I have a love for Cleveland’s West Side Market that is going on the better part of 40 years. I think many articles have been written praising the history of the market. I think a lot of these articles, and even books are amazing from a nostalgic perspective but they focus on the past. Yes, the market is a great place for cheap produce and affordable meat options. However the market is stuck in a time warp minus a couple new specialty shops and those who choose to sell organic produce, local produce, and farm raised meats. The problem is the later are few and far between with many vendors selling absolute garbage that might have fallen off the truck. I say it is time the market cleans up before it goes the way of the dinosaur.
I get the reason the market is there. I understand the prices are great but the world is getting away from factory farmed meats and from chemically altered fruits and vegetables. For those who don’t care, which I agree are many, the market continues to be a place of a weekly pilgrimage. However for those who do there is pretty much one or two produce stands to hit up and a handful of meat purveyors. The chats of “Hey lady! Hey lady! You try!” from the produce stands as a 5 foot long stick with a pineapple poke out at the unsuspecting. The three days overripe fruit tastes sickly sweet and has a shelf life of about 3 hours after you get it home. That is unless of course you get a switcheroo and come home with a half rotten bag of goods. It has happened to me, and I am sure it has happened to many of you.
Some vendors will buy one beautiful box of produce that is used as a display and then buy a bunch of junk boxes that are kept out of sight and those are the ones that go into your brown bag. If you ask to have the produce from the display you will undoubtedly get rejected 80% of the item from the more crafty vendors. While this wasn’t the norm back in the day or even just a few years back it is turning into the norm today. For the unsuspecting a first trip to the market these days could turn into a last trip. It takes some time to cultivate a relationship with many of the vendors. Myself? I am relatively safe just for the simple fact I have been going to the same stands since I was 12. However that doesn’t make me immune from getting some crap from time to time.
Inside the market is absolutely overwhelming. Beef, poultry, seafood, pork, and some specialty products like lamb, or bison beckon you with bright neon lights and sterile white coolers. There are a couple of cheese stands that sell pretty boring cheeses and one standout out of them is Mediterranean Imported Foods tucked away in the Northwest corner of the building. Awesome cheese selection and a very knowledgeable staff. While I still grab a cottage cheese from one of the other vendors I know it’s not organic, I know it’s loaded with chemicals and antibiotics, but the stuff is like crack. So I give in every so often. But back to the meat. Who do you go to? What stand sells Ohio raised, humanely slaughtered and grass fed? Good luck finding them because your choices are very limited. The Ohio raised should be relatively simple, but it is not. The majority of the stands sell the same product you would find in any grocery chain. It might be a couple days fresher I guess, but it truly is no better than what you can get at Giant Eagle.
The way of society is moving the path of eating a more local and healthy diet. It is doing away with the hormones, antibiotics and pesticides but just like Cleveland itself many things remain the same in this time warp. The slow growth of the market and the lack of change to keep up with food trends is making what once was great somewhat lackluster. I think there are some locals who do it right. I love Ohio City Pasta, I love that Chef Sawyer has his stand, I love Basketeria and I love that I can get Ohio beef at Foster’s. There are many I truly love but with poor hours of operation the West Side Market makes it very hard to love them as a whole. Finding the good stuff is like finding a needle in a haystack at the market. The stamp “Ohio” doesn’t mean it is necessarily what I am looking for either. I am just glad I know where to go when I make a trip.
Overall the market serves the community. However as a landmark it is from a nostalgic perspective only. Large markets in other cities are overshadowing our diamond in the rough because we refuse to keep up with the times. If you want cheap, yeah they have it. If you want quality they have to an extent, but nowhere near where it could be. Local farm markets are the way to go if you want the best of the best. If you can afford it joining a local CSA is an even better way to go. I just wish the market would expand itself to be something truly special. I want something like the West Side Market, the local farm markets and the Columbus North Market merged together like some sort of foodie paradise. Rather than going that route the Market seems to keep getting more trash behind the vendor stands. There is a demand for what I am looking for. I know I am not crazy. So why is our market stuck in 1987?