“The markets are a prominent feature in a description of New Orleans. They are numerous and dispersed to suit the convenience of citizens. The greatest market day is Sunday, during the morning. At break of day the gathering commences – youth and age, beauty and not-so-beautiful – all colors, nations and tongues are commingled in one heterogeneous mass of delightful confusion... The traveler, who leaves the city without visiting one of the popular markets on Sunday morning, has suffered a rare treat to escape him.” — Benjamin M. Norman, Norman's New Orleans and Environs, 1845
Had Benjamin Norman revisited New Orleans 150 years after he wrote those words, he would surely have been disappointed. By 1995, the public markets that so delighted him had all but disappeared from New Orleans, victims, as in cities throughout the country, to the twentieth century's push toward "progress" and modernization.
Public markets are as old as commerce itself. Six-thousand years ago, they played a prominent role in the development of the economies of Mesopotamia. Farmers would cart the fruits of their labor into the population centers. There they would market their produce, engaging in commerce and in the building of relationships.
Centuries later, European governments sought to protect consumers from high food prices and to regulate health standards by establishing public markets. French and Spanish colonial governments followed these European practices here in New Orleans. Under the French, market activity began on the levee, where ships would dock at the riverbank and sell produce, meat, and other provisions in the open air.
In 1779, soon after Spain assumed control of New Orleans, officials constructed the city’s first market building on the site of the present-day French Market. From there, a network of municipal public markets grew. It survived numerous administrations — Spanish, American, Confederate and American — and thrived throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. By the First World War, there were thirty-two markets scattered throughout the city, with at least one in every neighborhood.
With names like Memory, Suburban, Le Breton, Lautenschlaeger, Prytania, and Treme, the markets not only served as economic engines in their neighborhoods but also reflected the cultural dynamics of the neighborhoods and the metropolitan area. At the end of the nineteenth century, immigration through the port of New Orleans matched that of New York and San Francisco in sheer numbers and diversity. For many immigrants, the public market provided them with an entry point into the economy as small-scale entrepreneurs. Many of the city’s corner groceries and food processors began as stalls at the public markets. Shoppers would have to be prepared to conduct business in many languages: French, Creole patois, African languages, English, Spanish, German, Gaelic, Chocktaw, Greek, Maltese and Italian. Stall rents were low and shoppers were plentiful. Cheese mongers, fish sellers, butchers and green grocers provided New Orleans shoppers with basic necessities – calas tout chauds (fried cakes), pralines, estomac mulâtre (gingerbread), filé powder (for gumbo), and po’boy sandwiches, to name a few.
Sicilian truck farmers from St. Bernard Parish carted in crops like creole artichokes, tomatoes, garlic and fava beans. Hunters would bring in everything from raccoons, bears and opossums to songbirds. Coastal fishermen – many originally from the Canary Islands, China and Croatia – would market oysters, shrimp, crawfish and a wide selection of fish. Painter John James Audubon noted in his journal his surprise at finding “a Barred Owl, cleaned and exposed, for sale at twenty-five cents.”
Over time, spinoff businesses from the markets began to circulate throughout the city. Residents who could not get to market could purchase yard fresh eggs, strawberries, milk and prepared foods like fried oysters right from their doorsteps. Roving street vendors would make regular rounds through neighborhoods, singing songs announcing their products, while others offered services such as scissors grinding, chimney sweeping and tin smithery.
After World War II, the City of New Orleans began to privatize many of the older public markets, which had fallen into disrepair during the Great Depression. Even though many new markets were constructed under the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s, demographic shifts to the suburbs and the rise of supermarkets chipped away at the old public markets, which steadily lost customers and vendors. By 1995, virtually all that remained of the old public market system was the French Market, which had lost most of its food vendors but had been transformed into a major tourist attraction, with a busy flea market, several adjacent restaurants and shops, and the world famous coffee and beignet stand Cafe du Monde.
But a remarkable change was afoot in New Orleans and all over the country. People were rediscovering the benefits of public markets: the superior taste and ecological soundness of locally produced food, the social interaction fostered by open-air markets, and the economic leg up markets provide small-scale farms and producers. Farmers markets began to crop up in cities and small towns throughout America. In New Orleans, the Crescent City Farmers Market made its debut, eventually expanding to four markets scattered throughout the city. Since Hurricane Katrina struck the city in 2005, the market has scaled back to three days per week. With support from marketumbrella.org, other farmers markets have been and continue to be launched in neighborhoods still rebuilding from the storm, joining ones already established in several suburban New Orleans locations.
marketumbrella.org is proud to be part of this resurgence. We have mentored many new farmers markets and launched several programs, including the White Boot Brigade and Go Fish, that are helping our regional producers compete in an increasingly global marketplace. All our endeavors are grounded in a love of food and the knowledge that public markets benefit producers, consumers and communities in equal measure. And in an increasingly homogenous world, they provide a distinctly local public place where people from many walks of life — "all colors, nations and tongues" — gather to participate in an ancient tradition, much as they did in the New Orleans of 150 years ago. Benjamin Norman would be pleased.
Sources: Mary Cable’s Lost New Orleans and Robert A. Sauder’s outstanding essay “The Origin and Spread of the Public Market System in New Orleans.”