Everyone’s New Year’s resolution these days seems to include eating better. In New Orleans, the home of fried food and starchy red beans and rice, oil and flour-thickened roux for gumbo, etc. etc., that may seem to be an impossible dream. But think about all the fruit and vegetable vendors in town, and it may not seem so far-fetched. After all, we have one of the last remaining singing mobile fruit and vegetable vendors in the country, Mr. Okra. Mr. Okra is famous these days for his newly painted truck, but his musical announcements for his wares dates back to the 19th century in New Orleans. If you’ve never heard this “I’ve got eatin’ pears, I’ve got apples,” sung in a strange rhythmic cadence, you’re in for a surprise. Sung in different ways to differentiate themselves from each other, street food songs have been a presence n New Orleans for many years. A recording made by music historians, The Classic Sounds of New Orleans, on the Smithsonian Folkways label, features Dora Bliggen, another old-time fruit vendor who could have had another career as a jazz singer. Now, there’s just Mr. Okra who cries his wares, using a speaker and Autotune to surreal (and startling) effect, but there are still folks in New Orleans set up all over town in different locations selling fresh vegetables or fruit from their trucks. Some of it is local produce in season-strawberries from Ponchatoula, or oranges from Plaquemines Parish, or greens from St. Bernard Parish truck farmers. Wherever you drive in town, you may see one of these trucks.
Let’s not forget about the French Market, either, still the oldest continuously operating outdoor market in the country. It’s been there since 1791. The Sicilian immigrants who came to New Orleans in the late 19th century contributed a great deal, and Italian-Americans still sell fruits and vegetables at the market and from commercial warehouses. New Orleans was and is a port, and its immigration patterns at the end of the 19th century matched that of New York and San Francisco in numbers and diversity. Stalls at the French Market were operated by people speaking languages from all over the world, and many of those people later started corner markets and also sold wares from the streets. In the late 1990’s, the farmers’ market movement got underway across the country, and in New Orleans, since Hurricane Katrina, farmers’ markets have proliferated. Now we have farmer’s markets operating three days a week in town as part of the Crescent City Farmers’ Market, at 200 Broadway St. at the river Uptown on Tuesday, at 3700 Orleans Avenue at the Bayou on Thursday, and at 700 Magazine St. at Girod on Saturday mornings. Several more operate in different neighborhoods on other days. So, it’s easy to keep those New Year’s resolutions to eat more vegetables and fruit, as well as to buy local! And you’re part of New Orleans history while you’re doing it.