A collision of icons: How a streetcar accident gave us Roman Candy
Kicked out of school after losing his legs in a childhood streetcar accident, Sam Cortese was forced to find a way to make a living at a young age. A street vendor from the time he was 12, he originally sold fruit and vegetables from his New Orleans wagon in the summer and coal in the winter. Occasionally, though, he would offer some of the leftover Italian chewing candy his mother made for family and friends around holidays and for special events. It was always a hit. And so, in 1915, he decided to leave the fruit and vegetables behind and sell just the taffy, for 5 cents a stick. The now-iconic Roman Candy wagon, painted white with big red wagon wheels, has been clattering through the streets of New Orleans ever since.
After Cortese died in 1969, grandson Ron Kottemann took over the family business, in the process keeping a New Orleans tradition alive. In addition to a stationary cart at the Audubon Zoo, Roman Candy is available on an almost daily basis as Kottemann hits the streets in the same wagon his grandfather designed in 1915. Although little has changed in the way the candy is made and sold, there is one noteworthy difference: It’s no longer a nickel a stick. Now, it’ll cost you $1, about the price of a candy bar.
- The Roman Candy cart isn’t just a sales wagon. Cortese’s mother couldn’t possibly make all the candy he needed for his business, so he learned how to make it himself. Then, he enlisted wheelwright Tom Brinker to design a cart that was part kitchen, part packaging plant and part storefront — and which, critically, could be driven from the inside while he made and wrapped candy. The result was the white wagon so familiar to New Orleanians today.
- Brinker did the finish work on the wagon in an upper-floor workshop at Washington and Claiborne avenues. When the wagon was completed, it had to be pushed out of a set of upper doors and lowered to the ground with a block and tackle.
- Roman candy is still hand-pulled throughout the day as the cart travels the streets. Kotteman has estimated he sells 600 sticks a day.
- There have been experimentations with other flavors, but today Roman Candy comes in just three classic types: chocolate, vanilla and strawberry.
- The candy has inspired the recently introduced Roman Candy Rum, made in New Orleans by members of the Cortese family and available in the same three flavors as the candy.
- The Roman Candy cart used to be pulled by horses. That changed in 1946, when the city Sanitation Department switched over from mule-drawn carriages to trucks, prompting the selling off of its mule “fleet” for just $5 a head. Cortese bought one, and it’s been mules ever since.
- In the 102-year history of Roman Candy, only two people have driven the cart on a full-time basis: Cortese and Kotteman.
- The Roman Candy cart has become a familiar fixture at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where Kotteman sets up shop every year. “In the early days, we would take the mule out there as well,” Kottemann said in a 1999 interview with The Times-Picayune. “I used to stable him in the Fair Grounds, and then I’d sleep in the wagon.”
- The recipe for the candy is one Cortese’s family brought to New Orleans from the old country, but from Sicily, not Rome, as the name might suggest. “My grandfather thought that if you called it ‘Italian Candy,’ only Italians would buy it. So instead of calling it ‘Italian,’ he called it ‘Roman.’ And that’s how it got its name,” Kottemann told The Travel Channel show “Food Truck Paradise.”
On that day in 1915 that Cortese first rolled out his Roman Candy cart, he was exhibiting any number of quintessential New Orleans traits: industriousness, scrappiness and a refusal to bow down — not to mention some jim-dandy candy-making skills. Since then, the familiar white wagon with the clanging bell has brought happiness to generations of New Orleanians, old and young alike. In 2015, the Roman Candy wagon celebrated its 100th anniversary, which means — remarkably — it’s been a part of the New Orleans landscape for more than a third of the city’s 300-year existence.