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A walk through Reading Terminal Market brings the longing for Thanksgiving with family | Craig LaBan

Thanksgiving and Reading Terminal Market represent continuity and familiarity when nothing else is normal.

Craig LaBan's Thanskgiving turkey emerges from his smoker grill after roasting low and slow for five hours.
Craig LaBan's Thanskgiving turkey emerges from his smoker grill after roasting low and slow for five hours.Read moreCraig LaBan

I circled the aisles of the Reading Terminal Market a few days ago, just as I always do around this time of year. But something felt off.

I usually come weeks early to scout ingredients and game-plan the Thanksgiving feast — the biggest, most cherished meal we host each year now going on 18 seasons. I fire up a smoky grill for my turkey, and every inch of our little row home’s living room is maxed-out with a fully extended table (plus another table) ringed by relatives from across the country.

In preparation, I relish charting my course through the market from Godshall’s Poultry (preorder a fresh bird), to Iovine Bros. Produce (herbs by the fistful, veggies for stock, and fancy mushrooms for stuffing), Downtown Cheese (epic cheese boards to soothe the impatient horde), Kauffman’s (for the tiniest Brussels sprouts), the Head Nut (juniper berries for my brine), and the Pennsylvania General Store (dried sweet Cope’s Corn and Wilbur Buds).

By the time Wednesday morning on T-day eve rolls around, I’ve made so many shopping trips that I only have to pick up the bird, have our ritual lunch of Peking duck rolls and dumplings at the Sang Kee counter, and soak in the festive warmth of the market’s unique seasonal energy as families of cheerful shoppers from all corners of Philadelphia navigate the crowded aisles with bursting bags.

This year? The Reading Terminal was eerily, ominously calm. As a long-dedicated Terminal regular, I felt guilty for my absence as a shopper since April, and anxious swerving through its current modest crowds. The whole experience emphasized the unease I feel at the crisis we’re still in. Could the COVID-diminished state of our essential public market — normally a joyful touchstone of Philly food celebrated and shared by so many now hobbled by the pandemic — be a more apt metaphor for the holiday itself?

We crave them both because Thanksgiving and this market represent continuity when nothing is normal. They reaffirm our identities with favorite flavors while they nourish us, and also mark the passage of time: 127 years of Philadelphia Novembers for the Reading Terminal; nearly two decades since I took over the hosting duties from my mother in suburban Detroit.

Thanksgiving has always been one of the few times my extended family came together each year, with as many as 18 guests jetting into Center City from across the Midwest, and occasionally the West Coast, as well as a contingent from North Jersey and Wyncote, from where my brother Terry always arrives to my still-harried kitchen with the eager anticipation of a glass of good whiskey and an annual promise: Yes, one of those smoky drumsticks will be his.

None of them, sadly, are coming to our house this year, as we scale the grand meal down for just four, as my wife, Elizabeth, and two college-age kids, Alice and Arthur, opt for the safety of social distancing in the hopes that by next year, a vaccine will allow us all to reunite.

Sure, we’ll be Zooming with all the relatives that afternoon, but it won’t be the same. It’s always the spontaneous banter over passing the potato filling and corn bread-andouille stuffing when all the best bits land. And I’ll miss the giggles of our post-meal conversations, when the satisfaction of the completed feast settles in and several family members doze off in a tryptophan-induced nap.

I could feel that missing sense of community hovering in the void of open spaces and empty stalls at the Reading Terminal Market, too.

Its finances have taken a major hit due to a 50% reduction in traffic, causing the market to launch a recent crowdfunding campaign to help pay for capitol expenses while so many of its vendors suffer (especially the restaurants) without lunch crowds and tourists.

Barstool Sports founder (and YouTube pizza critic) Dave Portnoy, who with his company’s local investor Penn Gaming, stepped up to contribute $150,000 on top of the $206,000 raised by public donations. Local entrepreneur Jeff Bartos also committed his nonprofit Pennsylvania 30 Day Fund to match Penn National’s donations with $100,000 in vendor grants.

“It’s been a challenging time,” concedes the market’s new general manager, biggest issues are now long-term strategy rather than an immediate existential threat. “What is the future of the public market post-pandemic?"

Among the priorities is figuring out how to refine its delivery service through Mercato, which struggled mightily at the outset of the pandemic. I learned the hard way with a rough order early on. But Murphy says Mercato has since ironed out the snags, with an average of 140 deliveries a day now to a 10-mile radius, free for purchases during the holiday over $75 (with a promotional code). The market has also coordinated a new curbside pickup program for Thanksgiving that allows customers to order through Mercato or by calling merchants directly, which is my preference.

I hope people do continue supporting these invaluable independent merchants until the pandemic eases because, of course, the Reading Terminal is about so much more than just buying food. It is about the experience of being there, listening to the piano player near Center Court while you angle for a table, stand in line for grilled salmon with curry at the Little Thai Market, or sit at the counter for one of the world’s greatest pork sandwiches at Tommy DiNic’s. It’s about plugging into the pulse of a uniquely Philadelphia place that must be shared with a thousand strangers to be understood. And that can’t be replaced by an online order.

But the reality is our world this year has already been so thoroughly upended, that even normal rituals like Thanksgiving raise new questions. Should I buy my ingredients this year from the Lancaster farm that has sustained my family with a weekly CSA for the duration of this pandemic? What about eating our special meal together on a day other than Thanksgiving if it’s too tricky to get our daughter home from Michigan? (We seriously thought about that.) Why even bother cooking such an elaborate meal for four, let alone the multiday process of a turkey? I got pretty good during quarantine at cooking duck.

» READ MORE: Craig LaBan's Incredible Barbecued Bird

Whoa, whoa, whoa!!

I’ll eat a duck, quail, Cornish hen or chicken any other day. But I’ve spent too much time over the past 18 years perfecting my once-a-year grilled turkey, from the herbaceous brine and smoked paprika-herbes de Provence rub, to the slow kiss of cherry smoke, and the fat-basted heirloom carrots that snuggle alongside roasting garlic heads in the drippings pan below. I’m not ready to give it up just yet.

A smaller bird than usual, maybe. But there are leftovers to consider, from our overstuffed next-day sandwiches (the one time each year the panini press validates its existence in my cabinet) to a splendid pan of turkey paella, the pot pies, crêpes, and turkey rice soup. To me, that first bite of smoke-edged juicy bird is as much of a seasonal stamp of the world moving forward as the leaf piles on our street.

And I’m glad to know I’m not alone. Alice finally committed to returning home on time for the holiday partly because I promised the familiar feast. Arthur, who’s just finishing his first semester away from home, was also relieved that a recognizable Thanksgiving was still on: "It’s a lot of work for four people, but I really like that turkey. I think about it a lot.” (The nearest Chipotle at Penn State, his staple food source at college, apparently doesn’t serve it yet.)

Even my sister-in-law, Patty, confessed last weekend that my bird was the turkey that got her to eat turkey again, after several years of sticking to just the veggie sides. I promised to be on call for any recipe 911 as she undertakes her first Thanksgiving menu. But my brother Terry, I could see, was not happy.

“I’m really going to miss Thanksgiving this year,” he said quietly. “It just hit me. And it makes me really sad.”

I tried not to cry, as I imagined the blur of so many clinking whiskey glasses, waving turkey legs, and conversations that we’d all shared over the years of holidays by each others' sides. I know in my heart we’ll be gathering around the Thanksgiving table together again in the future, just as I know I’ll return to my old ways circling the aisles of the Reading Terminal in search of the tiniest Brussels sprouts. But this year? I’m going to cook my way through it all, so I don’t forget how, even if I’ve really been sad about it for weeks.