Findlay Market. It's a refuge in the cold winter months when growing things seem far away and you want to hunker down with all the makings of an endless vat of soup. It's one of the most vibrant points in Cincinnati during the summer, when it practically glows with life on weekends, full of farmers with gnarly peaches and flowing honey and tiny kids running around with sweets dripping from their chins. A romantic market of fishmongers and butchers and beer gardens and fresh bread. Yes, it's a market that inspires poetry.
Okay, maybe not poetry. But when I first discovered Findlay years ago (I believe a friend took me to Ms. Helen's for a maple croissant egg sandwich—heaven!) Cincinnati moved up about a billion notches in my book.
The market opened way back in 1855, about 70 years after Cincinnati's establishment, when the city hosted a growing population of about 140,000 (then one of the ten largest cities in the country), on land donated by the estate of General James Findlay. Findlay was one of Cincy's first 1,000 inhabitants, and as both a merchant and mayor he contributed much to Cincinnati's growth, including establishing the (still awesome) public library system and purchasing and defining the area just north of the city—then called The Northern Liberties—which included Findlay, Race, Elm, and Green streets, still named as such today. Findlay had mapped off a region of his land for an open market, farmer's market, and general store; after his death in 1835 his estate donated the land to the city to be used in exactly those capacities.
For the first half of the 19th century, the Northern Liberties were not a municipality of Cincinnati, and therefore weren't subject to her laws. This drew a good deal of the immigrant population into the area and neighboring Over-the-Rhine district, where German immigration was heavily increasing in the 1830 and 40s. By 1860, the combined area boasted 36 independent breweries, and from when the market opened in 1855 to when it was redesigned to include refrigeration in 1902, many merchants kept their more perishable items cool in the brewery caves nearby.
Cincinnati's downtown population grew wildly during this time, and most of the area's primarily Italianate architecture was erected before the turn of the century (and is a stunning, concentrated example of urban development). Findlay Market was definitely not the first such market in the downtown area, and others flourished as well. Ultimately, streetcar lines helped a portion of the population escape to develop suburban areas and then, much later, supermarkets became the norm.
Though the market is in what some now consider the drab and turmoiled region of the redeveloping OTR, it has seen a good deal of revitalization in the past decade, with $18 million dollars spent in a 9-year period. The market was expanded from the original iron-framed structure to include the surrounding areas, with additional specialty vendors and cafés, parking lots, and an extended space for an outdoor farmer's market.
No matter which side you enter from, a dramatic environment awaits. The market itself is vivid with reds, greens, and yellows, extending into the brightly painted walls of any exterior surface not in use. Inside, iron beams cross the sweeping ceiling, giving a bit of air to the relatively narrow central corridor. Seating is minimal during peak weekend hours, but there enough chairs and tables in supply to slip in for a quick weekday lunch: With Mama Lo Hizo slinging tacos, Areti wrapping gyros, Pho Lang Thang serving up bowls of steaming pho and plates of banh mi, and the wafting scent of Taste of Belgium's sweet waffles, there are plenty of options on hand.
Meat dominates the counter space, and five butchers—Bender, Bucsh's, Charles Bare, Eckerlin, and Mackie—offer up some admirable cuts, as well as parts more desirable for making stock or experimenting with homemade head cheese. I haven't explored each butcher enough to know which offer the best cuts or price for specific items (if you have, please drop notes below), but I can say I've never needed something specific—whether it be tongue or a particular cure of bacon or a simple Amish chicken—that I couldn't find at a reasonable price.
Meat gets an a-list treatment at Kroeger and Sons Meats, who floored me when I first found them. Their sausage offerings use primarily top-quality pork that's 83-87% lean, but their chicken, lamb, duck and beef combos are stellar as well. Gramma Debbie's Kitchen sells ready-to-grill seasoned burgers, as well as prepared classics.
Tea, spices, gelato, bread, coffee, waffles, smoothies, tacos, Vietnamese, sushi, barbecue, prepared salads...they're all inside. And the vendors are really friendly. I went several times over my most recent trip back to Cincy, and (as a somewhat exhausted New Yorker) couldn't believe that everyone was as patient and amicable during packed Saturday hours as the were at noon on a Wednesday. Most often, the vendors want to press just how fresh their food is, and what excites them about it.
In the bountiful days of summer, vendors in and out are flooded with a mixed crowd—locals who know where to get the best deals, affluent families loading up on specialty products, young "foodies" looking for niche items and snapping their cameras away, and visiting relatives who have never seen anything quite like it. Outside, street musicians rotate on the more trafficked avenue, and a biergarten serving local brews (Christian Moerlein, Hudepohl Amber Lager, Hudy Delight etc.) dominates the Elm Street entrance.
Year round, the market has some stellar offerings, and the 30+ vendors that keep Findlay at full capacity, even in the dead of winter, are worth the trip over. And while many vendors outdoors stay open on weekends until the December weather shuts them out, we're focusing on the year-round vendors indoors to highlight some fun finds.
About the author: Jacqueline Raposo is a seasoned New Yorker with a soft spot for Cincinnati. She writes about people who make food and cooks a lot of stuff. Read more at www.WordsFoodArt.com or tweet her out at @WordsFoodArt.