The next time you hit New Orleans, carve an hour or two out of your Saturday morning for a real, non-touristy pilgrimage. Your destination: the weekly Vietnamese farmers market in Versailles, a neighborhood just ten miles northeast of the Quarter, home to one of the most densely concentrated Vietnamese communities outside of Vietnam.
Rise early (the market opens at 6 am and winds down by 8:30 am). Head east on Interstate 10, then onto Chef Menteur Highway, where industrial canals reflect the pale salmon-pink glow of the rising sun, in stark contrast to the sprawling grey landscape still rebounding from Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. Bypass a cement factory, a collision junkyard, a “gentleman’s club” (ahem), and an endless procession of starkly silhouetted telephone poles marching toward the horizon. Abruptly, signs shift language: Dong Phuong, Pho Bang, Bien Nho. Take a hard left on 14401 Alcee Fortier Boulevard, and you’re there. Just look for the dense cluster of parked cars and follow the sound of crowing roosters.
For decades now, each Saturday morning, a parking lot near Saigon Drive in New Orleans East transforms into what some jokingly call the “squat market,” which smacks of political incorrectness but alludes to the many vendors comfortably squatting before their homegrown herbs and veggies displayed at pavement level. Elders wear traditional conical non la hats, presiding over a multitude of fresh produce: mints, lemongrass, scallions, watercress, basil, turmeric, daikon radishes, luffa squash, pomelo (giant grapefruit), bitter melon, purple yams, Thai eggplant. Some locals brave the early hour to hit the market, but now they no longer need to. A nonprofit Vietnamese farmers cooperative called VEGGI delivers produce, herbs, and tofu straight to area kitchens (for that matter, locals can sign up for the CSA). So you don’t necessarily need to come here in person, but you’d miss out on a cool experience.
Non-Vietnamese are greatly outnumbered, but welcome. The poultry seller, for example, is a Caucasian father-son duo from just across the border in Mississippi. They rise very early each week to load up their cages with hens, roosters, ducks, and rabbits, any of which, once selected for purchase, is plopped live into a burlap sack for customers to tote home and deal with on their own terms (if you’re in the market for backyard chickens, this is the place). Occasionally, a rooster escapes, eliciting shouts and laughter as volunteers attempt to corner it for recapture.
Not all who sell here have joined VEGGI (the cooperative is a separate entity from the market), but members reap the added benefits of VEGGI’s ever-growing client list and its nearby 3½-acre tract of urban farm land. There is no joiners fee, only an agreed-upon small percentage of sales retained by the co-op to help maintain the plots, expand the program, and deliver deliciously fresh produce to some of New Orleans’ most talented and conscientious chefs.
VEGGI aims to jumpstart sustainable agriculture business opportunities for locals ravaged by a number of recent blows. First came Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which left Versailles underwater, wiping out the houses, vehicles, gardens, and infrastructure that the community had worked for thirty years to establish. Then came an imposed neighborhood landfill, a depository for post-Katrina debris with potentially adverse effects on local waterways. Finally and disastrously, came the BP Oil Spill, crippling the shrimping and fishing industry upon which many Vietnamese relied for income.
After so many threats to the community’s well-being, it seemed logical to turn to the very land itself for sustenance, just as elders had done since they fled communist Vietnam in the 1970s, but with the added boost of VEGGI’s sound infrastructure and development plan. VEGGI helps build greenhouses in residents’ backyards, provides a shared urban tract of raised beds for all-natural farming, advises its growers about safe farming practices and clean water sources, involves and educates local youth about the whole food system, and delivers produce into the hands of loyal customers.
Customers like Alex Harrell, chef and owner of Angeline in the French Quarter, who features VEGGI’s eggplant, Thai chiles, arugula, dandelion greens, Chinese cabbages, and flavored tofus (you’ll find the tofu lady at the market, too, marketing her extra-firm GMO-free soy tofu flavored with garlic, lemongrass, and chili peppers; per Harrell, it’s the best tofu he’s ever eaten). Or Chef Nathaniel Zimet of Boucherie who incorporates VEGGI’s Thai roselle flowers, jade gourds, loofah squash, and Asian mustard greens into his cuisine. Or Chef Martha Wiggins of Sylvain who raves about VEGGI’s pristine and beautiful mesclun greens mix used in her daily market salads, including baby mustards, tatsoi, mizuna, and oak leaves.
With VEGGI in place, good things are sprouting in New Orleans East.
Alex Harrell of Angeline
1032 Chartres Street, New Orleans, LA
Martha Wiggins of Sylvain
625 Chartres Street, New Orleans, LA
Nathaniel Zimet of Boucherie
8115 Jeannette Street, New Orleans, LA