In New Orleans, you can walk into any drug store, grocery store, or tchotchke shop and buy one of those keychains advertised as So&So “In Your Pocket.” Each one is about the size of a box of tic-tacs with six little buttons and a speaker across the top. Press one of the buttons, and you’ll hear its corresponding catchphrase.
There was Cajun…in your pocket; infamous former mayor Ray Nagin… in your pocket; and bounce musician Big Freedia… in your pocket. But the most popular of these was one called Mr. Okra In Your Pocket.
Named for the beloved street vendor Arthur Robinson, who went by “Mr. Okra,” the keychain played the iconic songs Robinson would sing out over loudspeaker while selling produce in his vegetable-adorned truck.
The Mr. Okra In Your Pocket souvenir keychain paid homage to the local celebrity, but it also revealed something about the story told about New Orleans, especially to tourists. That story said New Orleans was a city of brass bands, second lines, and parades. A city of blues, funk, and bounce. A city of gumbo, jambalaya, and crawfish boils. A city of Jazz Fest, Essence, and Mardi Gras. A city whose cultural economy seemed to revolve around the labor, traditions, and street life of its Black communities––their musicians, cooks, dancers, and, yes, produce vendors.
In fact, Mr. Okra was not the first singing street vendor used to sell New Orleans to tourists. As far back as the 1884 World Cotton Centennial, stories and images of singing street vendors were promoted to encourage tourists to come to the Big Easy… but they often depicted a vision of street vendors as being from the recent antebellum past: that is, being the stereotypes of enslaved people.
In “New Orleans Street Vendors, Old and New,” Gravy explores the history of street food vendors in New Orleans, from Mr. Okra to the pralinière, with historian Ashley Rose Young. A conversation with urbanist Amy Stelly, who grew up in Tremé and remembers when street vendors populated her neighborhood, reveals that there is a fraught line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. What is the legacy of street vendors today?
We thank the following individuals for help with this episode:
Ashley Rose Young
Whitney Mixon for singing the street vendor songs
Katie King for fact-checking
Featured music includes “Beignet,” by Blue Dot Sessions.
Image of Mr. Okra by Joshua Lee.