From beignets to gumbo, po-boys to muffulettas, foodies across the nation and the world flock to NOLA to sink their teeth into the sweetest, spiciest, and downright tastiest treats in the country. Along with these popular picks, this aged city is also home to local secrets and uncharted diners, those humble treats that may not make it onto the Travel Channel but always make it into local mouths. It’s those dives and delicacies that make New Orleans’ culinary culture so unique—and delicious.
Take, for example, the Roman Candy Company. With a recipe dating back at least four generations, unchanged for decades, this sweet treat and the cart that pulls it are as ubiquitously New Orleans as the jazzy trill of a trumpet. Over a century ago, a woman by the name of Angelina Napoli Cortese delighted her family and friends with her Roman candy. Angelina pulled out the recipe for her sweet, chewy taffy for special occasions, whipping up her confection for holidays like Christmas and St. Joseph’s Day.
Angelina’s son, Sam Cortese, who had been a street vendor by trade since the young age of twelve, would pilfer the remains of the candied loot after each holiday to sell on the streets of New Orleans. The taffy was a verified hit; locals would line up to clear our Cortese’s short supply following every holiday. When customers began to ask for Roman candy by name, Cortese knew it was time to invest in the enterprise. He first asked Angelina for help in production of her confection, but as a full-time mother, her hands were full; she barely had time to make a small batch for holidays, let alone stockpiles for the city. But Sam held onto his entrepreneurial idea and set out on his own to bring his family’s Roman candy to New Orleans.
Sam quickly realized that in order to be successful, he would have to be capable of producing the taffy as he simultaneously rolled through the streets peddling the product. After scheming with local wheelwright Tom Brinker, Sam unveiled the solution: a rolling cart, pulled by his trusty mule, that held in its belly the equipment for pushing out large batches of Roman Candy. In 1915, Sam took his cart to the streets of New Orleans, selling freshly-made Roman Candy to locals across the city.
Since that day one hundred years ago, the Roman Candy Company and her product have hardly changed at all. The thin sticks of taffy, lightly wrapped in wax paper, still come in the traditional flavors: chocolate, strawberry and vanilla. Unlike other confections, Roman Candy has resisted the modern tendency to add excessive sugar and artificial flavors, instead sticking to the original recipe; that thin wrapper still harbors the subtle, delicate flavors of yesteryear. When Sam first began selling the candy, he sold it for five cents a stick—a price that stuck until 1970. Today, Roman Candy sells for a dollar a stick, although you can save by buying the bundles in bulk.
The Roman Candy Co. is an icon of local New Orleans culture. Over the years, you could find the emblematic cart emblazoned on prints, lithographs, and jewelry, proving that you could enjoy the candy long after it had melted from your tongue. Though Sam passed away in 1969, the cart is still in the family; his grandson, Ron Kottemann, took over the business after Sam passed and you can still find him navigating the aging cart through the streets of New Orleans nearly every day.
New Orleans is a city bursting with history and tradition, but much of it has been modernized and advertised, adjusted to fit the requirements of pop culture and packaged for the masses. Yet some genuine history and tradition remain, as in the gentle clip-clop of the Roman Candy Co. cart and the simple, sweet joy of a piece of taffy.
See More Roman Candy Company Photos Here