Sweet traditions

One evening I was having drinks just outside of a bar, when a middle-aged man selling pralines rolled up on his bicycle and in the course of his sales pitch proceeded to regale me and my compadre with stories of pralines that included styles, flavors, and pronunciation: an etymology. Well for accuracy’s sake, it was a tricycle with a rear basket, bugle bike horn, and really tall flags that waved as he rode. However, novel that may seem to folk outside of New Orleans, such a sight is not uncommon here – meaning both the grown man on a kitted out trike and the selling of pralines in what would otherwise be considered peculiar locations. I admit to have willingly bought pralines (or “pecan candy” as I have always called it) from colorful vendors on the ferry, street corners out of little-old-lady shopping carts, and in hair salons – because in the case of the hair salon, I never knew when my next meal would come. It is what we might call a tradition.

But how did this start and why does it persist? The short answer is the “food hustle”!

The rest of the country has only recently been introduced to the “gig economy”. As reported by the Financial Times and Market Business News, “[t]he phrase ‘gig economy’ was coined at the height of the financial crisis in early 2009, when the unemployed made a living by gigging, or working several part-time jobs, wherever they could.” Taken from the artist community, specifically ‘20s jazz musicians, the idea of working a gig meant getting paid, but having no benefits like healthcare, retirement, sick leave, or holiday pay.

For better or worse, this forms the underlayment of the New Orleans working-class economy. But it has also been defined and constrained, even if loosely, by the laws of the time. I suggest the gig economy has existed as long as New Orleans herself.

We start with Louisiana’s Code Noir of 1724 for context. That document centers Roman Catholicism de rigeur with broad strokes of the legislative pen for all Louisianans: free and enslaved, black, white, and to a lesser extent Native. Article V prohibited work on Sundays and necessarily religious holidays. It went on to provide for the confiscation of enslaved people if their owners were found in violation. (Just a friendly reminder that despite enslaved people being subjected to the punishments provided therein, these laws were not written for the benefit of the enslaved, rather the property owners of the time.) As the story goes, the prohibition from Sunday work was loosely enforced for a few reasons.

The reason understood as most impactful was because enslaved people, the artisans of the time, provided materially necessary goods for white people in the City. But perhaps more influential a reason is Sunday selling allowed the enslaved people to pay for their own food and clothing thereby offsetting costs imparted upon their owners. We romantically retell stories of the enslaved women who would bring pralines in large baskets atop their heads to Congo Square and sell with the intent to earn enough to buy their freedom and that of their family members. Although that did happen, it was only under Spanish rule, which was alas only 1762-1803.

Regardless, with that <SNAP> the first “food hustlers” were born. By way of definition, a “food hustle” is simply a gig, full-time job notwithstanding, that is exclusively food based – preparing, marketing, and selling. We consider the “hustle” the verb and the “hustler” the noun.

Photo taken at SoFAB.

To say these women were making money on the side of their full-time job is generous. The point is creating and selling a product, service, or experience that had low initial outlay and minimal overhead to “make ends meet” is not a new invention. Compare early 20th century Harlem gave birth to rent parties whereas in the food city that is New Orleans, folk (predominantly women) were still selling pralines through neighborhoods and even on college campuses.

By all accounts, they walked and stood in various, heavily populated spots to sell and presumably did well. But why did these women opt to walk or stand possibly for hours?

The answer in part is meeting your customer where they are. It makes a great deal of sense to be present and available to high numbers of pedestrians. This promotes an environment that invites an impulse purchase as opposed to waiting until folk happen into a shop that coincidentally has all the overhead and liability of a brick and mortar business. The other part is a law that remains on the books until this day in some form.

City code provides “Mobile Foot, Pushcart Or Animal Drawn” food carts are allowed and can be permitted to operate within commercial areas – exactly where there is high foot traffic. Though the last vestige of an animal drawn food cart that I know of is the Roman Candy guy who works Uptown, this particular mobile vending permit means praline retailers can only be on the sidewalk, presumably to maintain the flow of street traffic and protect all parties involved. Lastly, the retailer has to be in motion unless they are making a sale. So walking or standing for hours is still the process to sell pralines.

This format is strikingly close to the way those 18th century praline sellers operated – which makes sense because even our laws are steeped in tradition.