Remembering New Orleans' Beloved Singing Vegetable Vendor
Mr. Okra was from another time, before people started caring about organic produce and bought their food from singing street vendors like The Banana Man and The Hot Stuffed Crab Lady.
Photos by the author.
This first appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2015.
On a Sunday morning in June, a day that happens to coincide with the local Creole Tomato Festival, I am eating a hot sausage po'boy in the back seat of Arthur Robinson's F150 with one of his granddaughters, Little Sergio. A gangly man named Frog is riding shotgun as we drive around the awakening city of New Orleans. Here, Robinson is a celebrity. Better known as Mr. Okra, he maneuvers his brightly painted "wagon" stocked with fruits and vegetables—apples, bananas, pineapples, garlic, onions, avocados, and of course, okra—throughout the diverse neighborhoods of New Orleans, something he's been doing since he was 15 years old.
"My daddy used to do it," he says of the genesis of his fruit- and vegetable-slinging career. "He started off with a pushcart. Then he went with a horse and wagon. Then he went to a truck. And then I started doing it for myself. I built my own route. Me and my daddy just used to work out in the Irish Channel, but I work all over."
Indeed, on this prototypically wet and hot summer day, we are not just driving through the Irish Channel, but also through the Carrollton, Garden District, French Quarter, Marigny, and Bywater neighborhoods. Leaving Who Dat Café—where Robinson's team of family members loads up the fruit and vegetables from AJ's Produce Co.—Mr. Okra's wagon begins to sing, the suspension creaking under the weight of pounds and pounds of produce, while Robinson's not entirely unpleasant seatbelt alarm sounds at even, pleading intervals. Around 9:30 a.m., we drive down Claiborne Avenue, headed uptown. His customers are expecting him.
"I try to change up [my route]. But then when you change up people get mad. [They tell me] 'Why don't you come on this street no more?'"
Oddly enough, I first came to know of Robinson via a handheld toy—a green plastic audio player known as Mr. Okra in Your Pocket—before I heard the actual man rolling down Port Street. "Heard" is the appropriate word, as it is his idiosyncratic sing-song call to fruits and vegetables that has made him famous.
I got oranges and bananas. I got eating pears and apples. I have cantaloupe. I have pineapples, I have strawberries. I have peaches, I have plums. I have the mango. I have spinach. I have broccoli. I have yellow squash, I have zucchini squash. Corn on the cob. I have eggplant. I have onion, I have garlic. I have bell peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, avocados.
Along our route, when people hear his song, doors of houses swing open, and customers appear in pajamas, some still bra-less, always smiling. "How was your birthday?" they ask. "I'm sorry I missed it." It's a popular refrain this morning, as Robinson's 72nd birthday celebration was held just recently at the Bywater dive bar, B.J.'s Lounge, near his 7th Ward home.
Riding along with Mr. Okra, you get the sense that you've been thrust back half a century, the affectionate regulars and charmed first-timers indicative of a bygone era of milkmen and Leave it to Beaver neighborhood geniality. Everyone is so happy to see him, perhaps because he is the last of his kind.
As late as the 1950s, one could hear a medley of voices and songs emanating from New Orleans' streets. As Robinson remembers it, his father wasn't the only horse and wagon-striding produce vendor around. In the first two decades of the 20th century, which was perhaps the heyday of the New Orleans street vendor, you could encounter the Banana Man, the Waffle Man, the Hot Stuffed Crab Lady, the Peanut Man, the Calas Woman (Calas are Creole rice fritters), the Crawfish Man, and the Ha-Ha Man (the ice cream man whose nickname derived from the lyrics of his particular song). However, as Robinson tells it, many vendors have since died, newer generations aren't interested in building their own routes, and modern-day health code regulations have functioned as barriers for would-be vendors: "You got to have refrigeration. They got some people selling shrimps on the truck, but the license is so high," Robinson says. "You got to have running water, wash your hands. A lot of stuff you got to have when you fooling with seafood. You got to keep the flies away."
And appetites have changed, too.
"Things have changed a whole lot since then. Stuff was a whole lot cheaper. Everybody with their organic stuff. I don't see that there's no difference. To me, it all tastes the same. It's a lot of baloney. If it's not [organic], they don't buy it.
It is a slow sales day. I remind Robinson that everyone's likely down at the Tomato Festival in the French Quarter. Sure enough, as we drive through the Quarter, right down by the sound stage where a band is prototypically playing brass music, the people are out to party and celebrate the local nightshade. One hopes that this appreciation would inspire some reveler to reinvigorate the tradition of the New Orleans street vendor, to take up the call to be the next Banana Man.
We head back to the Marigny/Bywater, where we started. After a recent stroke and some knee problems, Robinson only works Sundays and Mondays now. He lets his daughter, Big Sergio, drive the wagon the rest of the week. After 31 years as Mr. Okra, it's not unreasonable to assume the man could use a little rest.
"So, Pop-Pop, what do you do if you finish early?" Little Sergio asks, sipping a Coke acquired at a pit-stop at B.J.'s, where a week before she was taking photos for her grandfather's birthday.
"See that old big- screen TV?" he responds. "Park right in front of it."