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Eastern Market: Still Feeding Washington, DC

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First established by Thomas Jefferson in 1805, Eastern Market has been a food shopping destination for generations of Washingtonians. In 1873, it was relocated to its present spot on 7th Street, SE, and housed in a building designed for it by Adolf Cluss. After the main part of the building caught on fire in 2007, it looked like the city’s oldest public market might have seen the last of its days, but the structure was rebuilt and the area sprung back to life two years later, more active and vibrant than ever.

When I studied in Washington, DC more than 15 years ago, this was a great spot to go check out some of the street vendors, roam around the eclectic flea market across the street, and dine on a bargain breakfast of cheesy eggs and coffee (perfect for that graduate school budget). The neighborhood was what you might call a bit dicey even then, with the urban renewal wave having yet to arrive in this part of town. It was funky, cool, relaxed and a bit undiscovered, just the way we liked it.

My first trip back there since I was a student living in the city was a completely different experience. The updated market building and local investment in the neighborhood has made this a hopping spot to be at on a weekend. From the Metro station exit all the way to the market, families and couples, tourists and natives alike, were out at the cafés and eateries that have sprung up along the streets nearby to host shoppers and browsers.

The outdoor crafts vendors sell handmade jewelry, artistic pieces, clothing, and an assortment of other creations. Perky sunflowers with their welcoming yellow petals and chocolate brown centers seemed to be the flower of choice for the day’s market-goer, as I saw several bouquets of them cradled in people’s arms.

Luscious, ripe berries beckoned to the shopper to buy them to make something sweet at home. Golden ears of corn and verdant zucchini from local farms were piled high on the tables, just waiting to be put on the grill for a lazy evening meal.

Inside the market building itself the food choices were no less enticing. There were pale yellow blocks of handmade butter placed next to a bowl of fresh mozzarella from Bowers Fancy Dairy Products along with a dazzling array of other cheeses, some made by local farmers, like the ones from the Cherry Glen Goats Cheese Company in Maryland. I also found out that the patés in their display case are made by a chef from one of the nearby French restaurants.

Calomiris Fruits & Vegetables had fresh and dried fruits, vegetables, nuts, and an array of edibles that would be great accompaniments to those cheeses and patés. Or some items from Capitol Hill Produce might be another option.

If you take a look between the vegetable stand and the wide array of cuts of poultry from Capitol Hill Poultry, you will see boxes of different types of Kimchi as well as to-go containers of Bi Bim Bap, something that would not have been for sale there during my previous visits.

This is an interesting example of how the neighborhood’s tastes have expanded to embrace some of the newer cultures that have made their home in this area.

The market also has other meat stalls, a deli counter, and a fishmonger. You can stuff your shopping cart full of different shapes and sizes of pastas at Eastern Market Grocery and find the sauces to go with each.

Have you always wanted to try eel or blowfish? You can find both for sale at Southern Maryland Seafood. Thinking of making some sausage to go with that pasta dish? Pick up some ground pork as well as the casings themselves from Union Meat Company. They even sell the other parts of the pig, too, in case you have a hankering for chitlins or trotters.

Once you’ve made your grocery selections, don’t forget to pick up a sweet treat for yourself at Fine Sweet Shop, where they have a beautiful display of cakes and cupcakes, as well as breads and bagels for sale. Or if you just want to take a seat and grab a quick bite before heading home with your wares, get on line at Market Lunch for their famous pancakes (if you arrive early enough) or a plate of their crabcakes or shrimp.

Remember to try their homemade, fresh coleslaw. Everything is prepared in-house, I was told, even down to their soft, pillowy rolls. If you get a glass of their sweet iced tea, don’t forget that they like it really sweet down here, but it really is the perfect cool brew with which to wash down your lunch on a steamy hot summer’s day after shopping in the market.

I left Eastern Market with a full belly and slightly envious of Washingtonians, especially those who are residents of Capitol Hill, that they have access to such a wonderful culinary resource. Far from the quiet, slightly run-down, and sparsely populated venue of my memories from visiting there, I found a dynamic and thriving community, full of artisans, farmers, long-time merchants, and regular people dedicated to continuing a long tradition of having a working food market in the heart of the city.

Eastern Market is located at 7th and C Streets, SE; the closest stop on the Metro is Eastern Market. It is open Tuesdays through Sundays.

The Experimental Gourmand is the story of a blogger, food writer, and experimental home cook. She enjoys exploring the local food event scene and finding fresh ingredients with which to make great meals at her farmers markets.

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