“Voices of Dawn,” the Street Vendors of New Orleans

New Orleans Calas Lady (Century Magazine, 1886)

New Orleans Calas Lady (Century Magazine, 1886)

In New Orleans, street peddlers were common well into the 1900s. And apparently they were all loud.

Newspaperman and cookbook author Lafcadio Hearn left writings about the “vocal advertisements” sung by the “Italians, Negroes, Frenchmen, and Spaniards,” who wandered the city’s streets with the first glow of the sun. And never mind that a home’s residents might still be in bed — vendors didn’t think twice about poking their heads into open windows and crying out their wares.

The chicken guy would scream “Chick-EN, Madamma, Chick-EN!” There were also sellers of “Lem-ONS–fine Lem–ONS!,” “Ap-PULLS!,” “Straw-BARE-eries!,” “Black-Brees!,” “Fresh figs!,” and “Ochre-A.”

Just imagine the bellow from the Creole cream cheese peddler, who walked with a strap around his neck, which tied to a rack that held cups of his fresh, silky handiwork. Then there were oyster peddlers, who blew on conch shells all hours of the day. That commotion was so loud,  it once actually prompted a resident to write a letter of complaint to the local newspaper editor.

Of them all, the purveyor remembered most nostalgically is the calas lady, or the Belle Cala woman, who was a welcome sight at breakfast time. With her head wrapped in a turban and her apron starched stiff, she carried on her head a basket of hot calas (fried rice fritters). She often became a trusted family friend, and every morning would call in a firm, yet soft musical tone “Belle cala tout chaud, Madam, belle cala tout chaud.” (Pretty rice fritters, all hot madam, pretty rice fritters, all hot.)

The end of the street vendor came with the beginning of the grocery store and the automobile. And although the convenience of the modern supermarket can’t be beat, it sure is fun to imagine the fern-laced French Quarter alive with walking food merchants. And it would be especially neat listening to their lyrical chants, no matter how loud or boisterous.