Heart of Louisiana: Roman Candy Wagon

Heart of Louisiana: Roman Candy Wagon
Updated: Sep. 22, 2015 at 10:13 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - It's one of those New Orleans traditions that's been around for generations, and it's celebrating a big birthday this year. On most days, you can find the Roman candy wagon trekking through uptown

"Ready to go to work?" candy man Ron Kotteman asks his mule, Vidalia.

You won't find many mules living in Uptown New Orleans in a backyard stable.

"Come on. It's had live animals in it since 1880 ,so we're kind of grandfathered in. And she doesn't make any noise, doesn't bark all night long. Doesn't dig in your garbage. This is her favorite part of the day now," Kotteman said.

Vidalia is the latest mule to get hitched to the Roman candy wagon, a business that was started by Kotteman's grandfather, Sam Cortese.  Cortese worked as a street vendor and had this wagon specially built following a childhood accident.

"So he got run over by a streetcar so he lost both of his legs right below the knee," Kotteman said.

The young Cortese found that his produce customers were asking to buy sticks of his mother's Italian taffy.

"He went to a bunch of wheel rights and said, look I need a wagon and it's got have marble counters and it's got to have running water. And it's got to have windows all around it," Kotteman said.

Cortese wanted to sit inside and make candy while he travelled the city's streets.

"My grandfather didn't want to call it Italian candy because he thought if you call it Italian nobody's gonna buy it except Italians, so instead of calling it Italian he called it Roman," Kotteman said.

Today Vidalia is in no hurry as she carefully clops her way through Uptown neighborhoods dodging potholes.

"She's fallen in two of 'em so far, so she's not happy with 'em," Kotteman said.

The candy comes in three flavors - chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. In between customers, Kotteman keeps making more taffy.

"Air actually gets caught in it, and as you pull it, it stretches the fibers, and actually, believe it or not, it takes out the stickiness," Kotteman said.

"Every time I come down St. Charles or run into him, I pull on the side the road and get $15 of taffy, and the grandkids come over and take half of 'em. So I might be left with a stick or two," said Mack Cantrell.

The wagon just got a new coat of paint and today it looks as fresh as it did when it first rolled through the streets of New Orleans 100 years ago. Ron and his grandfather, Sam are the only two people who have operated this uniquely New Orleans business

"When they write the history books in New Orleans, they got to at least put a line in there about me, about Roman candy, because we lasted that long," Kotteman said.

And there is little doubt that this wagon will keep rolling, and there's likely to be another generation - Kotteman's son, who will carry on this living piece of New Orleans history.

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