Review: St. Louis’ Soulard Farmer’s Market
When people think of farmer’s markets they often picture liberal and urban locales such as Ferry Plaza in San Francisco or Union Square in New York. They envision booths of produce basked by summertime greenery, throngs of shoppers of a more urbane and well-heeled demographic, and food products that offer variety, organic options, and a good deal of sustainability – sometimes at moderate prices, sometimes not.
For better and for worse, this perception is generally accurate of the largest and most popular farmer’s markets in the United States. While smaller markets may offer greater authenticity, they usually come with fewer options and a weaker commitment to sustainability. In short, few major American destinations resemble the farmer’s markets that can be found in the heart of metropolitan areas in places like Chile, Spain, Brazil, and Italy.
But there is one U.S. city that boasts a farmer’s market molded more after the European and Latin American models: St. Louis. Here, in the heart of the country, you’re less likely to find exotic food products and an established organic community. But you can still find a farmer’s market that takes local sourcing to a new level.
The St. Louis farmer’s market, known as the Soulard Market, is located in a neighborhood by the same name just a couple miles south of the Gateway Arch. The market unofficially began in 1779 and took up permanent residence in the neighborhood no later than 1841. Both of these dates would place the Soulard Market as one of the oldest in the country. These days, the farmer’s market is housed in a brick “Grand Hall” that was constructed in 1929 – and hasn’t changed much since.
This lack of change over time can be said to describe the Soulard Market as a whole. Although the addition of a spice shop and a concession stand in the past couple decades have given the market a slightly more varied flair, most products are basic and unremarkable – tomatoes, onions, lettuce, potatoes, and carrots are always in strong supply. Most products, furthermore, are priced far below grocery store levels, making Soulard Market one of the few modern places where you can shop with quarters and dimes rather than bills and credit cards. And, finally, the place simply looks as though nothing has changed over the course of a century: the building is old and a bit dilapidated, most displays contain hand-written signs, and the farmers behind the booths are often wearing boots and overalls.
All this gives the Soulard Market an authenticity that many other markets lack. It also reflects the local focus inherent in a market that has changed little over time: unlike in New York or San Francisco, where “local” foods may come from hundreds of miles away, most booths at Soulard Market are operated by farmers that made the short drive over the Mississippi River that morning. In fact, even though Soulard is a dense urban neighborhood, you can stand on South Broadway, look out over the river, and see the very farms from which you are about to buy produce beyond. This is a phenomenon that larger metropolitan areas cannot replicate.
The downside of Soulard’s “old school” mentality is that there is little commitment made at the market to organic produce, especially when compared with the markets in other cities. Some booths offer organic items but most couldn’t care less – they offer sustainability by virtue of their local proximity, not because they share a commitment to healthy and eco-friendly eating. In recent years the market has made a push for more organic items; while this has resulted in better signage for products that are, indeed, organic, the variety of options still remain limited in this regard.
It is probably for this reason that Soulard’s crowd is generally older, more conservative, and less environmentally-concerned. They are simply there for the fresh and cheap produce. In fact, Soulard’s produce is probably the best in the region from both a value and quality perspective. Some of St. Louis’ top chefs recognize this, meaning that you could browse restaurant menus on YellowPages.com and find numerous food items that are locally-sourced even if they are not labeled as such.
So if you’re seeking an economic, authentic, and hyper-localized farmer’s market experience, you might want to pay Soulard a visit on your next trip to the Gateway City. If buying organic produce is your top priority, however, you may be better off saving your time and looking somewhere else.