A Taste of the Season

Vendors at Cleveland’s beloved West Side Market fulfill special requests for holiday foods and ingredients.

Step inside Cleveland’s century-old West Side Market and there’s an instant sense of history about this busy place. It comes through in the majestic building that feels and functions like an old-world marketplace and in the people who represent the ethnic diversity that is Cleveland’s brand. More than 100 vendors, some long-standing family businesses, still demonstrate skills like butchering, filleting whole fresh fish and cutting cheese to order from giant wheels. At every turn, there are abundant displays of fruits and vegetables, aromas of smoked sausage and freshly baked breads, and the promise of a taste of an olive or pickle offered on the end of a toothpick. 

What may not be obvious is that traditions shape the way many shop the West Side Market. Some follow the same routines, seek out the same vendors and leave with the same foods their parents or grandparents did generations before. Others come for foods that define their culture and ethnicity or ingredients for recipes handed down in families.

When it comes to the holidays, tradition plays an even bigger role here. Some shoppers arrive, browse the stands and immerse themselves in the hustle and bustle of the season, while others purposefully gather the foods expected during the holidays. Regular shoppers bring their out-of-town visitors and show off “their” market.

Vendors are experts in the products they sell, but they are also masters at helping customers keep their food and family traditions alive. Here, enjoy a guided walk through the market — it’s a delicious way to get in the spirit of the season or begin a tradition of your own.

Kate’s Fish
Stand F-12 & 13 | 440/221-2816

When Kate McIntyre bought her fish stand at the market in 2000, barrels of wriggling eels were delivered around Christmastime as they had been since the market opened in 1912.

“Today, eels come in frozen,” says the fishmonger, “but we sell a helluva lotta fresh fish during holidays.”

Kate and her business partner and son, Tom, know their Italian customers are looking for fish and seafood for their multi-course Feast of the Seven Fishes celebration — baccala (salted cod), mussels, whitefish, squid and more. Another holiday customer phones in her order at Thanksgiving to make sure that the snapper, halibut and crab legs that fit her family’s Spanish Christmas tradition will be there.

Kate finds that seafood purchases like king crab legs and lobster tails are part of many holiday traditions, regardless of ethnicity.

“People go the extra dollar at the holidays for something special,” she says.

Meister Foods
Stand C4-5 | 216/566-7347
For 35 years, Ed Meister has stocked ingredients at his dairy and cheese stand that are key to his customers’ baking traditions — items such as dry curd cottage cheese and creamy ricotta used for strudel, pastry and pierogi fillings and butter cut from 50-pound slabs. One of his regular holiday customers is a German woman who travels from Indianapolis to buy 25 pounds of the sweet butter for her old world recipes: lebkuchen, stollen and spritz.

What makes it worth a trip across the state line? “It has a high butterfat content, less water and that makes for flaky baked goods,” says Meister.

He and his customer will converse in German, a language Meister speaks fluently, and then he’ll hand over her order, broken down into quarter-pound measures, each individually wrapped. It’s a transaction that for both of them is as much a tradition as it is a purchase.

Mediterranean Imported Foods

Northwest corner | 216/771-4479

The little grocery store within the market is always busy, but the holidays bring in those searching for specific ingredients that fit their ethnic baking traditions. Germans come for their marzipan pigs and Czechs want delicate torte wafers. Others look for fresh phyllo sheets, ground hazelnuts and baking chocolate, but customers looking for freshly ground poppy seed for holiday rolls pack the store.

“Some call in orders for shipping and others make the trip from outside Ohio,” says shopkeeper Gus Mougainis. Not just any poppy seed, but blue poppy seed from Holland. “Sweet, not bitter like black poppy seed,” he says. The specially designed grinder in the back room works overtime during the holidays to please fastidious Hungarian and Romanian bakers who have traditions to uphold. 

P-Nut Gallery
Stand A-3 | 216/299-5817

or 17 years, Regina Traynor has had a corner on nuts in the market. Her stand is in the southeast nook of the market house, a stand a fraction of the size of those around her, but where the aroma of warm roasted cashews, peanuts, pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts and more commands big attention.

“People come to the market during the holidays when they visit with family,” she says, “some from as far as California, and [they] take back nuts, even California almonds.”

Traynor has one customer who visits from Florida every year and leaves with five pounds of pistachios.

“I don’t know her name but I know to expect her,” she says. Another Russian lady comes for Brazil nuts for her Russian tea cakes. Others start lining up in November for chocolate-drenched peanuts and raisins and butter toffee that traditionally disappear when spring arrives.

Vistein Meats
Stand D-10 | 216/861 1518

Larry Vistein recalls Christmas Eve 2003 when a heavy snowfall shut down all roads to the market. His case was stuffed with pricey orders of prime rib, crown roasts and tenderloins. By the end of the day, every order was claimed. Vistein says that’s a testimony to how generations of shoppers regard the importance of celebratory foods and a trip to the market during the holidays.

“There are families I might see once a year,” says Vistein, “and it’s always during their holidays.” Vistein will sell about 1,000 pounds of prime rib and 200 of tenderloin during the holidays, but one family, customers for more than 50 years, buys a simple pot roast. 

“It’s what their family put on the holiday table,” he says, “and they carry on that tradition.”

Old Country Sausage
Stand G-8 | 216/579-0233

Over time, some European holiday foods take on an American style, like the mettwurst Mark Neiden makes for his family’s German sausage stand.
“In my grandparents’ day, fresh mettwurst, a seasoned pork sausage, was soaked in rum, smoked and then hung as decoration on the tree,” says Neiden. “They didn’t need refrigeration and guests would pluck them from the tree and snack on them throughout the season.”

Today, shoppers can still find the chubby smoked sausages (rumless and not intended for festooning), at his stand, along with more than a dozen German-style sausages and an award-winning leberwurst.

“It’s traditional at most German holiday tables,” says Neiden, “and just as important as chocolate.”

Urban Herbs
Stand E-2 | 216/661 3270

Smells and aromas can trigger holiday memories — a favorite cookie or the Christmas feast finishing in the oven, for example. That’s where Mary Pell, proprietor of Urban Herbs, puts her culinary knowledge to use. She helps customers identify the spices and seasonings they recall in their mother’s or grandmother’s holiday baking, recipes committed to memory but never to paper.

“If they can describe the taste and what it looked like, we can figure it out,” says Pell. She puts her 30 years of experience at the market and familiarity with various ethnic cuisines to work helping customers recreate tastes of the season.

“It’s the time of year for warm spices like cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg,” she observes. “If nothing else, people always buy fresh cloves for their Christmas ham.”

Calabrese Produce
Produce arcade 47, 49 & 51 | 216/241-0891

Ricky Calabrese, a third-generation produce vendor, says that his regular customers think big during the holidays.

“They want big fruits — apples, oranges and seedless green grapes,  super sweet and the size of ping-pong balls and only available during the holidays,” he says. “Bigger is better for their holiday tables.”

His Italian customers want finocchio — fresh fennel to soothe the stomach between rich courses. Specialty fruits such as subtly sweet Fuyu persimmons and softball-sized pomegranates, full of prized tart seeds, are holiday favorites.

“We have to educate the customer on how to seed a pomegranate,” says Calabrese, “and we’ve been doing it for years.”

To read more about the West Side Market, look for
Cleveland’s West Side Market: 100 Years and Still Cooking, by Laura Taxel and Marilou Suszko, at your local library or bookstore.

West Side Market
1979 W. 25th St., Cleveland 44113
216/664-3387, westsidemarket.org
Hours: Mon. & Wed. 7 a.m.–4 p.m.
Fri. & Sat. 7 a.m.–6 p.m.

Explore the Ohio City neighborhood surrounding the market during your visit. The area is a burgeoning enclave of food stores and restaurants. ohiocity.org

Russian Tea Cakes
Makes 4 dozen

8 ounces butter (2 sticks)
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar, plus extra
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup Brazil nuts, finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cream together the butter, sugar and vanilla until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the flour, salt and chopped nuts and mix until combined. Roll the dough into compact 1-inch balls and arrange on a parchment-lined baking sheet.

Bake for 15 to 18 minutes. While warm, roll each ball in powdered sugar. Let cool completely and then roll in the sugar again. Store in an airtight container.