Bridgeton was famous for tomatoes. There were two or three canneries located on the “Cohansey Crick” the river that ran through the center of town. I believe the tomato crop came in a three-week wave. Trucks, laden with tall pyramids of baskets of tomatoes, lined up to enter the packing plants. At the height of delivery season the line of trucks would stretch from the canneries’ side streets, onto the main street through town and out onto the highway. The line crept forward as each truck was unloaded. At the height of the traffic jam, a truck could be starting and stopping for two days before he got to unload. Drivers slept in their truck and ate the sandwiches delivered by their families. Kool-aid stands sprouted along the route manned by enterprising kids.
Pop bought his tomatoes from a local packer. He would call the cannery owner directly and as ask for a year’s supply of tomatoes that were packed during the exact week he specified, the week when the tomato crop would be at the apex of flavor.
Pop did not know the owner of the packer of locally-grown peas. But he did learn the date codes that went on the cartons of canned peas and specified them when he ordered his cases of peas. What would you give to have a grocer like that?
Long before anyone thought of a grocery store as a food boutique, Pop recognized the value of having unique items to distinguish his store from the others in town.
He heard about a woman named Maggie Rudkin who started a bakery in Connecticut. She baked tasty bread with a firm texture unlike the tasteless, lighter-than-air white bread of the day. Pop got her Pepperidge Farm Bread delivered twice a week. I don’t know how he managed that but I do recall Maggie did not deliver as far away as Bridgeton. It wasn’t too many years before Pepperidge Farm was sold to a larger company. I hope Maggie retired on a yacht.
Pop also heard that someone had bred a little chicken, that was all white meat and weighed about a pound. For a long time Levenson’s Market was the only place in town you could get Cornish Game Hens.
As more memories of Levenson’s Market flood back, I realize how much the store is an icon of a forgotten age.
Pop opened the store at 8 a.m. every morning and at 1 pm closed for lunch. He drove home where mom had lunch ready. After lunch Pop would take a 12-minute nap—perhaps the second-most important lesson he ever gave me.
At about 5:30 every evening the shutdown process began. All the vegetables were put in a walk-in refrigerator for the night. The meat grinders were dissembled, washed, and stored in the refrigerator. The butcher block was scrapped with a brush that had a hundred steel blades. I swept the entire store.
On Saturday Pop stayed until 8:00 pm. He boiled water in buckets and wiped down the inside off all his meat display cases. He boiled the guts of the hamburger grinders and slicing machines.
I understand that twice a week for many years he got up at 3 am and drove an hour into Philadelphia. He went down into a warehouse district and bought all his fruits and vegetables. Finally, some enterprising man with a truck bought a load of vegetables and delivered to the grocery stores of Bridgeton. I’ll bet Pop appreciated the extra four hours sleep.