I have always had vivid dreams. My mom remembers me regaling her with them over breakfast. Her usual response was a smile, a shake of the head and the comment, “You have some real weirdies, honey.” I still do.
I woke up this morning after having had a dream about the St. Roch Market. First I need to tell you that I have never been there, not seen it as a seafood and Chinese food place prior to the storm. I have stood staring at it many times since and the building itself has a presence, a personality, one that reaches out wanting to be useful and vibrant. It misses people and voices and laughter. At least that’s what it seems to tell me.
In my dream I was driven to the market by an elderly man, a man who said he’d once owned it. He drove an old Cadillac and was a happy, talkative sort. He said we were to meet a news reporter when we got there but then he’d show me around. He drove around the building and parked. Upon getting out we were greeted by a reporter, David Brinkley. Yeah. That David Brinkley partner of Chet Huntley. Brinkley followed us in, asking questions in that laconic way he had.
Once inside the door I was assailed by a flurry of activity and wonderful aromas. Men and women stirred steaming pots, pulled things out of ovens, filled baskets with fruits and vegetables, dumped ice in gigantic mounds to be covered shortly by piles of shrimp and fish of endless variety. On one counter my host pointed out trays of thick slices of still warm bread topped with thick, melting butter, another tray next to it was bread with honey slathered on it. He told me to grab one and I did. We kept walking and there was a table with outsized pitchers of lemonade, iced tea and three pots of coffee. Glasses were lined up neatly on the white table cloth next to rows of white porcelain cups.
I could smell something wonderful cooking and was led to a man who sold perfectly cooked pork or veal cutlets. I was handed one. It seemed I was handed one of everything for as I juggled my buttered bread, my iced tea and my cutlet, still being given the walking tour, a woman insisted that I sit down at a little table and try some of her soup. It was a hearty cream based soup filled with vegetables and bits of beef. As I raised my spoon, a tiny man brought a plate with a pyramid of huge boiled shrimp. The tiny man and the soup making woman bickered with each other over which I should try first. The owner/tour guide just looked on smiling and David Brinkley took notes between bites of buttered bread. Finally a young boy placed an oval plate of asparagus on the already crowded table. The owner refilled my iced tea and I wondered how I would possibly be able to eat all of it, and it was clear that I was supposed to. Looks were cast sideways by the creators of each dish to see if I was eating their offering. I decided to do what my mom taught me and try everything, and I did so, in a kind of sequence. It was all wonderful and the smells emanating throughout the building only made it taste the better.
When I had eaten all I possibly could, I was escorted down the building to see all the counters and booths and tables and baskets, each filled with something different: onions tumbled out of baskets, tomatoes stacked up high, some in little balsa wood baskets like I remember from childhood. Sometimes berries would come in those too and they were everywhere in the market, not a green plastic basket in sight. Fruits and meats, vegetables and fish, wax paper packets of lard and butter, brown paper bags filled with nuts. There was food everywhere and people laughing and shouting to each other, men wheeling carts of yet more food from somewhere in the back of the building.
The owner/tour guide was introducing me to people, pointing out the best produce, saying that his family had run this market for decades, but I never caught his name. He then took me to a back room that was filled with blue and white checked cotton dresses, all puffed sleeved and gathered dirndl skirted. I was asked to fold them as he continued to tell me that he couldn’t leave the place. “Where would I go? This is what I know and I know all the people here. They’ve chosen to stay with me here. You were lucky to get a ticket for the tour, ya know!” He shuffled some papers on his desk, complained that old man Jones was raising his catfish prices again, then abruptly said it was time to get back in the old Caddy.
I thanked him profusely for the opportunity and asked that he thank the others for feeding me in such a fine fashion, opened the door to the Cadillac and. . .
woke up. Hungry. Something that never happens. I can see the ghosts of the St. Roch Market still piling their fish onto ice and stirring pots. I can still hear them laughing and bickering. I have absolutely no idea what the blue checked dresses were all about. And I can hear my mom saying, “Honey, you DO have some weirdies.”
I’ve clearly been reading way too much Zola lately. And now I need to spend some time looking into the history of the St. Roch Market. I’ve always figured it was a good rule of thumb to do that if the ghosts come to invite you to visit them.
Ah, the Underbelly of New Orleans. Well done. I wish I was there for a foodie tour. Where can I get a steak frite?