JAN C. BRADFORD has spent more than 20 years as the curator and deputy director of the Hermann-Grima and Gallier Houses in New Orleans. She has researched and lectured on 19th century food and period dining. She has also appeared on Chef John Folse’s “Taste of Louisiana” TV series and his radio show.
Norman’s Environs, a popular guide book published in the 1830s, reported that in New Orleans “the traveler, who leaves the city without visiting one of the popular markets on Sunday morning has suffered a rare treat to escape him.” Norman continues, describing just such a Sunday morning, “At break of day the gathering commences-youth and age, beauty and the not so beautiful-all colors, nations and tongues are commingled in one heterogeneous mass of delightful confusion.” (1)
Although there were several markets serving New Orleans at this time, the old French Market was a fascinating introduction to the city for tourists and writers. It was so entertaining that even local families made a habit of visiting there after mass on Sunday mornings. They were used to the exotica that spread out before them, but the tourists must have found it strange indeed. The babble of many languages, Native Americans selling gumbo or herbs, entrepreneurial Free Women of Color hosting their coffee stands, and the abundance of foreign fruit and flowers gave visitors the impression of another country.
A prolific diarist, Bishop Whipple, noted in his travel journal that in the French Market, “fish, flesh and fowl can be had in any quantity.” His enthusiasm extended to the local vegetables on display as well, “The stalls groan with vegetables of all descriptions: green peas, strawberries, tomatoes, radishes, turnips and celery.” (2)
Fanny Trollope, an English author, was delighted with the effect of New Orleans’ temperate climate on local produce … “The heat was much more than agreeable, and the attacks of the mosquitoes incessant, and most tormenting: yet I suspect that for a short time, we would rather have endured it, than not have seen oranges, green peas and red pepper, growing in the open air at Christmas.” (3)
Many visitors were also impressed by the incredible wealth of game and fish in the market. The French nun, Madeleine Hachard, wrote to her father that there were no fish in France comparable to the “large monster fish” in Louisiana. (4) The amount of game was also extraordinary. There was venison, a large variety of ducks, pheasant, grouse, woodcock, and wild turkey in abundance, to name a few.
Thomas Wharton, supervisory architect of the U.S. Custom House on Canal Street, had much to say about his forays to local markets and his food preferences in Queen of the South, New Orleans, 1853-1862. He frequently purchased game or fish, but in 1857 he wrote about the amount of fruit available in the city, praising the figs, peaches, melons and pineapple from Havana. In 1860 he further reported, “Twice a week hundreds of boxes (of strawberries) come by the railroad to different grocers, etc.” (5)
The majority of Quarterites purchased their food at the French Market, but residents in nearby areas with an appropriate amount of land created productive gardens, which, according to the records and drawings of the period must have been beautiful as well. Lake Douglas, a local author, revealed 19th century garden customs in his comprehensive book, Public Spaces, Private Gardens: A History of Designed Landscapes. Douglas wrote that from an early period local gardeners learned which plants thrived in the area, planted the same geometric style beds as their European ancestors, and made use of both ornamental and edible plants. (6) The advertisements in local newspapers offer testimony that the city was full of seed stores and suppliers –enough to satisfy the most ambitious gardener. (7) Even small private gardens contained everything from artichokes to orange trees. In the January 5, 1831 edition of The New Orleans Bee, Smith’s Garden Seed Store at 55 Royal St. advertised “fresh garden seeds… these were declared to come ”directly from the grower, labeled in French and English.” (8)
Aside from substantial market fare and local gardening produce, New Orleanians, living in a port city, had the advantage of imported luxury food items. In 1803-05 Claude Robin reported in his travel diary that local residents enjoyed “prodigious consumption of … liqueurs, sausages, anchovies, pickles, fruit preserved in brandy, … dried fruits …” Another passage in Robin’s journal reminds us of the blessings of air conditioning- imported cheeses were often ruined in the unrelenting heat of the New Orleans climate!(9)
In the January 1, 1831 edition of The New Orleans Bee, Gabriel Julien advertised as a confectioner and distiller at No. 30, Conde St. His wares included sugar plums … cakes of all kinds, flowers and fruits preserved in sugar, sweetmeats, fruits preserved in brandy, chocolate, etc. The ad goes on to report that he has fresh pastry daily and receives imports from France. (10)
Prior to the mid 19th century, before restaurants as we know them today, coffeehouses were popular in New Orleans and served as male clubs. (Coffeehouse in this time and place was a euphemism. Liquor was the drink of choice.) There were approximately 100 coffeehouses in the 1830s. Men of many different stations in life gathered to play card games or dominoes, read newspapers, smoke their cigars and often have a plate lunch. According to an advertisement for The Globe Coffeehouse listed in the city directory of 1831, it served “breakfasts, dinners and suppers” … at “all hours of the day and evening”. These meals were substantial and consisted of, among other choices, beef-steaks, oysters and mutton chops. (11) Coffeehouses must have been a great convenience for bachelors renting rooms and travelling men.
Coffeehouse fare was celebrated, but nothing to compare with the gentlemen’s free lunches offered daily by the saloons at large hotels. Reputedly these came about to accommodate businessmen in the area. William H. Coleman writes, “There is no city in the world where such free lunches are set as in the first class saloons of New Orleans.” The tradition, Coleman says, began at the St. Louis Hotel, but soon other large hotels began to offer this wildly popular service. He also reports that “A very comfortable meal can be procured at any of the places, and it is said that many impecunious persons live wholly at the free lunch counter.” (12)
Even with the endless source of food available in hotels, coffeehouses, oyster houses, small restaurants and in the market, street vendors were very busy as well. The New Orleans enslaved population often worked as food vendors throughout likely areas of the city. They are perhaps most associated with the sale of calas, the sweet rice cakes still favorites in the city today. Several enslaved female vendors became well-known for their pralines, fruits, and vegetables; Joseph Holt Ingraham, author of Southwest by a Yankee, reported “black women, with huge baskets of rusks, rolls and other appurtances of the breakfast table, were crying, in loud shrill French, their stock in trade.” Ingraham notes other vendors were selling milk and butter as well. (13)
One of the characters in the artist Leon Fremeaux’s 1876 collection of sketches, New Orleans Characters, was an ice cream vendor, a frequent sight in the French Quarter. However, street peddlers sold ice cream in the city long before that time. The first ice manufacturing plant was built in New Orleans in 1868, but ice was shipped on schooners from the Northeast to the city’s ice houses from the early 1820s. The tradition of ice cream vendors in the French Quarter continues until this day.
For those less affluent locals who were forced to stay in New Orleans, the summer must have seemed like an eternity. Sweltering days are endless in a season that seems eternal, and a week without rain in July is severe punishment. Throughout the 19th century, whole families often deserted the city in June for the Gulf Coast and didn’t return until September. For those who were city bound by business, family obligations or lack of money, a short excursion to the nearby Lake Ponchartain area served as a brief respite. Breezes off the lake cooled the temperature to a tolerable level. An endless supply of seafood was another decided advantage of the area. This included trout, redfish, pompano, and soft shell crabs. Chef Boudro, proprietor of the restaurant Boudro’s on Lake Ponchartrain, acquired a widespread reputation cooking for visiting notables such as Jenny Lind, the opera star and the English author, William Makepeace Thackeray. (14) In Boudro’s 1867 obituary, ( reprinted by the New York Times) The New Orleans Times Picayune sang his praises and claimed that he was “unsurpassed by any transatlantic cook… (and) his seafood represented perfection in the art of cooking fish.” (15) The lake area remained popular for New Orleanians throughout the 19th century; its seafood restaurants and lively entertainment added charm to the prospect of a brief summer retreat.
Travel journals, letters and newspaper advertisements show us that by mid-century New Orleans had already gained a national reputation for its plentiful food and glorious cooking. Visitors came to understand that New Orleanians celebrated life through their diverse native cuisine, a significant part of the city’s culture.
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1.Benjamin Moore Norman, Norman’s New Orleans and Environs, ed. Mattheu Schott, facsimile ed. (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1976), 136
2. Henry Benjamin Whipple, Bishop Whipple’s Southern Diary, ed. Lester B. Shippee (N. Y.; DeCapo Press, 1968), 103
3. Frances M. Trollope and Pamela Neville-Sington, Domestic Manners of the Americans (London and New York: Penguin Classics, 1997), 13
4. Marie Madeleine Hachard. The Letters of Marie M. Hachard, 1727 trans. Myldred Masson Costa (New Orleans: Laborde Printing Company, 1974), 57
5. Thomas K. Wharton, Queen of the South, New Orleans, 1853-1862. The Journal of Thomas K. Wharton, eds. Samuel Wilson Jr., F.A.I.A., Patricia Brady and Lynn Adams (New Orleans: New Orleans Historic Collection, 1999), 42
6. Lake Douglas, Public Spaces, Private Gardens: A History of Designed Landscapes in New Orleans (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2012), 197
7. Douglas, Public Spaces, Private Gardens, 151
8. Advertisement for garden seeds, New Orleans Bee (online) January 5, 1831. http://www.jefferson.lib.la.us/genealogy/New Orleans Beemain.htm
9. Charles Cesar Robin and Stuart O. Omer, Voyage to Louisiana, 1803-1805, trans. (name of translator not available) (New Orleans: Pelican Publishing Company,1966) p. 44
10. Advertisement for Gabriel Julien, Confectioner and Distiller. New Orleans Bee (online). January 1, 1831. http://www.jefferson.lib.la.us/genealogy/NewOrleansBeemai.htm
11. Advertisement for the Globe Coffeehouse in New Orleans, Paxton’s City Directory, 1830-31. Primary Source: microfilm, Historic New Orleans Collection
12. William H. Coleman, Historic Sketch Book and Guide to New Orleans and Environs , 1885. Google E-Books, 88. URL http://books.google.com
13. Joseph H. Ingraham. Southwest by a Yankee. (Amazon Digital’s Kindle edition, Volume I, Chapter IX.)
14. Coleman, Historic Sketch Book, 85
15. Anthony J. Stanosis, The Triumph of Epicure: A Global History of New Orleans Tourism, Louisiana Cultural Vistas, Spring 2010, 74