Monday, February 14, 2011

Roman Chewing Candy

Chocolate Chewing Candy
Roman Chewing Candy Company, $1.00

While the French and the Spanish have had a more noticeable influence on New Orleans' architecture and language, the city has also been shaped by centuries of Italian migration. Given opportunities to work in fishing and agriculture, Italians from the poorer and more rural south of the country were particularly drawn to Louisiana. Towards the end of the 19th century, New Orleans' Sicilian population grew to be one of the largest in the country, exacerbating racial tensions and leading to a notorious criminal case. In 1890, Police Chief David Hennessey was murdered while investigating a vendetta killing within the Sicilian community. An enraged mob took eleven Sicilian suspects from the jail and lynched them.

Twenty-five years later, New Orleans saw the start of a much happier cross-cultural exchange. In 1915, a young street vendor named Sam Cortese had the idea that the traditional taffy his Sicilian mother made for special occassions might be a big seller. Angelina Napoli Cortese was happy to share her recipe but too busy to make as much candy as Sam needed. So in collaboration with a local wheelwright, Sam Cortese designed and built a mobile candy kitchen, a trim little cart equipped with a stove, a marble cooling slab, and a sturdy hook for pulling taffy. With the jaunty red-and-white cart hitched to a mule, Cortese crisscrossed the city making and selling his taffy--dubbed "Roman Chewing Candy" since "Sicilian" still had some negative connotations.

Sam Cortese continued to trade in taffy until his death in 1969, always keeping to the original price of 5 cents per foot-long stick. His grandson Ron Kottemann took over the business in 1970 and still sells Roman Chewing Candy from the original cart, changing only the stove (a butane replacement for the old coal-burner), and the price (now $1 a stick). Roman chewing candy is available in vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate (think "artisanal Tootsie Roll"), and if you don't happen to live on Kottemann's route you can also buy it online.

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