"I've seen this place change a lot over the years," said a spry 52 year-old shopper who's been coming to the Essex Street Market since he was carried in his mother's arms. "But I still come back all the time. And don't you worry," he said to baking mastermind and cookbook author Dorie Greenspan, whose Beurre & Sel stall is the market's newest addition. "I'll try you soon enough!"
We don't doubt he will, because the Essex Street Market is just that kind of place, where the Lower East Side of past and present come together seamlessly. Dating back to the 1940s, when Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia established the space as a goverment-owned grasroots market, it has seen the neighborhood transform from a Jewish and Latin American immigrant hotbed into something totally other.
The market is currently home to a mix of ethnic groceries, fish and meat shops—both budget-minded and farmstead—bread and cheese purveyors, and all manner of specialty vendors selling everything from coffee to hip tacos to some especially meaty smoked sardines. You'll pass precarious towers of Anson Mills grains across the narrow aisle from 79-cent pomegranates, and when you need a break, you can always tuck into a grilled cheese from Saxelby, one of the city's best places to buy cheese.
"This really does have everything you could ask for in one market," Dorie tells us. "I love it because it has all these things you'd have to hunt down elsewhere," like the peeled chestnuts hanging on the same wall as the tortillas. "It reminds me of the covered markets you see all over Paris. The vendors really care about what they're selling, and they just know it."
As the market's newest member, Dorie has approached it with the fervor of the converted, and is already on a full smiles and hugs relationship with several of the vendors. She took us on a three hour tour last week to meet some of the 20-odd vendors who make up the space, while taking detours for some of her favorite bites. Once you're shopping in the market, it's easy to lose track of time—it's like a serious eater's Disney World—and it was only once we left at sundown that Robyn and I realized how long we'd spent there.
There's more to these vendors than just good food. Whether new additions or decades-old institutions, they all have a story to tell, and despite the usual complications that arise from sharing a cramped space with fellow entrepreneurs, they've formed a tight community with each other. Rona Economoum, the owner of the Boubouki stall, chases after her neighbor vendor's child as she runs down the hall. "They were my first customers here when I started, and now they have their own stall." Sarah Maine of Saxelby Cheese delivers a grilled cheese sandwich to another stall come lunchtime. And Ira, the fishmonger-in-chief at Rainbo, whose father sold fish to Dorie's in-laws decades ago, tells us that his favorite part of the market these days is "my new girlfriend, of course."
That community mobilized into action when Sandy hit and left the market dark for a week. The Essex Street vendors, who rent stalls from the New York Economic Development Corporation at below-market rates, have all been hit hard by the loss of sales to their already razor-thin margins. While Heritage Meats' stock started to rot in their on-site fridges, they offered their commercial space in Brooklyn to other vendors in need, free of charge. So the Saxelby refrigerated cheese truck picked up their cheese and Roni Sue's chocolate, and drove it all across the bridge to Brooklyn for safe keeping.
It's the kind of food lovers coming together story we love, but the sad truth is that the market's vendors are far from out of the weeds. "I'll have to work seven days a week until the summertime to make up for the lost business," says Economoum, whose tiny Greek stall also doubles as her kitchen. Other vendors with insurance are discovering the hard way how little, if any relief is coming their way.
The good news is that the vendors are now bouncing back and filling out their inventories, and the smiles on their faces don't betray the economic hardships they're facing. The market is once again bustling as customers do their pre-Thanksgiving shopping—which, if you're looking to lend a helping hand, is as good a way to do so as any.
As you walk through the market, past the nationally-renowned cheese, the fish stand that's been there for 38 years, the grocery with dried fish as an impulse buy item, and the only-in-New-York craziness that is Shopsin's, you wonder: how the hell does all of this coexist in one place?
Well, how is a bigger question, but it's plain to see that the market strikes a careful balance: it's a landmark of the best cultural traditions of the Lower East Side, but it's not afraid to charge forward into new territory—New York's culinary and cultural spirit at its best.
"This really is a very special place," Dorie tell us. "There's nothing else quite like it." It's not hard to see why.
The market is open Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Note: The Economic Development Corporation tells us that the city might sell the current market space to developers. If so, the city council and Manhattan community board have approved guidelines allowing the market to be relocated to a nearby location on the southeast corner of Delancey and Essex Streets.