By. Jasper McGarey
Riding down the St. Charles Ave streetcar, looking out on old money mansions while the scent of magnolia blossoms blows through the open windows, the Carnival Season is in full swing. People from all over have come to New Orleans to meet with friends, enjoy parades, and celebrate the days before Ash Wednesday. As people wearing leotards, glitter, and colorful wigs struggle to find $1.25 in their fanny packs, a mule draws a white wooden wagon with windows and bright red letters down the side of the road. Inside the wagon on marble countertops and a metal hook, Ron Kottemann pulls a taffy-like confection by hand while the mule navigates the streets of the city. Though the driver can control the reins from the inside of the wagon, the mule has been on the job long enough that she knows the route by heart, and since Roman Chewing Candy has long been a New Orleans staple, there’s been plenty of time to learn.
The origins of the Roman Candy Company go back to the early 1910s. Sam Cortese, Ron’s grandfather, was a street vendor who had lost his legs to a streetcar. Cortese noticed that whenever he brought his mother’s homemade candy to sell with his fruits and vegetables, it was a huge success. When people kept asking for more, Cortese’s mother couldn’t keep up with the demand. He needed a new plan. Working with family friend and wheelwright Tom Brinker, the design of Cortese’s vegetable cart was modified and improved. The windowed wagon New Orleans knows today arose from a need to continually make the taffy as Cortese moved throughout the city, while also taking Sam’s legs into consideration. “Because of the accident,” Kottemann notes, “the wagon needed everything to be in the same place.” In the new design, Sam could stand on his wooden legs, mix the ingredients, pull the candy, and wrap the product while the horse navigated the roads. An unusual quirk in the design was that the reins were fed through the front so that Cortese himself could turn when he needed to. Extremely impressive for its time, there was even running water inside. The wagon made its debut in 1915 when Cortese began selling his newly rebranded Roman Chewing Candy for 5 cents each. Though the original cart doesn’t roam the streets anymore, visitors to the Audubon Zoo can see it permanently parked outside of the primate exhibit, where it still sells the Chewing Candy, now a dollar per stick.
When New Orleans tourism peaks, Ron can hardly keep up with demand. “Jazz Fest is one of the busiest times for me,” says Kottemann, “but Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest are both times when a lot of people try Grandpa’s candy for the first time. I can make upwards of 2000 sticks a day, but that’s the limit. You’d need a machine to make more than that.” 2000 sticks a day is a sharp increase from Kottemann’s average of about 600 sticks a day during the off-season. “I’ll have someone else in the wagon helping wrap so I can focus on making it.” Today, there are three flavors of Roman Chewing Candy which Ron mixes himself: Vanilla, Chocolate, and Strawberry. Cortese tried introducing a few other flavors over the years but found that having too many options made people indecisive. “The most important thing in street vending is making the sale and moving on,” Kottemann notes, “so Grandpa cut it down to three flavors, and that’s the way it’s been ever since.”
Incredible arm strength is needed to work the taffy all day long, but the charm of the Roman Candy is in its long tradition. “I’m just the vendor,” Kottemann remarks. “Everyone loves seeing the mule and the wagon.” The Roman Chewing Candy wagon is certainly one of the most recognizable fixtures of Uptown New Orleans. Kottemann adds that, “All the time people say their uncle or grandma used to buy the candy for them when they were a little kid, and it’s always exactly how they remember it.” When people hear Ron ring the wagon’s bell signaling he’s setting up shop, they come running for a delicious little slice of New Orleans history that can’t be found anywhere else.