Lifestyle & Culture

Kitchen Detail: To Market, to Market We Go


By Nancy Pollard

After owning one of the best cooking stores in the US for 47 years—La Cuisine: The Cook’s Resource in Alexandria, Virginia—Nancy Pollard writes Kitchen Detail, a blog about food in all its aspects—recipes, film, books, travel, superior sources, and food-related issues.

food market in Bologna

Food market in Bologna.

A CHANCE REMARK made by a market gardener at his stand started the trail of this post.  He asked me if I knew that Paris was at one time fed primarily by market gardens, the small plots that fuel so many of our farmers  markets. And no, I did not. One of my favorite things to do when I visit another city is to shop in food markets that are not grocery stores and (if we have a kitchen) purchase provisions to make a meal. And most of the cities have a rich history of market gardens behind them. Borough Market in London, Union  Square Greenmarket in New York City, Pike Place Market in Seattle are just three examples. It made me curious about the rise and fall (and, we hope, the rise again) of US market gardens. Historically, they were harbingers of small-business success, a necessity for burgeoning urban centers. Their decline in the US precipitated the food-desert issue, along with monoculture farming, the unsustainable approach to providing healthy food for our population.

Market gardens are usually around an acre in size (although they can be as much as 10 acres). Originally, market gardens were distinguished as being cultivated with a hoe, while on farms the land was cultivated by a plow. An acre itself was determined by the amount of land that could be tilled by a pair of oxen and a plow in one day. (Interesting side note from Wikipedia: The word “truck” in truck farms does not refer to the mode of transport, but rather from the old north French word troquer, which means “barter” or “exchange.”)

The Ugly Relative of Ornamental Gardens

Market stall in The Four Elements at the National Gallery in London

Market stall in The Four Elements, at the National Gallery in London.

A market garden was vastly different from a medieval farm, which usually incorporated livestock, fields of grain, and orchards, and in much of early European history, was “leased,” meaning that the farmer turned over a large percentage of his yield to the landowner. Malcolm Thick, a British historian on agriculture and gardening, wrote that the much smaller market gardens were the “ugly sisters of garden history.” In a sense, they were viewed as unsightly when compared with the beautiful designs for the ornamental gardens of Catholic cloisters or wealthy nobles.

Small and intensively cultivated by hand, producing only fruits and vegetables, market gardens were spotted with glass cloches, rickety trellises, and untrammeled vines. This mix of  garden and commerce had its earliest roots in 13th-century Europe, where urban populations began to grow outside the original fortified cities and towns. By the 17th century, in The Netherlands, which was a hotbed of early capitalism, market gardens rose to prominence due to the shortage of arable land in this sea-bound country, where transportation by canal made this an easy way to provide food at a profit to urban centers. Discoveries of new fruits and vegetables through voyages to the Far East and the surprise of a vast continent between Europe and Asia, greatly expanded what these small gardens could supply their urban customers—and ultimately changed the appetites and cuisines of these countries. A devastating famine at the end of the 16th century in London created the Perfect Storm moment for market gardens to flourish to feed this ever-growing city (not to mention the plenitude of fertilizing excrement from the thousands of outdoor privies).

The Rise Of The Maraîchers

Robert Antoine Pinchon painting of a maraicher garden in the Beaus Arts Museum in Rouen

Robert Antoine Pinchon painting of a maraicher garden in the Beaux Arts Museum in Rouen, France. Note the glass cloches protecting tender plants.

Rooftop maraichers image from Topager

Rooftop maraichers image from Topager.

To make these ugly sisters even less attractive, market gardeners added to the unsightly paraphernalia to extend the growing seasons of these highly productive plots. The 17th and 18th centuries saw enhancements to  primitive cold frames come into being. These improvements led to the fabled reputation of the Parisian version, the maraîchers, the small farms that had developed into small economic powerhouses beginning in the 17th century  and continuing throughout the 19th century.  According to Elliot Coleman, who has helped to spearhead the resurgence of market gardens in the US, 6 percent of all the land in Paris was in the hands of these maraîchers, as well as the surrounding marshlands (marais means marshland),  which had earlier been filled in (some with ornamental gardens). With their advanced glass cold-frame designs (the predecessor of our 21st-century hoop houses and tunnels) and the use of manure to heat as well as fertilize crops under glass, Parisians were able to purchase salad greens in January, or cucumbers and melons in early summer. And in the 21st century, maraîcher gardens are on rooftops as well as in reclaimed swamps.

Whither the US Market Garden

Market gardeners in the US during the 20th century had a tough row to hoe (terrible pun, but the phrase is apt). If you think about it, the first half of that century was plagued by war on a global scale. In the US, all was geared to production—machinery and food.  Factory production on an agricultural level found a new home with the American consumer. The US became the poster child for convenience foods, long shelf life, and cheap pricing, made possible by farm subsidies (paid by taxpayers) to ever-more- monolithic industrial farming companies. Even school lunch programs, which were once highly localized, were forced into federal compliance that was designed by these same companies. We all recall the designation of ketchup as a vegetable.

I remember shopping at my local farmers market and watching the small farm stalls slowly disappear, so that the square became a craft market with some foods as garnish. The light at the end of the tunnel is a generation of new market gardeners who have enriched and expanded farmers markets in urban centers across the US.  Market gardens serving restaurants are now featured on menus, something I don’t remember seeing 40 years ago.

A unique feature of US and Canadian market gardens are the CSA programs (meaning community-supported agriculture)  whereby farmers line up subscribers who pay up front to receive timely boxes of whatever is currently being harvested. And there now is lots of help available from independent market garden groups and state agencies and university agricultural departments. When you want some good news videos, click on to Farmers Friend, which produces equipment for market gardens. It’s my happy place.

This post originally appeared in Kitchen Detail.



One thought on “Kitchen Detail: To Market, to Market We Go

  1. Nancy G says:

    I recently visited the Santa Monica (CA) farmers market with my cousin, who is a foodie and cookbook author (The Santa Monica Farmers Market Cookbook, The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen). What an experience! Aside from everyone knowing her, the variety, quality, and clearly seasonal nature of everything was amazing. Nothing like what we have on the east coast at all, except maybe Union Square in NYC. Thanks for the history lesson. And now, I need to find a better place to buy our food.

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