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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Side Dish: 100 Years of West Side Market History

Posted By on Thu, Oct 11, 2012 at 1:10 PM


Cleveland food writers Marilou Suszko and Laura Taxel spent the past four years documenting the 100-year history of the West Side Market. Their 250-page book — Cleveland’s West Side Market: 100 Years and Still Cooking — came out this week, and tells the market’s myriad stories through well-researched text, historic and contemporary photos, and hundreds of memories culled from shoppers and vendors. We recently sat down with the authors at the West Side Market Café for a chat.

One-hundred years of market operations must be hard to capture, even in 250 pages. How did you organize the story?

LT: The more time we spent in the market, the more we came to realized that there were, like, three pillars we had to build the story on. One was the place, one was the people, and one was the product. So that became the framework for how we thought about the multiple stories we wanted to tell. Then we added a chapter about the shopping experience, and a chapter we called ‘memorable moments’ that covers everything from the festivities of opening day to the politicians who have walked around here shaking hands.
MS: And within that framework, each chapter focuses on history, on nostalgia, and the personal history of the people. You’ve got a little bit of all that inside each one of the five chapters.

What inspired you to tackle this project?
MS: I was reading the paper about four years ago and there was a story about the market celebrating its centennial. That’s where it started. I thought to myself, ‘Boy, is anybody writing a book about this?’ Then I called Laura and asked her (about collaborating).
LT: I thought it over very intensely — for maybe 30 seconds — and then I said yes!
MS: We spent the next year writing the proposal and finding a publisher. Then we spend the next three years on the research, the writing, the photo collecting, the editing: everything you’re looking at reflected in the book.

What type of research did you do?
LT: It was unbelievable. Once we knew the key dates, I sat at the microfilm for weeks and weeks and weeks going through newspapers. We fell upon a wonderful collection of xeroxed articles that started in the 1800s; it’s in the Michael Schwartz Library at CSU. It turned out to be a goldmine and was a great place to start. Then there were days spent at the Western Reserve Historical Society. I also went through the City Council archives and the morgue for the old Cleveland Press…
MS: We wore more white gloves than we ever had in our lives!
LT: …the Public Administration Library…Believe me, there is no stone unturned. But what makes me feel really proud is the way we were able to bring all that information together. Much of it has been out there in bits and pieces. But never before has it been brought together in one place, and checked and rechecked for accuracy.
MS: And the book really is an oral history. There were at least 300 interviews, either by phone, online, or face-to-face. We were privileged to have access to a lot of info that I don’t think the vendors had ever been asked about before. And it is all important to the market’s history.

The book’s foreword is by (Cleveland celebrity chef) Michael Symon. What did you feel he could bring to the discussion?
LT: Well clearly self-evident, we hoped his notoriety and his fan base would lead people to take a look at the book. But it was also that, like the market, he’s an iconic Clevelander. And I knew, since we were friends, that he was a big supporter of the market. So I asked him if he would like to be part of this and, generous guy that he is, he instantly said yes. And what he wrote was really genuine and really from the heart.

If you could have added one more chapter to the book, what would it be?
MS (to LT): Is there anything we didn’t cover? I guess there is always going to be another chapter. There is never ‘the end.’ As the market continues to exist and evolve, there will always be another story. Already, there’s a new story: President Obama was just here. And we think he is the only president in office to ever set foot in the market. There are always more stories and more memories. Memories are being created here every single day.

How has writing this book changed your appreciation of the market? How is shopping here different for you now?
MS: We’re market family now. We really know almost everybody here and have made a lot of friends. We keep in touch with each other.
LT: It’s an honor.
MS: It is very much an honor.
LT: It means we weren’t just intellectual outsiders dropping in to do a book. We made ourselves a part of the ebb and flow of the market and I think we earned some respect for the way we reached out and the questions that we asked. Seriously, now when I shop I feel like I am doing business with friends.
MS: It’s all about the people. It’s important to us that the vendors like the book. They are the history of the market.
LT: Without the vendors, this place would just be a museum. It’s the vendors who bring the market to life.

Any favorite places or features within the market that make your heart beat faster?
MS: I think my favorite view of the market is from the balcony. You can see it all: the people shopping, the vendors inside the stands, cutting their meat, weighing and measuring things. All the activities of the market can be seen from that balcony. It’s the perfect place to observe what the market is all about.

Are there any favorite items you just can’t leave the market without?
MS: Have you tried the stuffed chicken wings at Kim Se?
LT: Or the pad Thai?
MS: They’re delicious! And I always have a little cup of buttermilk (from Irene Dever) before I leave here. It’s the best bargain — it’s only 35 cents — and it’s cold as can be, with salt and pepper on it, and it’s delicious. It’s an old-time market tradition to get that little cup of buttermilk.
LT: Old Country Sausage gets in something from Germany called gelbwurst. I lived in Germany for years, and this is a classic cold cut that I love. So whenever he has it, I get two pounds: One for me, which I devour, by myself, within 24 hours, and one for my neighbor Kurt Zoss, the Swiss baker, who loves it just as much as I do.
MS: The other thing that I indulge in is a coconut bar from Vera’s: It’s this white cake with chocolate frosting and coconut all over it. Not many other places seem to have it.
LT: No, they don’t. It’s so Cleveland.

Authors Marilou Suszko (left) and Laura Taxel
  • Authors Marilou Suszko (left) and Laura Taxel

Suszko and Taxel will be making the rounds in coming weeks promoting the $39.95 book. Upcoming events include:
October 18 at Mac’s Backs Books on Coventry in Cleveland Heights
October 21 at Nighttown in Cleveland Heights
November 11 at the Fabulous Food Show at the I-X Center
November 28 at Laurel Run Cooking School in Vermilion
December 6 at the Happy Dog in the Gordon Square District

Learn more about the book and related events here.
For Market hours and a list of vendors, go here. —- Elaine T. Cicora

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