Home-grown Fruits and Vegetables Uncommon in Early New Orleans

As someone deeply involved in regional food systems, I am always searching for detailed descriptions of earlier food systems wherever I work. Here in my own region of the Gulf Coast, I often find a common misperception that the level of truck farming found in and around the city in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries (due to the large number of Sicilian and German immigrants) was representative of the agricultural system of the earlier colonial eras. However, most accounts I have read indicate that the port was the entry point for much of the food and drink that the region used and plantations were mostly used for growing and exporting commodity crops from the earliest days until the present day, with market crops quite limited.  Therefore, I was gratified to find this passage in Public Spaces, Private Gardens : A History of Designed Landscapes in New Orleans by Lake Douglas:

“The French botanist and explorer Charles-César Robin (ca. 1750–?) discussed his travels in Louisiana, West Florida, and the West Indies between 1802 and 1806 in his three-volume Voyages dans l’intérieur de la Louisiane … (Paris, 1807):

‘The high cost of labor is reflected in the high price of vegetables in the markets, where fish, game and meat are very cheap, these not being the product of much labor. Vegetables are so rare that sometimes they are lacking altogether. In the spring there are no first fruits, although the cold spells are so transient that with a few precautions one would hardly notice the winter. No one knows anything about seed beds, greenhouses or shelter, nor anything at all about the art of vegetable gardening. In the dry periods of summer there are no lettuces or other leafy vegetables, because no one waters or protects the young plants. Notwithstanding the fact that a person near the city can make six, seven, eight, nine, ten piastres a day from the sale of vegetables, not even these exorbitant prices have stimulated anyone to perfect this branch of agriculture. I have examined several of the large vegetable gardens. They are shameful, not to the slaves who cultivate them; they don’t know any better, but to their masters who hardly bother to oversee work outside of the fields. The expense of slave labor on the one hand prevents the introduction of new products, and, on the other, stunts the ingenuity and industry of the masters themselves’  These observations are obviously those of someone well acquainted with horticulture, cultivation techniques, and agricultural economy. They suggest that, well into the nineteenth century, the community itself was not self-sufficient in growing fruits and vegetables and was still dependent upon external supplies for these needs” (italics added).

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About DW

New Orleans resident, writer, activist. Public market consultant.

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