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Making Groceries at the Old French Market

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“Making Groceries,” is an old New Orleans expression that the city’s residents traditionally used for food shopping. The expression derives from the French faire son marché, “to do one’s market shopping," faire translating either "to do" or "to make." For eighteen decades New Orleans residents enjoyed making groceries at the old French Market in the Quarter. They loved its diverse peoples, colorful sights and pungent aromas, the social experience, and the stimulation of shopping partly indoors and partly outdoors. People came from miles around to stroll among the vendors' stands and see what earth and sea had wrought with lots of help from produce makers. Fresh-picked fruit in countless colors, piled in mounds with sweet aromas; stacks of leafy, curly green things; pinkish icy-cradled shellfish; heady-scented beef cuts hanging; feathered chickens, gobbling turkeys, glass-eyed fishes glistening silver, shoppers bargaining, seeing and being seen, vendors smiling, packing, thanking; giving out and taking in.

The Indians traded here alongside the River first…
The market began with Indian trading in colonial times. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, Spanish officials, recognizing the need to formalize hours, control prices and promote sanitation, consolidated the butcher stands in a shaded space on the banks of the river. That early market stood at the present "Cafe du Monde" site near Jackson Square. The City replaced its first building there in 1811 with an elegant structure designed by a sophisticated French-trained architect, Arsene Lacarriere Latour. Destroyed the very next year by a great August hurricane, the "Meat Market" was immediately rebuilt from designs by City surveyor Jacques Tanesse in 1813. Although continually repaired and rebuiltæand drastically altered during the Great Depressionæthat building still stands.

Halle des Boucheries
For eighteen decades the French Market's Meat or Beef Market was the most important of New Orleans’ many public market buildings. It is the oldest, and until after the Civil War, was the only place in the French Quarter where fresh meat could legally be sold. Local residents referred to it as "the Meat Market," or Halle des Boucheries, not "the French Market." Not until the 1850s, three decades after other public markets made their presence around town, did its overriding importance diminish so that it needed greater designation as the “French Market.” This was so because, although founded by the Spanish, it was the market in the "French" part of town, and because many of the butchers were French, either Creoles or foreign. For a century, images of the hatted, aproned butchers standing beside their hanging sides of meat imparted a timeless, Old World sense to the market scene there.

John James Audubon was a tourist at the Market
Within a decade or two of is founding the market was famous. It was the first place that John James Audubon visited upon his arrival in New Orleans by keelboat in 1821. Audubon wrote excitedly in his journal about the great variety of wildfowl and birdsæboth wild and domesticæfor sale there. He also noted, as did many writers after his time, the fascinating mix of ethnicities among market denizens. "When passing through the stalls, he wrote, " we were surrounded by a population of Negroes, mulattos, and quadroons, some talking French, others a patois of Spanish and French, others a mixture of French and English, or English translated from French, and with a French accent."

During the antebellum period, the market became something of a tourist destination for both Americans and Europeans. Sir Charles Lyell, an Englishman who visited New Orleans to experience the Carnival, the French Opera, and the French Market, penned a nugget that still rings true: "There were stalls where hot coffee was selling in white china cups, reminding us of Paris. Among other articles exposed for sale were brooms made of palmetto leaves, and wagon loads of the dried Spanish moss, or Tillandsia...."

Ups and Downs over the Decades
Throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, the French Market grew. It had five primary components, beginning with the Meat Market. Next was the Vegetable Market or Marché aux Legumes, added in 1822 on the stretch between St. Philip and Ursulines, with its associated Fruit Market on the triangle where Decatur meets North Peters and today Joan of Arc leads market folk into battle. Here, after the 1930s, stood the "Morning Call" coffee stand with its memorable signage. The privately-owned Red Stores, originally across North Peters from the Vegetable Market, were built in 1832 and demolished during the Depression. Next to them was the fanciful and much-illustrated Bazaar Market, a dry goods emporium built just after the Civil War and demolished during the Depression; and the Farmers' Market sheds, near the Mint, built by the Public Works Authority (PWA) during the Great Depression. In 1938 the PWA also built a meat market replica next to the first market building, recognizable because it has a curve around the bend of Decatur Street. A more modern addition is the complex of "New Red Stores," built by the French Market Corporation during the 1970s on a traditionally open site opposite the Vegetable Market.

“Every race that the world boasts is here, and a good many races that are nowhere else”
After more than a century of success and profitability for the city and the vendors, the French Market arrived about 1890 at two extremes. The place was dirty, the buildings were in disrepair, immigrant market sellers were impoverished, and it was at the busiest and most photogenic period of its history. "As you approach the French Market, you go down in the social scale, and the price of dinner grows cheaper," wrote Lafacdio Hearn. As always, the mix of peoples fired his imagination. "A man might here study the world," he wrote. "Every race that the world boasts is here, and a good many races that are nowhere else."

By the Great Depression, with the market nearly falling into ruin, PWA workers armed with federal, state, city and private dollars rebuilt and sanitized the buildings almost beyond recognition. But it hung on to its essential character because it still had butchers with live animals, vegetable sellers with colorful produce, fishmongers with pungent aromas, and truck farmers with strong ethnic traditions. It also catered to the local population. The rebuilding carried the French Market up until the 1970s, when the City dealt it a near death blow by removing most of the food from the premises. Since that time the French Market Corporation has ironically marketed the complex based on its glorious food traditions, while offering primarily enclosed shops selling clothing and gifts, sit-down restaurants, a few theme outlets, and now imported trinkets in the former Farmer's Market wholesale area.

In a city known for its picturesque features for two centuries, nothing was as distinctive as the French Market in its heyday. It cannot be rescued today by the latest proposal to add flags and brass bands on a plaza. Only food offerings will appease the market genie.

 

Sally Reeves is a noted writer and historian who co-authored the award winning series New Orleans Architecture. She also has written Jacques-Felix Lelièvre’s New Louisiana Gardener and Grand Isle of the Gulf – An Early History. She is currently working on a social and architectural history of New Orleans public markets and on a book on the contributions of free persons of color to vernacular architecture in antebellum New Orleans.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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