The Market’s Underground Thanksgiving Feast

By Carolyn Wyman
Originally published November 2015

Will you be shopping the Market for your Thanksgiving meal? If so you should know that your purchases, indirectly at least, help make a Thanksgiving dinner possible for more than 300 low-income, isolated local senior citizens.

Most Market shoppers are familiar with February’s Party for the Market, where Market merchants donate food and labor to help raise money for their own nonprofit home. Much less well-known but second only to the February bash in size and scope of generosity is the Market’s decade-long tradition of serving an early Thanksgiving meal to area seniors — one that will play out across Filbert Street on SEPTA’s Jefferson Station concourse again this year.

The meal dates back to 2000 when Jack McDavid of the Down Home Diner — then a regular donor to the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging’s (PCA) Meals on Wheels program — called PCA’s president asking if “there was anything else he could do to help,” says PCA special events manager Amanda Buonomo. That “something more” became a Thanksgiving dinner offered by PCA invitation to seniors who could most benefit. For the first six years, the dinner took place on a Sunday afternoon in the Market’s Center Court with a number of merchants splitting up preparation duties. But when the Market began opening to the public on Sundays in fall 2006, the dinner was taken over by a restaurateur outside the Market.

Then one day in 2012 then Market manager Paul Steinke wandered across Filbert Street to what was at that time called the Market East concourse and saw Tootsie Salad Express owner Marion “Tootsie” D’Ambrosio catering a SEPTA retirement event. “I told her right then and there that, with SEPTA’s help, it could be the perfect place to revive the senior Thanksgiving dinner,” Steinke recalled recently. The first dinner in the new location took place that fall and has been held there every year since.

Almost all of Market merchants continue to be involved, often with donations of raw ingredients that Tootsie’s Salad Express prepares. D’Ambrosio estimates that she and her staff peel about 100 pounds each of regular and sweet potatoes. Dinner founder McDavid, Godshall’s, Halteman’s, Giunta’s and Hershel’s all either donate and/or help cook the 150 to 200 pounds of turkey.

D’Ambrosio calls it a senior-pleasing “very, very traditional menu,” that also includes stuffing from The Original Turkey, cranberry sauce and either mixed vegetables or string beans polished off with coffee from Old City Coffee, and pumpkin and apple pies and lemon bars from Beiler’s and Flying Monkey bakeries.

Market management absorbs the cost of incidentals like table rentals and linens. Stands that do not sell or serve traditional Thanksgiving foods provide gift certificates for the raffle or much-needed before-meal nibbles because, D’Ambrosio explains, “When you tell seniors that dinner starts at 2, quite a few will show up at 1.”

Carmen’s Famous Italian Hoagies and Cheesesteaks owner Carmen DiGuglielmo donates four lunches to the raffle and also has volunteered at the event with his family for the past three years. DiGuglielmo says he does it because the Market community is also family “and when the family is doing something, you do what you can to help.” And also because, “I love seeing the seniors’ faces when I come toward them with the hors d’oeuvres.”

Top brass and staff from co-sponsors SEPTA, PCA and the Market (including this year for the first time, new general manager Anuj Gupta and his daughter, Leela), several Girl Scout troops, even a roller derby team also help set up, serve and clean up.

Seniors actually comprise a significant percentage of Market shoppers. Those living alone on fixed incomes appreciate the stands’ reasonable prices and willingness to sell small quantities. Tootsie’s Salad Express — particularly its hot bar — has a large number of senior regulars.

Carmen’s stand does not. And that’s OK.

“For me, this is not customer appreciation. It’s about showing the seniors that we care; that they have not been forgotten,” says DiGuglielmo.

Carolyn Wyman is the Market’s news correspondent and operator of the Reading Terminal’s bi-weekly Taste of Philadelphia Food Tour.