New Orleans Street Vendors
When groceries came to you
Less than a century ago, my neighborhood streets and those of most old New Orleans areas would have rung with the cries of the street vendors who hawked their wares from door to door. People had to venture no further than their kitchen doors for many of the purchases for which we now cross town. In July of 1846, the Daily Picayune mentioned “Green Sass Men” who traveled through the neighborhoods selling small quantities of figs, melons, and other produce from used champagne baskets balanced on top of their heads.
They were more than likely older enslaved men who had been sent into the city by their owners to sell surplus produce from outlying farms. Planters had to purchase licenses for this commerce, but in return made thousands of extra dollars. Vendors were so typical of the city that they became New Orleans types who were featured in articles in the newspapers of the day, presented in woodcuts, and pictured on postcards sent around the world as emblems of the city.
New Orleans has always been about trade; indeed, it began as a high-ground trading spot among Native peoples and, later, European traders. Chickasaw and Choctaw women are pictured selling herbs in the old market in some of the earliest images of the city. They presaged the enslaved and free Africans and their descendants and immigrants from Mediterranean Europe who became local characters through their street vending.
Leon Frémaux, an engineer and former Confederate officer, was one of the first artists to capture images of the peddlers. His drawings and watercolors, made as early as the mid-1850s, depict those who would become the city’s standbys. In one, a Sicilian apple seller hawks his wares to a finely dressed woman while her enslaved servant waits alongside carrying the market basket. In another, the ice cream vendor sells vanilla ice cream from a freezer balanced on his head. Other vendors brought vividly to life include an Iberian oysterman and his dray and the cala seller with her fritter batter and her bowl precariously perched atop her tignon. She carries a small brazier and a cloth-covered basket of the final product that Frémaux opines are “coarse and greasy.” Frémaux’s New Orleans Characters collection of drawings first appeared in 1876, and while his captions reflect the biases of his time, his sensitive drawings are not caricatures.
Lafcadio Hearn, patron saint of all things New Orleans, carried on Frémaux’s tradition. Hearn worked for the New Orleans Item, and in the course of his two-year tenure with the paper produced multiple woodcuts and articles that celebrate street vendors—the tignoned vegetable seller with her basket over her arm or balanced precariously on her head, and the knife grinder, bell in hand, bent under his wheel. In a July 21, 1881, article, Hearn celebrated the “Voices of Dawn”:
“With the first glow of sunlight the street resounds with their cries; and, really, the famous ‘Book of London Cries’ contains nothing more curious than some of these vocal advertisements—these musical announcements sung by Italians, Negroes, Frenchmen, and Spaniards. The vendor of fowls pokes in his head at every open window with cries of ‘Chick-EN, Madamma, Chick-EN!’ and the seller of ‘Lem-Ons—fine Lem-Ons!’ follows in his footsteps. The peddlers of ‘Ap-Pulls!’ of ‘Straw-BARE-eries!’ and ‘Clack-Brees!’—all own sonorous voices.”
Hearn goes on to detail the cries and accents of the various sellers, from the fresh fig vendor to the person selling “ochre-A,” which he jokingly suggests sounds as though the peddler is selling grade-A paint supplies. Frémaux and Hearn, while admiring the innovation and the ingenuity of salesmanship, seem to look at the vendors as “other.” Frémaux sees them as characters from a past era, while Hearn finds them objects of curiosity that make for the uniqueness of his favored city.
By the early twentieth century, musings on the multiple vendors and street characters of New Orleans had become tinged by the melancholy air of nostalgia. In 1925, R. Emmett, speaking of the city in Mellows: A Chronicle of Unknown Singers, reminds readers, “Among the many quaint old customs which still prevail, there, perhaps the most characteristic is the going about of Negro street vendors with their plaintive melodious cries by which they announce their wares.” The sweet potato cake vendor, crying “Bel Pam Patat,” the seasonal cry of the blackberry woman, “Black- ber-ries—fresh an’ fine, I got black-berries, lady.” The cry of the ramoneur or chimney sweep as well as that of the clothes-pole man who sold the long white ash poles that held up the city’s clotheslines are all cited and catalogued in order to preserve their past glory.
In 1931, Léda Plauché dedicated two small illustrated pamphlets to New Orleans characters in the manner of Frémaux and included many of the same figures, including the vanilla ice cream vendor still balancing his cooler on his head and the calla [sic] seller. Unlike Frémaux, she deems them to be “a delicious blending of rice and flour, very light and puffed up like a soufflée [sic] potato!” To the cast of characters developed by Frémaux and Hearn, she added a white-bearded seller of “Plaisirs” hawking his crisp pastry cones (gaufres to some) while playing a triangle. Like Emmett, Plauché seems to be indulging in a reverie about times past.
In their declining years, street vendors also fascinated the artists of the Works Progress Administration. In 1939, Louisiana’s Division of Education published a calendar of woodcuts of “Familiar Figures in New Orleans” featuring the now standby characters and vendors: the old milk cart, the vegetable peddler, the fruit vendor, the peanut man, and more, all make their appearance looking very much as they did in the earliest works. Perhaps the most complete documentation of the vendors of New Orleans, though, comes from another product of the WPA: the collection Gumbo Ya-Ya by Lyle Saxon, Robert Tallant, and Edward Dreyer. The authors preserve the mid-twentieth century twilight of the city’s vendors capturing their cries in the memories of those who used to roam the streets hawking their wares. The milkman from Gascogny, the oysterman with his tin pail or his horse and wagon filled with burlap sacks, the egg seller, and the cala vendor all appear. Richard Gabriel, one of the city’s last professional cala vendors who no longer carried his wares but pushed a cart, gives a hint of the complexity of some of the street cries with his chant:
“We sell to the rich, we sell to the poor,
We’ll give it to the sweet brownskin peepin’ out the door.
Tout chaud, madame, tout chaud! Get ‘em while they’re hot! Hot calas!”
The city’s streets and back alleys no longer ring with the cries of the merchants, but in some neighborhoods on a summer day it’s still possible to see a truck filled with vegetables drive slowly by while the owner rings a bell and calls out. The Roman candy man can still be found on Uptown street corners selling his waxed paper-wrapped taffy, and the French Quarter now boasts a pie lady who hawks her wares through its streets in homage and remembrance of the vibrant street vendors who were so much a vital part of the city’s past.
Jessica B. Harris, PhD, is the author of eight books documenting the foods and foodways of the African Diaspora.