For more than a century, the Roman Candy Man has given generations of New Orleanians their sugar fix, selling sticks of taffy from a rolling wagon. From 1915 to 1970, one piece cost a nickel; today, it’s a dollar.
Despite its name, the candy has no ties to Rome. Current owner Ron Kottemann’s great-grandparents were immigrants from Sicily, where they had worked in the confectionary business. His great-grandmother made the taffy for holidays, and his grandfather, Sam Cortese, sometimes sold the leftovers from his fruit and vegetable cart. Cortese, the original Roman Candy Man, had become a street peddler after a childhood streetcar accident severed both of his lower legs, forcing him to leave school.
Cortese thought the name would appeal to an ethnically diverse market of New Orleanians. “If he called it Italian, he figured nobody else was going to buy it except Italians; so he called it Roman instead,” Kottemann told the Southern Foodways Alliance. Customers liked the taffy, but Cortese’s mother was too busy to serve as his supplier, so in 1915 he designed a specialized horse-drawn cart (the mule came in the 1940s), where he could make the product as well as sell it. It had hot and cold running water, a hook for pulling the taffy, and a marble slab for wrapping it. Kotteman told NOLA.com it was a “factory on wheels.” He still works out of the original 1915 wagon, which has been updated to meet current sanitation regulations and now runs on Amish-crafted wheels ordered from Pennsylvania. Every day, he hand-pulls around 700 to 800 sticks, which come in vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate flavors. A mule, who lives in a stable behind Kotteman’s house, still pulls the cart through the city streets.
Cortese manned the cart until just a few months before his death in 1969. Kottemann took over the business in the early 1970s, and his son, Daniel, plans to keep it going after he retires.
Where to Try It
Look for the Roman Candy cart between the World of Primates exhibit and the entrance to the African Savanna exhibit.