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Maria, Market Matriarch
Amid Many Changes, She's a Steady Presence

By Bonny Wolf
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 24, 2009

One of the first words Capitol Hill children learn is "banana," probably because no child with teeth can pass by Eastern Market's Maria Calomiris without getting a piece of the fruit.

Calomiris, 70, and husband Chris, 84, have been giving bananas to children or a handful of summer's first cherries to their parents at Eastern Market since 1963. Chris Calomiris, who has retired, conducted business quietly and with a shy smile.

His wife also shows reserve, except with regular customers. Try to walk away without your free Medjool dates and you hear: "Wait a minute, wait a minute. Where you going? You gotta be my date." Many longtime patrons ("my beautiful, wonderful customers") are greeted with hugs and kisses. "Oh, my gosh," she says. "I love them and they love me."

This is not your average supermarket interaction.

Her husband's retirement gives Calomiris seniority at the 136-year-old market, scheduled to reopen Friday, two years after a devastating fire. She is a never-changing fixture. If she's not there, wearing an apron over a skirt and blouse, a pencil stuck over her ear for toting up charges on a paper bag, something is not quite right.

Her stature in the hall stretches beyond her barely 5-foot frame. The other merchants call her the matriarch of the market.

Melvin Inman, whose Market Poultry is the stall next door, calls her Mom. "Mom is the face of the market, the face of rationality and levelheadedness," he says. "She's always been good for my children." (They call her Mom, too.)

The matriarch seems in perpetual motion. If she's not helping customers, she's shelling peas or digging the seeds out of pomegranates. "She's always been the same: a very strong woman," says Angie Brunson, owner of Blue Iris Flowers, who has known her for 30 years. "She carries big bags of food, stands on her feet all day."

Apparently, Mayor Adrian Fenty is a Maria Calomiris fan. He had her cut the ribbon at the opening of the temporary market in August 2007, and he stops by for a hug when he's in the building. Leon, the youngest of her three children, says that when anyone on Fenty's staff is in the market, his mother quickly puts together a bag of fruit for the mayor.

Calomiris left her native Sparta at age 18. In Washington, she met Chris Calomiris, whose family also was from Sparta. He, however, had grown up on Capitol Hill.

Chris's father, Thomas, started the family produce business with a pushcart, then moved to Center Market, the largest of Washington's public markets, built in 1871. The market covered two city blocks and held about 700 food merchants. Another 300 local farmers rented stalls outside. The market was razed in 1931 and the National Archives was built on the site, at Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

Thomas Calomiris & Sons relocated to what was called the New Center Market, at Fifth and K streets NW. That was where Maria (also called Mary) went to work with her new husband.

When that market became a wax museum in the early 1960s, the Calomirises moved their business to Eastern Market. They were among 12 merchants who made the move to the Victorian structure that fills the 200 block of Seventh Street SE.

She is the only one left of the 12.

Many of the market merchants are multi-generational family businesses. There is a slew of Glasgows, the family with the oldest market ties. Mel Inman works with his son, Mel Jr.

When the Calomirises first started selling produce, many food purveyors were Greek or Italian immigrants. At Eastern Market they have seen new groups of immigrants, particularly from Korea and El Salvador, start family businesses.

The other produce stand in the market is owned by a Korean family, and Salvadoran Jose Canales pioneered a family deli business that has grown to three stands. They all remember the woman they call Mama Maria as the first to welcome them.

Mike Bowers is the third generation at Bowers Fancy Dairy Products. "I am touched when I am at the market and Mary greets my children with the same warmth as she greeted me in my youth," he says. He often turns to her with cooking questions. Her advice, he says, always involves "just a little olive oil."

That olive oil is Greek. As are the honey and olives she sells. Calomiris's relatives in Sparta send things from home, and if she has too much, she makes it available to her customers. Sometimes she gets so much homemade hilopites -- a small, square egg noodle -- she divides it into small packages for sale.

Her stand also has a case full of dried fruits and nuts, on top of which sit hand-painted icons of Greek saints, some done by Calomiris's youngest sister, a Greek Orthodox nun.

Calomiris arrives in the morning (4:30 on Saturdays) to set up the display of greens and fruits, baskets of mushrooms and trays of squash that her sons Leon and Tom bring in from wholesalers. In summer, they drive to Maryland's Eastern Shore for melons, tomatoes and corn.

They try to keep up with changing market demand. "When I was a kid," says Leon, 42, "we had romaine, iceberg and bibb lettuces. Mesclun hadn't been invented." Their cooler now holds Belgian endive, radicchio and baby arugula.

Considered an excellent home cook, Calomiris sometimes sells her baklava or spanakopita. Leon says his mother cooks simply. "Olive oil, oregano, basil and garlic are her basic ingredients, but it's the way she puts them together," he says. "She makes dolmades, stuffed tomatoes with avgolemono sauce. Her moussaka is out of this world." She brings leftovers to her children and co-workers.

When they got an early-morning call on April 30, 2007, that the market was burning, Leon, Tom and their father left their Montgomery County homes and headed for the Hill. When they returned to his parents' Bethesda house at midday, Leon says, his mother was cooking. "I said, 'What are we going to do?' " he says. "She said, 'We'll get a truck and we'll sell.' "

The fire was on a Monday; Leon and his mother were on the sidewalk selling produce by Saturday, the first merchants to do so. For four months, she was there every day except Monday, the day the market is closed, until the temporary building opened across the street.

The Capitol Hill Community Foundation collected $465,000 for the merchants. None of them was anxious to take help. "We live proud," Calomiris says. "We don't ask anyone for anything." Ultimately, they did accept money for a refrigerated truck.

She liked selling outdoors. "All the people, oh, my gosh: all the support and the loving," she says. "The sun comes up and it was nice. And we were there in the rain, storm, 100 degrees. We sprayed each other with water. It was fun."

Calomiris hasn't been in the refurbished market yet. "I want to be surprised," she says. "I'll be glad to be home."

Her biggest reward, she says, is her customers. "I watch kids grow up, and they bring their own kids. That's the best," she says. "They bring them from New York, New Zealand, Italy, California. They say, 'I brought them because they have to meet you.' "

She undoubtedly gives them a banana.

Bonny Wolf, a Capitol Hill resident, is the author of "Talking With My Mouth Full: Crab Cakes, Bundt Cakes and Other Kitchen Stories." She is a regular contributor to NPR's Weekend Edition.

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