For anyone not born and raised in Manhattan, the most tiresome lament to hear is: You shoulda been here 5 or 10 or 30 years ago. But when it comes to food shopping, the smug old-timers are right-if off by many decades. As loaded as our latter-day larders are, from the blue-green Araucana eggs at city Greenmarkets to sake sorbet at Whole Foods modern markets are no match for the extraordinary open-air emporium that long ago fed Manhattan very, very well.
Starting around 1812, the streets from Fulton to Vesey and Washington to West were food central, an epicurean wonderland that makes the biggest and best gastro-mall anywhere today look like fingerling potatoes. This was New York’s translation of Paris’s Les Halles, the most bountiful cornucopia in the entire country, a European-style bazaar with stall after stall, pushcart after pushcart. Hundreds of vendors showcased everything from butter and eggs to eggplant and asparagus to scrapple and tripe, from sweetbreads to “lamb fries” (testicles), smoked fish to fresh terrapin, mutton to crab. (Eat your heart out, Slow Foodists: Back then everything was nose to-tail and, although the word hadn’t yet been coined, we were locavores all. In the days before refrigeration, almost everything was grown close enough to be brought in by cart.) Some merchants specialized in condiments (ketchup, horseradish), sausages, coffees, teas, spices, honey, lard and more. At least one sold chocolates, bonbons, soda, ice cream sundaes and frappes. Even the vendors themselves were well supplied by the market-in one stop they could find cheese wrappers and churns, egg boxes and candles, butter ladles and wrappers. Imagine the Chelsea Market on triple-dose steroids and you would probably still be seriously underestimating the size and scope of this bonanza.
Washington Market was the major source of food for city shops, restaurants and home cooks alike. The owners of Delmonico’s, near Wall Street, did their shopping there every morning until 1840. William Grimes, in his recent book Appetite City, uses the menu from 1838 to document the amazing array of ingredients a chef had to choose from: squab, hare, quail, pheasant, woodcock, grouse, venison, wild duck, fish-including sheepshead, ray, shad and mackerel-and vegetables from asparagus and artichokes to salsify and chicory. But, according to Michael and Ariane Batterberry’s 1973 On the Town in New York, by 1840 some Gothamites had grown so unimpressed with the produce on offer that they bought land over in Brooklyn to have their own grown (some things never change).
The market opened during the War of 1812, when scarcity made it particularly lucrative to sell comestibles to New Yorkers. By 1818, it had 35 stands, mostly selling cattle. By 1847 new buildings and more landfill allowed for expansion. In 1860 almost the whole market was destroyed by fire, and by 1910 the space was so filthy the mayor jumped in; five years later they were partying on with a covered market that could rival the Barcelona’s Boqueria.
A July 1867 article in Harper’s Magazine paints a vibrant, almost aromatic picture through words alone. It reports that, on an average day, the market provided food for two million people, all of it flowing in on railcars, cattle-laden boats and heavily loaded wagons. Potatoes, cabbage and other vegetables fresh from Long Island were heaped high; apples, pears, peaches and berries were dripping with juices.
When the Harper’s correspondent went trawling, the market had 3,000 people beavering away-many of them, from the sounds of it, importuning “Will you buy, will you buy?” Meat dominated (“tremendous sides of oxen, vast quarters of beef, huge sirloins, gigantic ribs and long legs,” much mutton “and our friend piggy, too”). Venison, cackling live birds, piles of butter and mounds of cheese were all jowl by haunch. But produce was also on endless offer, along with that old staff of life, and pastries, too.
This was during the reign of Thomas DeVoe, a butcher who wangled his way to the top as manager of all New York City markets. His notes, in the New York Historical Society collection, trace the arc of the Washington Market. In 1873 the city oversaw nine markets, including Tompkins, Essex, Centre, Clinton, Catharine, Union, Gouverneur and 18th Ward. But, DeVoe wrote, “The Washington Market is the largest and most widely known and one of the oldest established markets” in the country,” with 528 stands, selling wholesale from 2 to 6 a.m. and retail the rest of the long day.
Around the market’s centennial, in 1915, the city demolished and rebuilt the jerry-rigged mess of thousands of sheds, stalls and wagons to erect a two-story market building complete with electricity and refrigeration-it would look right at home in some European capital-and the merchants’ association staged a dayslong celebration. The photos in the commemorative booklet could have been taken on a movie set, with olive-green and white tiles as backdrops for butchers in white coats and straw hats behind counters laid out with rabbits and pigs’ heads and sides of beef.
Fifteen or so years later, the Depression-era Federal Writers’ Project recorded an enviable array of food, one that would make most modern menus look straight out of Des Moines: caviar from Siberia, Gorgonzola cheese from Italy, hams from Flanders, sardines from Norway, English partridge, native quail, squabs, wild ducks and pheasants, not to mention the local bonanza: swordfish, frogs’ legs, brook trout, pompano, red snapper, codfish tongues and cheeks, bluefish cheeks, venison and, yes, bear steaks.
As the food world turned, and grocery stores and then supermarkets ascended into power, the Washington Market started heading toward a footnote in food history books. (Or, in the case of Mimi Sheraton’s From My Mother’s Kitchen, a chapter-her father was a vegetable commission merchant when it was a wholesale operation there.) Downtown was changing, and a big, smelly market was butting up against a neighborhood that favored finance over fowl. Opponents who wanted it out won when the city displaced vendors to the new wholesale distribution center, the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx, in 1967-to which the Fulton Fish Market was also relocated in 2005. The rest of the market faded into memory in the 1970s as the World Trade Center was built in its footprint.
This Saturday, if you find Union Square too gridlocked with prides of designer dogs and mobs of tourists moving at escargot speed, try the Greenmarket in TriBeCa, the lovely little one of a dozen stands at Chambers and Greenwich where you can buy almost all the same ingredients sans scenesters. Notice the plaque on the fence around the sliver of green behind those vendors, the last vestige of an amazing history: Washington Market Park. And don’t dwell on the fact that the city’s best food days are long behind us.
Regina Schrambling got to Manhattan in 1981, and it was apparently still too late. She writes gastropoda.com, blogs for epicurious.com and contributes to formerly arboreal media as well.
Photos courtesy of the Byron Collection at the Museum of the City of New York