In 1779 the Spanish government began regulating the markets of New Orleans, and built its first covered facility on Chartres Street. They controlled the accuracy of weights used by vendors, health standards and prices. After the Market burned in the fire of 1788, it was reopened closer to the Mississippi River, to facillate access to river traffic, where it remains today. In return for building and overseeing the market, the government gained several thousand pesos in revenue from licenses and taxes.
Until the Civil War, the Meat Market was the only place in the French Quarter to legally sell fresh meat. Before refrigeration, the most efficient means of shipping fresh meat was to keep it alive until you needed it. Until 1850, livestock was shipped via Lake Pontchatrain to wharves along the Carondelet Canal. Much of the beef came from the western prairie of Louisiana, but pork could come from as far away as the Mid-West, and professional hunters supplied the market with wild game. Historian Sally K. Reeves notes “All slaughtering had to be done in prescribed neighborhoods, under cover from the sun or before dawn, and the leavings disposed of according to ordinance. Before the sun rose, butchers transported their product to the market which was a frenzy of activity from sawn until 10am (noon in the winter).” Unsold meat was usually taken home to be consumed by the family, but some butchers’ families opened small restaurants near the French Market and served the cooked meat there.
The government, dependent on market revenue, faced competition in the form of the “private market” or “corner store,” so called because the entrance cut the street corner. City ordinance forbade the corner stores to sell perishables, so most of their sales were limited to canned, dried, baked or bottled goods. As a result, liquor was (and remains) one of the primary products in the corner store’s inventory. In addition, however, store owners managed to stock a wide variety of non-perishables.
The French Market has now become a tourist destination in New Orleans, and only a couple of the many vendors sell any sort of food at all. Most simply sell New Orleans souvenirs and mass produced goods to tourists. More and more small restaurants and produce stands are moving back into the renovated part of the market, re-claiming it as the original source of fresh food in the city.