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No recipe necessary: How the tastes of Philadelphia Thanksgivings rely on memories of loved ones

“Her spirit is in my food. I cook until it tastes like her food,” Rasheedah Johns, 43, of Germantown said this week while shopping at Reading Terminal Market.

Produce shoppers at Iovine Brothers at the Reading Terminal Market look for the best green beans as they shop for what they need for their Thanksgiving dinner.
Produce shoppers at Iovine Brothers at the Reading Terminal Market look for the best green beans as they shop for what they need for their Thanksgiving dinner.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Judith Wells manned the shopping cart while her daughter flew around the aisles of Iovine Bros. Produce at the Reading Terminal Market to pick up what they need for Thanksgiving dinner.

“Brit, grab the vine-ripes. They’re better. The tomatoes, the vine-ripe tomatoes,” Wells, 48, told Brittney Campbell, 24, on Tuesday afternoon. “It brings out more flavor in the food.”

Their cart was full of ingredients that would eventually become dishes like oxtail, curry chicken, jerk chicken, rice and beans, turkey legs, cabbage, macaroni and cheese, stuffing, sweet potato pie, apple pie, strawberry lemonade pound cake.

They use ingredients like onions, sweet peppers, and scotch bonnet peppers, something Wells learned from her mother when growing up in Jamaica. Since she moved to Philadelphia about six years ago, she’s been coming to the Reading Terminal for the freshness she says the family can taste when she cooks traditional Jamaican recipes.

Reading Terminal Market, which is more than 125 years old, is one of the most popular public markets in the United States. It was packed Tuesday and Wednesday with families shopping together for traditional foods, people in search of ingredients to remind them of a dish a grandmother used to cook, tourists who stumbled upon the Thanksgiving rush and decided to take part, and others who hoped to make a market trip into a tradition.

Rasheedah Johns picked through the collard greens selection at Iovine Bros. and said that as she’s gotten older — she’s now 43 — she cares more about the freshness of the food she buys. She has been coming to the market for three years.

“Look how great these greens look, look how clean they are. That’s half the work,” she said, pointing to the selection in front of her. Every year, she thinks back to Thanksgiving as it was when her grandmother was alive.

“Her spirit is in my food. I cook until it tastes like her food,” said Johns, of Germantown. She knows when she gets a recipe right because “it tastes familiar. If you have been eating it all your life, you know what it is supposed to taste like.”

Becca Weekley, 26, of Birmingham, Ala., came to Philadelphia with her boyfriend for a Friendsgiving. Tuesday was her first time at the Reading Terminal. They’re in charge of pretty much everything except bread and dessert, so they started filling up their cart.

Weekley is especially looking forward to bringing the rutabaga and collard greens, which she learned how to cook from watching her mother. She will peel away the waxy coating of the rutabaga and cut it into half-inch cubes. Then, in a pan or a pot, she usually gets thick-cut bacon and renders off the fat. Then she will add the rutabaga and pour in stock. She will cover it and simmer it for a couple of hours until it is soft. If it is bitter, she adds sugar.

When preparing the food, she’ll be thinking of her grandmother, who is no longer alive, and her mother, who is spending Thanksgiving elsewhere this year.

“Even though they aren’t here with me,” Weekley said, “I kind of bring a piece of them to the table every time I cook it.”

The Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving are the busiest days of the year for Godshall’s Poultry. The stall opens at 8 a.m., and within 15 minutes, the counter has 50 to 75 people in line, said Dean Frankenfield, the co-owner.

While waiting for her turkey ham at Godshall’s, Theresa Miller, 61, of North Philadelphia, said her mother used to make the best sauce. It included brown sugar, a little mustard, a tablespoon or two of vinegar for a “thick gooey sauce.” She would put all over the ham or turkey ham.

Miller said she doesn’t really measure while re-creating it; she just knows when it’s right.

“It makes me think of her.… My children and husband, they love it,” Miller said. Her children know the recipe is passed down, she said. “That they’re even trying it and think of my mom [even though] they never met her, that’s wonderful.”

Mary Tracy took a slip Wednesday morning from Godshall’s and waited to be called to pick up her turkey, like she has done for the last 15 years whenever she’s in charge of Thanksgiving dinner. She ran into someone she knew, talked to other people about how they cook their turkeys, and laughed with strangers while the numbers ticked by on the screen.

Tracy, of Washington Square, declined to give her age other than to say she is “old enough to take the SEPTA bus for free.”

“Standing in line, people are so friendly.… They tell you a little bit of their Thanksgiving,” she said. “It seems like there’s so much divisiveness now in this country, but while you’re standing in line, in Philly, at Reading Terminal, at Godshall’s, waiting for your turkey, you know, we’re all brothers and sisters.”