by Michelle Fonseca
Today I am searching for the best Holy Trinity money can buy. Not the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit trinity. I am searching for New Orleans’s brand of trinity—bell pepper, onion, and celery—the ingredients every good cook needs for such dishes as gumbo, jambalaya, and crawfish pie. And I know where to find it.
I exit Interstate 10 and head toward New Orleans’s warehouse district near downtown. It is nearly 8 a.m. on a hot-and-looks-like-rain Saturday in late summer. The streets are blessedly free of traffic, that is, until I turn off Camp Street onto Girod heading toward the Mississippi and not a parking place in sight. Early birds, coffees in hand, are conversing with vendors at the Crescent City Farmers Market (CCFM), my destination, and awaiting the ringing of the market’s schoolhouse bell that marks opening time. I find a parking space a short walk away and eagerly head toward New Orleans’s best arena for locally grown produce and regionally caught seafood.
Locals all around me are "makin’ groceries," a loose translation of the French faire le marcher, "to make the market." CCFM is an endeavor of Loyola University New Orleans’s ECOnomics Institute. The market has affected the shopping habits of New Orleanians and also the economic development of small-scale farmers raising vegetables and other foods grown using sustainable agricultural practices in rural areas of thirteen parishes in Louisiana, six counties in Mississippi, and even one in Alabama.
On overcast days the CCFM moves from its outdoor venue into a warehouse next door, both spaces donated by the William B. Reily Foundation, one of the city’s largest philanthropic organizations. About 30 tables laden with attractively displayed wares are inside. The main entrance and sidewalk are decorated with bedding plants and hanging flower baskets for sale from Mizell Farms in Folsom, a town about an hour’s drive across Lake Pontchartrain.
I spy bell peppers, but the line is already long. So I head to Anthony Smith Crabs, which offers hard- and soft-shell crabs. In response to customer demand, CCFM added seafood to its offerings last February, bolstering the livelihood of Louisiana fishermen eager to sell to a retail market. Second-generation fisherman Anthony Smith and wife Ethel sell to area restaurants during the week but enjoy contact with retail customers at Saturday’s market. In the few minutes I spend with them, several customers ask them to save two, three dozen crabs each for pick-up on their way out.
For Diana Pinckley, a CCFM board member, owner of a public relations firm, and a regular at CCFM from day one, the seafood is an added treat: "I didn’t cook seafood at home until the market offered it. I’d always go to a restaurant for seafood. At the market, I meet the people who caught it, and they tell me how to cook it."
Business is as good at Roko’s Oysters & Seafood stall. "We love the people here, and the crowd is fantastic," co-owner Patsy Tvrdeic´ says. She and her husband, Roko, a native Croatian, educate the public that it is okay to eat oysters all year long. That old warning about not eating oysters during months with no letter "r"—May through August—harkens back to pre-refrigeration days.
Richard McCarthy, ECOnomics Institute director, has been overseeing the bustling activity of the day’s setup, which began at 6 a.m.; he and coordinator Leif Eklund organize the volunteers. It was four years ago that McCarthy shared his interest in community gardens with like-minded New Orleanians. They questioned why, in a city known for food, there was no opportunity to purchase locally grown food in one location.
"We linked rural producers with urban consumers," says McCarthy, who rounded up support from the city government.
"In the middle of all this is a Jesuit university with a commitment to social justice," McCarthy explains. "The support of the university has been amazing. I believe it was the Jesuits who first brought sugar cane and satsuma [a variety of the mandarin orange] to Louisiana. And Jesuit Bend [south of New Orleans along the Mississippi] was where they first planted them. It’s a nice full circle."
"We strengthen our urban communities by strengthening our rural communities," McCarthy believes. "What we end up with is not urban versus rural, but urban valuing rural."
"Food is a cultural galvanizing point here in New Orleans because everyone—from uptown, downtown, back of town, or out of town—lives for food," McCarthy says.
For many vendors, the CCFM is an introduction to retail sales and the demands of customer service. "We encourage the vendors to field-test products, develop customer-service skills and an entrepreneurial posture for their businesses, and then use these assets as a springboard to sell their products in other places such as restaurants and groceries," McCarthy explains.
Margaret Wade, a transplanted New Yorker and current French Quarter resident, calls the market "the" place to spend a Saturday morning. In her hands are two overstuffed bags of assorted produce and other goodies. "It’s a great place to unwind and talk about what New Orleanians love to talk about—food."
Mouth-watering pastries and breads in glass-enclosed displays grab my attention as I peer over the heads of others who have taken a number to be served. Across the aisle, those of legal age sample native wines at Henry Amato’s. Owner of Amato’s Winery in Tangipahoa Parish, about an hour and a half north of the city, Amato was a successful market vendor from day one.
"The market gives people an opportunity to sample our wines and buy them. It’s opened a lot of doors for us," says Amato, whose business has grown significantly since he started selling at the market. He has signed on with a wholesaler, got his wines on grocers’ shelves, and is building a new production plant to handle the increased demand.
For retired postman Johnnie Clark of Clark Farms, who frequently sells out of his vegetables by 9 a.m., coming to the farmers market is more than a second career. He established the Bay Gall Group, a farm co-op in Tangipahoa Parish that also serves farmers in St. Helena and Livingston parishes.
Clark grew up in that area and knows the people and the land well. Organizing a co-op was essential to the economic well-being of the area and also a spiritual work for Clark.
"I helped organize the co-op simply because I owe it to God to give something back," Clark explains. "I’ve got to do something to improve the economic condition of that rural area."
Exposing the co-op’s seventeen farmers to new concepts and innovative ways of making a living is a full-time calling for Clark. "They have to find a way of surviving. The market has helped us as a group sell produce and pool our resources." The co-op is saving money to purchase a tractor to increase their output.
Other special products and relationships developed rather quickly as contacts between sellers and buyers increased. One result is a weekly commodity and gourmet report called "Market Fax" that the institute shoots over to twenty chefs and restaurants, an idea born out of need: "A handful of farmers and chefs expressed a desire to have direct contact," McCarthy explains. "The chefs wanted to know from whom they were buying. What makes this fax service valuable to the chefs is that it’s easy to read and timely when they are planning their menus."
Restaurants who buy from market vendors display a CCFM window sticker reading "We feature local products in our menu."
Susan Spicer, chef-owner of Bayona Restaurant in the French Quarter and owner of Spice, Inc., in the warehouse district, is a board member and enthusiastic supporter of CCFM. "I have access to beautiful, fresh, local, seasonal produce for my menu specials," she explains. "It also means I have a great source, the farmers, for learning more about how things grow and what new items we can try to add each season. The market fax is a much-needed convenience for those of us who can’t make it to the market every Saturday."
As I leave the market, rain begins to fall, so I throw my bags of catfish, oysters, bell peppers (no celery and onions today), and a giant sunflower for my sons to admire into the car. I drive away pondering just one thing—who will clean the kitchen when my culinary masterpieces are complete?