Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Salad Days


A couple years ago I was riding my bike with my mother on the boardwalk in Long Beach, California. There was a fair going on at the time with various booths including one for a fresh produce delivery co-op. Staffing the booth was an attractive, healthy, blond woman with a pixie haircut, wearing yoga apparel. Leaning against the wall behind her was a high-end Italian-make bike with a basket on it, holding a floral print water bottle. After speaking to my mother at length of the virtues of organic delivery produce, she next focused her attention on me. I was living in Alaska at the time and explained to her that I didn't subscribe to that type of service which was in fact available in Alaska, but was too expensive having been flown in all the way from Oregon.

"Well, that seems useless anyhow. There's no point buying things not locally grown," she says, with an air of disgust.

I peered at her curiously, not bothering to point out that just about all produce and everything else in Alaska for 90% of the year is flown up due to the intemperate climate of the land. A lifestyle so unlike hers must have seemed unfathomable to her.

$2.00 tomatoes, $3.00 sprigs of fresh herbs, and and a waft of political self-righteousness in the air, these are the things I remember about farmer's markets I've visited in New York City, San Francisco, and Berkeley. So I was pleasantly surprised when I paid a visit to a couple of farmer's markets in New Orleans.

Like many major American cities, New Orleans has its fair share of urban accoutrements, but is too Southern to bother being, well, like other major American cities. I have never met so many meat-eating Democrats as I have in New Orleans. So, with a tradition of food as deeply rooted as New Orleans, fresh food markets in this town can have a noticeably more utilitarian flavor of their own.

Having been founded precisely for its strategic position on the Mississippi River, New Orleans once had streets paved with produce. The city enjoys a long history of open-air public markets, dating as far back as the late 1700's, when the legendary French Market was opened in order to sell wares which arrived at the port just footsteps away. By World War I, there were approximately 30 fresh food markets in the radius of a few miles. This, combined with wandering vendors who would sell their wares from the back of a pushcart by filling their streets with song, enabled New Orleanians to enjoy the pleasures of fresh food as a given.

Nowadays, the French Market primarily serves as a behemoth souvenir shop, though a small section is devoted to dry goods and some produce, with small eateries also, including the world famous Cafe Du Monde beignet stand. In other spots in town, on rare occasion, one might see a lone itinerant vegetable vendor, selling okra and other produce from the back of a pickup truck.

Outside the French Quarter, there are at least a dozen locations selling fresh produce in an open air market on a weekly basis, and even more on a monthly basis. A handful of elementary schools have begun food gardening programs, and non-profit organizations focusing in the creation of urban gardens have been sprouting like mint as part of the post-Katrina recovery efforts. New Orleanians clearly want to have their greens and eat them too.

On Saturday, I visit Sankofa Market, a weekly operation in the parking lot of an Episcopal church in the Holy Cross neighborhood. Once a vibrant, stable, middle class community with historic houses, Holy Cross was devastated by Katrina being so near to the Industrial Canal through which a barge passed through either causing, or following, a devastating breach in the levee. The neighborhood is slowly revitalizing and is at about 1/5 of its former population.

Sankofa is small but I see red potatoes, fresh herbs, heirloom tomatoes, squash, homemade jellies, corn, and pralines. I buy a pound of potatoes for $1.00, a small tub of okra for $2.00, a bag of fresh basil for $1.00, a few heirloom tomatoes, all of which is half of what I pay in a supermarket. I sip some freshly made raspberry tea and exchange hellos with the manager of the market, who I met just the day before at a fried chicken house party. And, like most of the Farmer's Markets in New Orleans, in the backdrop is a live music, a jazz trio with a standup bass, a saxophone, and a drum set. There is a truck selling pork and beef barbecue ribs and hamburgers. It is the taste of New Orleans.

For a taste of another country, I head East, towards one of the home bases of the Vietnamese community. Mostly a population of immigrants with a strong agrarian past, the Vietnamese of New Orleans are known for their green thumbs even in the most challenging of times. After Katrina, those who took shelter in federally-provided FEMA trailers distinguished their small, dirt trailer lots with produce and fresh herbs shooting straight up through the gravel.

In the Versailles neighborhood of East New Orleans in the wee hours of Saturday morning, one can see a rogue market operating just under the nose of the law, out of the parking lot of an unkempt strip mall. At 5:00-8:00am, Vietnamese women in conical hats lay out tarps and blankets, selling vegetables, spices, ducks, and chickens. Vietnamese radio is playing in the background. It is as if they had transplanted a modern day market from the old country right here to the banks of the Mississippi. Fresh herbs grown from their backyards go for pennies, and yet a profit is made. A seeming win-win for both vendor and buyer, the market recently has been the target of crack-downs by local officials. Yet the seriousness to which the municipal government wishes to shut it down remains to be seen, as it remains operational still.

When I return home, I learn that there are three other open-air produce markets operational on three different weekdays, and a handful more of ones operating solely on Saturdays. At this realization I am enthused, and make a point of visiting the Thursday one on my bike ride home from work, something I've never been able to do in other cities I've lived. When I get home I make a gazpacho with my Sankofa finds, and am immediately surprised at the difference, the pop, in flavor. It is a brave new world for me.

With a variety of farmers coming in from West Louisiana to East New Orleans, the Big Easy proves just how easy it is to buy local, buy affordable, and buy your barbecue too, with a little live music or little taste of Vietnam in the mix.

See for yourself:
For a list of farmer's markets in New Orleans with days and times of operation, visit http://www.nolababy.com/index.php/News/Latest/Guide-to-area-farmers-markets.


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