Imagine it. Boat rigging clanking in the river breeze as ships pull in from long sea journeys, filled with goods to sell. Men shout as they move over the river docks and levees like ants, unloading heavy cargo ready for the stalls. The river laps against the wooden sides of the moored ships. Wagons rattle and horses hoofs clip-clop as they make their way over stone and dirt. This would have been New Orleans in the 18th and 19th centuries.
As you made your way up from the river and into the market itself, you’d encounter all types of humanity. Native Americans, the remnants of once great tribes such as the Choctow, sit selling their herbs alongside Italian fruit merchants and men coming downriver from the interior. Stalls are covered by palmetto fronds to keep out the heat. Merchants shout in all tongues, like a reverberating verbal race, each voice jockeying for dominance over the others. Spanish, Native American, African, and French dialects could be heard, along with new hybrids like Creole.
And the smells. Sounds in the air would have competed with all kinds of odors – spices, rotting fruit, horse dung, baking bread, roasting nuts, fresh meat – like a cornucopia to the senses as you moved your way through rows of stalls. Like the bazaars of old, the French Market enticed and offended in equal measure. It was and is like a huge pot of bubbling gumbo, boiling over with everything but the kitchen sink.
Sitting on the same spot since 1791, the French Market in New Orleans was born much earlier as an Indian trading post alongside the Mississippi River. It was the Spanish who first enclosed the market to protect the delicate fruits and vegetables from the elements of subtropic New Orleans. This first enclosed market was started in 1779 and completed in 1782, only to be destroyed in a colossal fire that destroyed 78% of the structures in the Vieux Carré in 1788. A new market would rise from the ashes, albeit in a slightly different location.
The market would evolve and transform as the city changed hands from Spanish to French to American. As the market evolved, wild game, seafood, and fowl began appearing in the food stalls. The French Market evolved into a crossroads where civilization and wilderness met. Not only could you find items originating at home, but trinkets from the far corners of the globe made their way into the market as ships from other lands docked in the curve of the Mississippi.
The structure itself would expand, contract, and rebuild again and again over the centuries as hurricanes, war, and sickness affected the port city. Over time and out of necessity, improvements were made. Walls were shored up by brick and then covered over by plaster to resemble stone. Awnings were no longer temporary, but made permanent. Sidewalks were widened and improved. Despite this progress, New Orleans was still a port city, precariously hanging between the old world and the new. With this position came danger.
John James Audubon once came to the market to purchase freshly killed birds to use as models for his paintings. He found it “…the dirtiest place in all the Cities of the United States.” Over the centuries, this contaminated environment allowed sickness to rise out of the sullied stalls like a fog rising from the nearby swamps. Yellow fever, small pox, malaria, and cholera could all be found here at one time or the other. The dense concentration of people in New Orleans, the hot climate, and poor storage of food and water proved to be jet fuel for spreading disease. When it was time to combat an outbreak, the market was most often in the cross hairs of those seeking to contain the suffering.
Similarly in times of war, both in the War of 1812 and the Civil War, New Orleans was a hot commodity due to her perch at the mouth of the Mississippi. Soldiers came and went, but the market was an ever constant reality, both in times peace and war.
Today, as you make your way around the market, you are greeted by boutiques and tourist shops selling all matter of t-shirts, mardi gras beads, and hurricane glasses. Despite that, in some corners, you can still sense that dark, decaying underbelly of the New Orleans of old, lurking just out of sight – lying dormant in the cracks and crevices that light doesn’t reach. The touched up plaster on the walls and the floors won’t ever be quite clean. It gives this place substance and character.
If you can time it right, come early in the morning and stroll the old aisles before the crowds and heat descend. This is the time of day when merchants hose down their stalls to prepare for the coming crowds. As the water sprays in the sunshine and falls to the pavement, grab a café au lait and a freshly powdered, but still warm, beignet. Soak in the surroundings. You walk in the footsteps of history, the same as countless others before you.
You can’t get much closer to the past.
All photos by the author except where otherwise indicated.