by Ian McNulty
In the history books, the French Market in New Orleans is remembered as a swirling, exotic, deliciously diverse food emporium, a place where the roots of this port city’s famous culinary culture were laid bare at vendors’ stalls, butcher shops and fishermen’s tables.
The more contemporary view of this landmark, however, is as a place where tourists shop for cheap trinkets and souvenirs. As the local historian Sally Reeves has described it, the French market, once a vibrant hub of French Quarter life, was regulated and sanitized into blandness. Her prescription for its revival was to return to its roots.
“Only food offerings will appease the market genie,” she wrote.
Slowly, things have indeed been going in this direction at the French Market, and locals who haven’t visited the market in a while may be surprised to see all that’s cropped up here lately.
The city-owned market underwent a prolonged renovation to its facilities, which were completed in 2009 (significantly late, over-budget and tainted with controversy, as the Times-Picayune’s Michelle Krupa reported at the time).
At least part of the upshot today, however, is real momentum building in the food department, which is centered around the portion of the overall French Market known as the Farmers Market. Yes, the Flea Market with its many souvenir stands is still going strong, but today a visitor taking a stroll through the French Market can grab a po-boy, a cheese plate, a link of boudin, a sno-ball or a half dozen oysters on the half shell, while the prospects of shopping for a home kitchen are improving here too.
A row of new food service stalls is now mostly full with small, independent restaurant operations. These are open-air spots right in the heart of the market where customers perch at marble-topped bars, hungry passersby peak over their shoulders at the day's offerings and cooks and vendors banter across the market floor. In their own way, they're helping restore some sense of bustle to the French Market.
Meanwhile, Hollygrove Market & Farm sets up a table in the Farmers Market on Saturdays, adding more locally-farmed and heirloom varieties to the vegetable options from the other French Market produce vendors who sell here daily.
In a new feature, the Southern Food & Beverage Museum hosts food-related programming on the Farmers Market Stage each Sunday. Called French Market Fare, the free, ongoing series starts at 2 p.m. each week. This Sunday, Oct. 16, representatives from Hollygrove will discuss techniques for preserving fresh vegetables. From the museum's event description:
“They will highlight seasonal pickling of mustard greens and lemon fermentation for Vietnamese lemonade. In addition, they will also discuss ways to cook unusual seasonal root vegetables like taro and cassava root.”
Next week, Oct. 23, chef Ian Schnoebelen of the French Quarter restaurant Iris will lead a cooking demonstration here for French Market Fare.
The French Market is a tourist attraction, so it’s no surprise most of the new food booths here take aim at tourist expectations. Alligator heads and caricatures abound at the colorful stands, for instance.
But the ability to visit the French Market now and quickly be served fried shrimp from J’s Seafood Dock, a bowl of rabbit fricassee from World Famous N’awlins Café, a crab cake from Meals from the Heart Café or a piece of crawfish bread from Mother Nature’s Cupboard and then walk around with a draft of Abita Wheat from the Organic Banana beverage bar is all good news to me.
Souvenirs and knickknacks remain the bread and butter of French Market commerce, but if the best New Orleans memento is sometimes a meal, the options are adding up at the French Market.