s a busy day for us at the General Store, there’s a lot more pressure on the big three: the butcher, baker and greengrocer. Inside the market, the greengrocers hurriedly stack towering mounds of collard greens, the butchers ice down freshly-killed turkeys and the Pennsylvania Dutch bakers try to find room to display all their pies.

At 8 a.m., the doors open and the frenzy begins. Couples split up to conquer the shopping list with a promised rendezvous for blueberry pancakes or croissants. The line at Termini’s Bakery slows to a crawl, and good-natured patrons start folding bakery boxes to help speed the process. Customers move like hordes of locusts through the produce as workers hustle to restock and replenish the ravaged displays. The ticket machine at Godshall’s Poultry completes the first circuit of 001 to 100 and back again.

In the midst of this harried buying and selling, there is a sense of collegiality. Customers share and debate cooking tips and shopping secrets. And despite the pressure to finish helping one customer to get to those waiting, merchants make time to quickly trade family news with customers. Today is part business and part family reunion.

At Godshall’s, there’s a pause to advise a nervous, first-time Thanksgiving hostess on cooking the perfect turkey. “Cook it at 350 degrees, 14 to 15 minutes a pound,” explains the butcher. “If it’s stuffed, you want an internal temperature of 165 degrees. You’ll want to use a meat thermometer. You can buy one down the aisle at the kitchen store. You’re welcome. Good luck— calling number 88.” The next day, if all goes according to plan, a beaming young woman will take a bow for serving a Thanksgiving masterpiece, and a lifelong customer will be born. It’s in these moments that the keys to the Reading Terminal Market’s longevity can be found. This exchange of money for merchandise is more than a business transaction—there’s something more personal happening.

Many of today’s customers first discovered the Market as children brought here by parents or grandparents. They learned to endure the search for the freshest meat or ripest tomatoes in exchange for the promise of Bassetts Ice Cream. On Thanksgiving, they return, forgoing the big box supermarkets for a place where food is not so much a commodity, but someone’s life work. This is reflected in the stand names: Guinta’s Meats, Beiler’s Bakery, Bassetts Ice Cream. These names weren’t picked because their owners lacked originality, but rather as a sign of the shopkeepers’ pride in the foods they grow, raise, prepare and sell.

For many Philadelphians, the trip to Reading Terminal has become an essential part of the Thanksgiving holiday—a reminder that preparing and sharing food with loved ones is a sacred experience. Hopefully this year will initiate a few young family members into that tradition—one that’s existed since the Market opened in 1893 and, if they’re lucky, includes a dish of Bassetts ice cream.  

Michael Holahan founded the Pennsylvania General Store with his wife Julie Holahan in 1987. The store sells locally made foods and crafts. Visit them at the Reading Terminal Market or online at pageneralstore.com