Crescent City Farmers Markets, New Orleans, La.

March 21 and 25, 2006

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Farmers market uptown on Tuesday has helped bring back semblance of normalcy to storm-battered New Orleans

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Saturday Market in Warehouse District

For a decade, Richard McCarthy, director of Crescent City Farmers Market, the organization that runs farmers markets in New Orleans, kept a running count of upbeat numbers showing an increasing number of vendors and shoppers, steady gains in gross sales and an expanding favorable impact on the region’s economy.

Last fall, McCarthy was abruptly forced to take a drastically different, horrific tally: of property destroyed, business plans turned upside down and lives lost in the wake of the two massive hurricanes that rolled over south Louisiana. “Fortunately, there were no fatalities in our community of food producers but some lost everything but their lives,” says McCarthy, director of the ECOnomics Institute at Loyola University in uptown New Orleans, which manages farmers markets in the city.

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Market Manager Richard McCarthy

The first Crescent City Farmers Market opened in the French Quarter in 1995 with an ambitious mission not only to bring fresh, locally grown produce, meat and seafood to city dwellers but in the process to “initiate and promote ecologically sound economic development in the agricultural sector in the greater New Orleans region,” a region world renowned for its culinary traditions.

The organization made great strides, topping $500,000 in annual sales within three years, providing a vital source of income for more than four dozen small farmers, independent fishermen and other small-scale culinary entrepreneurs while providing city residents and chefs with a direct connection with farmers. By last summer, the market had expanded to four locations around the city. Then, in September, Hurricane Katrina delivered its devastating blow to New Orleans and a vast stretch of the Gulf Coast, knocking the farmers market and many of its vendors and customers out of business for months.

Life may never be the same in New Orleans, but the Crescent City Farmers Market is one source of solace. The market on Broadway, in the high and dry stretch of uptown New Orleans near the river, was the first to come back. “We reopened right before Thanksgiving to huge crowds and it was a love-fest,” says McCarthy. “People were hugging each other and telling stories about how they survived the hurricane. There were tears. It was a wonderful reunion and it gave people a sense that, by God, maybe some normalcy can return to our community. Since then, the market has been going great guns.”

When I visited New Orleans in March, returning to a city that I fell in love with when I lived here 25 years ago, a second farmers market had returned, the Saturday market on Magazine Street in the warehouse district. I was relieved to see that large sections of the city were fully intact, as charming and unique as ever, filled with mile after mile of historic structures and sprawling oaks. But vast, devastated sections aren’t far away from the string of neighborhoods along the river that locals call the “Isle of Denial” and the “Sliver by the River.” Many, but not all, of the neighborhood restaurants I used to frequent were still there, and open for business. But their sporadic hours were one of many clues that all is very far from well in New Orleans, even seven months after the hurricane.

The farmers who serve the market suffered varying degrees of disruption from Hurricane Katrina, which hit the east side of Louisiana, and Hurricane Rita which came ashore near the Texas border on the west side of the state. “Some had major damage. Others have farms that were located between the two storms and they did just fine. But to many of those, the damage has been much less visible. Some of them lost markets and were out of business,” McCarthy says.

“The fishermen were hammered far more heavily. Many of them have horrible stories to tell — about family members being sucked out of windows, about hanging in the trees for eight hours. They’re trying to regroup. But some have post-traumatic stress.” Since Katrina, some types of seafood have come back better than others. “It was a very good shrimp season and the shrimp they brought in was gorgeous,” says McCarthy. “But they don’t have the equipment or the docks. They can’t grade it or store it.”

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Crawfish at the Farmers Market, $2 a pound ordered in advance

Crawfish are in shorter supply and more expensive than usual, because the storm surge from Rita in southwest Louisiana filled many of the ponds where they are raised with fatal does of salt water. They were available at the farmers markets at $2 a pound, ordered a week in advance. That’s a dollar cheaper per pound than in some of the local markets.

Now that two of the New Orleans markets are back in business, many of the producers are beginning to recover. But many lots a sizeable chunk of their liveliehoods for months, according to McCarthy.. “For some of our producers, the New Orleans market may have been 60-70 percent of business.” They suffered not only from damage on their farms but from the loss of their customer base. “Many went to the markets in Baton Rouge or Covington, if the markets had room for them,” McCarthy says. “Some of those markets happily accepted these new vendors because their population had increased dramatically,” swollen by Katrina evacuees.

Back in New Orleans since Katrina, “We have seen consistently some of our better market days that we’ve ever had,” McCarthy adds. “When the market reopened, it was equivalent to a market and a half for our vendors.”

The spike in business at the markets is due in part to the fact that so much else in the city, even in the large sections that weren’t flooded, are still out of kilter. Because of a severe shortage of labor, due to a shortage of housing, many businesses were still operating on limited hours, with limited staffing, even more than half a year after Katrina. “The grocery stores are a nightmare,” McCarthy says. “It’s like England in wartime. They close at 6 p.m. and have one line open.” The relaxed atmosphere of the farmers market has been a welcome respite from that ordeal.

There has been another indication at the market that the city is still suffering. “We noticed a spike in food stamp usage,” says McCarthy. “About eight months before Katrina, we had a pilot food stamp program. Thank heavens for that because a lot of people who had never been on food stamps before have been on food stamps ever since Katrina.”

On my visit, I sensed that the people of marvelous New Orleans are down – and apprehensive about the future of a city that is still missing two-thirds of its population – but not out. New Orleaneans cherish what’s left more than ever — and still love food. The revived farmers markets, and packed restaurants, are one sign of that.

“For 10 years we have cultivated a regional community around a shared love of food,” says McCarthy. “We were knocked out for a while, but now we’re back.”

– Mark Thompson

slide show

What I Bought

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Mustard Greens, Cabbage
Price: $1.25 for greens
$2 for cabbage

Timmy Perilloux, a farmer from Montz, a town in St. Charles Parish alongside the Mississippi River, less than 30 minutes drive upriver from New Orleans, brought to the market on Saturday, March 25, a truck full of cabbage and greens, beets and turnips, and other crops that have grown through the winter and are ready to eat this time of year. I chopped the greens up and cooked them with a chunk of the smoky, pork tasso that I bought (see below). Delicious!

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Timmy Perilloux at the Warehouse District market

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Ponchatoula Strawberries, Fava Beans
Price: $2 for strawberries
$2 for fava beans

In the 1930s, the town of Ponchatoula, across Lake Pontchartrain to the north of New Orleans, laid claim to the title “Strawberry Capital of the World.” Since then, many other towns have claimed the same title. But farms in the vicinity of Ponchatoula still specialize in growing the fruit, and celebrate it with a strawberry festival each April. These strawberries weren’t very sweet, in my opinion. They would have been better incorporated in a cooked dessert with sugar.

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Pecan Pie, Praline (top) and ‘Shoe Sole’ Pastry (below)
Price: $4 for pie
$3 for praline
$2 for shoe sole

There were several vendors of pastries at both the uptown market on Tuesday and the Saturday market in the warehouse district. They specialized in baked goods that are unique to the city and to the South. The “shoe sole,” pictured below, was new to me. Traditionally, they were made with leftover pie dough, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. They’re so popular in the farmers market that the “pie lady” who sold me this one makes extra dough just for shoe soles.

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Price: $5 for 1 lb. bag

Tasso is Cajun-style smoked pork used in a wide variety of foods, from red beans to biscuits to grits to greens. It is flavored with a mixture of spices that always includes cayenne, cinnamon, paprika, salt and pepper and can also include brown sugar, depending on the tasso-maker’s personal preference. You can find it in local markets in Louisiana, or you can make your own. Here’s one tasso recipe and here’s another.

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hot sauce and pickles from the market photographed in Audubon Park