Nicholas Foreman, a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department, used his 2016 Tedder Family Doctoral Fellowship to travel to New Orleans and Chicago to access archival documents and archaeological data for his dissertation, “The Calorie of Progress: Food and Culture in the Lower Mississippi Valley, 1760-1850.” In the nineteenth century, New Orleans was the jewel of the cotton South. Cotton covered millions of acres and became the barometer of economic success and development in the region. But the economic viability of cotton also crucially depended on local food production among non-elites: itinerant peddlers, urban huxters, and small farmers amongst them. The local food economy was in turn host to a diverse labor market and food culture in which free blacks, Native Americans, poor whites, and even enslaved peddlers contributed to the social and economic development New Orleans and the Lower Mississippi Valley.
Though the cotton economy gobbled up most of the best land for agriculture, a decentralized, yet widespread food system made use of various supply streams stretching throughout the region, relying on the efforts of bakers, fisherman, small farmers, market vendors, and domestic laborers to provide and prepare the daily meal. But even though it remained effective, the traditional methods and multiethnic character of the food trade placed it at odds with Euroamerican administrators from first French, then Spanish, and finally American regimes. City ordinances aimed at counteracting the influence of these lower-class marketers appear reliably throughout the late colonial and early Republican periods, and regulated both access to, and the contents of the region’s urban food markets. Yet the reach of the peasant marketer was long, and archaeological evidence of their products’ wide distribution and usage can be gleaned from the contents of middens, or trash piles, and gardens throughout the existing landscape of New Orleans. Even minor details of archived grocery receipts, market license rolls, and court cases from nineteenth century communicate both the costs and wide array of food consumed by citizens across the city’s social spectrum.
Thus, New Orleans’ reputation as the urban hub of cotton culture was reliant not only upon economic, but also on cultural influences that stretched far beyond the macroeconomics of the cotton and slave markets. The preeminence of these trades in nineteenth century New Orleans created demographic and commercial growth that burdened its everyday citizens with the necessity of food production at the same time it shifted its gaze away from such petty sectors of the economy. Through their utility as provisioners, the humble stewards of the local food trade made up for such oversights and in the process, made their own stamp on the cultural and economic development of the region. By examining this “bottom-up” view of Louisiana’s incorporation into the Antebellum South, this project reminds us of cumulative toil of the forgotten many, without whom, many of the traditions and legacies we cherish would, in all likelihood, not exist.
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