Many people are removed, physically and emotionally, from their ancestors. Not Ron Kottemann. He lives with them every day, making candy.
At the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell Thursday, Kotteman was planted in the same spot he has been since the festival’s earliest days: Inside a 100-year-old white wagon cooking, rolling, cutting and packaging sticks of candy to sell to fest-goers hungry for a taffy treat.
The Roman Candy Company, started by his grandfather Sam Cortese in 1915, reached its centennial this year, and for Kottemann, 65, continuing the family tradition still holds surprises.
“I like the people. I like doing something different every day,” he says. “It’s like fishing. You go outside in the morning to hunt up customers and you never know what’s going to happen.”
Angelina Napoli Cortese, Kottemann’s great-grandmother, invented the recipe after immigrating to New Orleans from Sicily. At first she made it for family events. When her son became an industrious teenager, he began selling it on the streets, on a homemade wagon Kottemann uses today.
Time has neither changed the recipe, nor the platform where it’s sold. Kottemann and his son Daniel, 33, work in the wagon’s same tight space made of oak and old cypress boards that Cortese worked in early last century. His wife, Elaine, sits outside collecting money and greeting schoolchildren who line up for their strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla-flavored candy. Daniel says he’ll likely continue once his father decides to retire for familiar reasons: “I get to work with family,” he says.
Yet there are nods to modernity. Taffy, once sold for 5 cents a stick, is now a dollar. The company operates a wagon out of Audubon Zoo and they do a prodigious online business, finding that the candy is popular for weddings, baby showers, and other large group gatherings thrown by those who want a taste of New Orleans.
The food truck boom in the city has also helped traditional street operators, Kottemann says, because it has created solidarity for what was once a dying form of food vending.
“Now there’s more of us, and in numbers you have a bit of protection” from heavy-handed regulation by the city, he says.
The one member of the family that isn’t on the Fair Grounds is the mule that accompanied Kottemann in the early days of Jazz Fest.
Back then, the mule and Kottemann ended their day by retiring to the race course stables. Each morning started the same: Kottemann woke up, fed the mule, showered, and then both of them rolled the cart back to the Fair Grounds.
The mule is living out her days behind the family home on Constance Street Uptown, the same house and stable from which Sam Cortese operated before Kotteman was born.
Being around candy his entire life might mean he’s immune to the stuff, but that would be overstating things.
“My wife is constantly complaining I’m eating candy,” he says.