A choice market
Rydell slips in the back door at Narberth’s American Family Market,
picking up his New York strips fresh off the butcher block where Paul
Bovo was trimming them moments before.
No fuss, no muss. On the other side of the deli case,
the customers don’t even spot kiln, tucked under his ball cap, swathed
Eagles-green jacket — one of the guys, an ordinary Joe, a regular.
So we chew the fat for a while Paul, his brother
Angelo, Bobby (who lives in Penn Valley) and me — wandering off
somehow onto Bobby’s singing gigs in Australia and the triumph of a
found there called “clams Kilpatrick.”
The back workshop-salon is one of American Family’s secret weapons, the
butcher block playing the role of cracker barrel. There
are others: On a given day, a box
of warm, home-baked cinnamon buns might show up. Or veteran employee
Joe Kelly will be running a batch of thick-sliced fried eggplant, so
lush and redolent with Italian seasoning you end up eating it in the
aisle. Or Paul will share his mother’s recipe for oil-and-red-vinegar
Thirty-six years now, the American Family (A.F., to the locals)
has been holding down its spot at the epicenter of
Narberth borough, a rare bird on the Main Line, a species vanishing
from the landscape — the small-time, independent, family-run
are plenty of other places to buy groceries within a couple of minutes’
You’ve got your chains — Acme, Super Fresh, Food Fare. You’ve got
your “convenience” stores. You’ve got cheaper; you’ve got fancier: I
seven brands of smoked salmon at the Fresh Fields in nearby Wynnewood
day, not to mention the organic Arauco olives with rosemary, red
Family’s produce bin is short and to the point. The aisle-ender
for Jell-O, not green-tea chai. The canned tomatoes are no big bargain.
among other things, I can walk to it for a tub of fresh-made chicken
walk home again — a soothing ritual, the value of which cannot
of course, Narberth was bound close by a pedestrian ethos born more of
necessity than choice.
Go back to the 1930s and ‘40s, when there were fewer cars, no shopping
centers. Main Street had a far different cast.
There was Max’s Market, where the bike shop is now. Howard Cotter sold
vegetables where Mape’s sells cards. Down by the hair salon was
known for its meats.
Alternatives then and now
Within a block or two, you could pick up groceries at Kerner’s,
Miller’s Deli, Jim
Phelan’s place, J.J. Whiteside’s, and the A&P, whose body came to
be inhabited by American Family, the last of the Mohicans.
There are, besides the encircling chains, boutique farm markets, too,
one on Montgomery Avenue that has terrific fresh tuna, another in
Suburban Square in Ardmore where they stock more artisanal Spanish
cheeses than I’ll ever be able to pronounce.
But I find myself drawn to American Family for what it carries
exclusively — the pork loin Paul splits and stuffs to
order with garlic and sage; the hands-on
celery-chopping tips from Ted, the local bartender; Angelo’s learned
on why the drier heel of the baked ham has the flavor-enhancing
get from aged beef.
days, squares of tomato pie get passed around from Cacia’s, the South
bakery. You’ll run into a Wharton professor holding forth on his latest
gastronomic tour. Or, now and then, Bobby Rydell in an amiable mood.
They don’t stock an inventory like that
at the markets with the one-way mirrors,
antiseptic aisles, and chill at the checkout counter.
That’s why American Family’s value is
still, harder to find these bountiful days than the finest cornichon,
quiche or rosemary olive.
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