"The Heart and Soul of Seattle" is Pike Place Market.
by PAUL GERALD
t's part community and part tourist attraction, but it's also all market. That's because the Pike Place Market is greater than the sum of its many parts. It's a world unto itself, what Seattle is all about, the hinge on the "Gateway to Alaska."
Whether you need some fresh organic arugula or Italian parsley, or you want to see the latest catch from the Great White North, or you just want to get lost among the artwork, spices, flowers, pets, and leather goods, you have to go to Pike Place Market.
The modern version of the market dates back to 1971, but its history stretches to 1907, when the city set it up to eliminate the middlemen between farmers and consumers. At one point in the 1930s there were more than 600 farmers selling here. But -- typical of modern American cities -- when everybody started moving to the suburbs the market went down with the rest of downtown.
It took a grass-roots movement to deny the usual corporate push to "tear that old building down." We can all be happy there's no parking lot or bank tower in its place. Instead, we have a Market Historical District with more than four dozen restaurants, cafes, and stalls selling $10 million worth of food every year. There are also 120 farm tables and 45 more places selling food products, from baked goods to candy to sausages to wine to crumpets. All told, the Market claims to sell $75 million worth of stuff to 9 million annual visitors.
But even with all this business, it still feels like a grass-roots place. There's a monthly paper and two Web sites (pikeplacemarket.org and seattlespublicmarket.com), where you can keep up with market news ("The Berries Are Back!") and find out what was picked fresh each day. On July 26th the fresh pickings included 12 kinds of lettuce, three kinds of onions, kale, bok choy, strawberries, raspberries, and four kinds of cherries. The Frugal Gourmet is known to shop here on a regular basis.
The Market is actually about four blocks long and two blocks wide, from the waterfront (lined with restaurants and ferries and tour boats and the Seattle Aquarium) to downtown. But the stretch of it that everybody knows is where Pike Place makes a bend and the famous "Public Market Center" with its clock looms over the street. Under that sign is the market's heart of hearts, where shoppers bounce off each other while weaving among the produce and gifts.
To walk through here on a sunny day, enjoying a gelato and lusting after Rainier cherries, or on a rainy day sipping a coffee, is to truly be in Seattle -- a city which, by the way, is more responsible than any other for our current coffee boom. Seattle is the great port of the Northwest. North of it are the forests and fisheries of British Columbia and Alaska. West of it -- and apparently nearby, to judge from the faces on the streets -- is Asia. South and east of it lies some of the most fertile farmland in the world (seven months of rain, five months of sun).
All of that, it seems, comes to Pike Place. And most of it seems to wind up right there under the sign and the clock, along the brick-lined walkway where businessmen grab crabcake lunches, tourists try to choose just the right picture of Mount Rainier, and moms with babies in strollers pick through the broccoli and asparagus.
And then there's the flying fish. There are several spots where you can get fresh fish, generally from Alaska. The specialty, of course, is salmon, but the variety is staggering. Ever seen a monkfish? It's the damnedest-looking critter you'll ever see, all mouth and no apparent flesh to eat, but there's always one on ice at Pike Place Fish. There's also trout and halibut and swordfish and tuna and prawns (several kinds) and crab legs and clams and mussels and oysters. One big sign even had a countdown: "Only 12 more days until the Copper River Kings are in! We'll deliver them fresh to your door!"
It goes on and on, and so does the show. The show is put on by the staff, who yell constantly and throw fish at each other occasionally. And remember that some of these fish, like the king salmon, regularly weigh as much as 25 or 30 pounds. You tell the rain-slickered huckster out front that you want one of those sockeyes, and he'll yell out, "One of these? Okay, one of these!" At that point the whole staff behind the counter yells out "One of these!" and the huckster will pick up this fish and whip it about 30 feet back to them. They package it up and throw it back, then they toss out a fresh one on the ice out front, and the huckster goes back to his act. The flash bulbs pop, the gelato is eaten, the coffee sipped, and the little world that is Pike Place Market goes on doing its thing.