This story could have hardly had a more tragic beginning.
By 1915 New Orleans was filled with Sicilian immigrants hoping to build a better life in a more stable nation.
Italian kids ran the streets of downtown, including two boys who one day climbed an ice wagon to devour frigid chips as a way of keeping cool. When the wagon’s owner saw the boys he yelled at them, forcing them to jump off.
One didn’t notice an oncoming streetcar. It was a horrible accident.
The boy, Sam Cortese, lost both of his legs.
His parents would face the challenge of providing a livelihood for a disabled son. In those days before ample social services, families had to draw from what they knew, and the Corteses knew how to work with confections.
Using molasses as a key ingredient, they taught young Sam how to make Italian-style taffy, which was prepared in strings and singularly wrapped.
Eventually Sam had established a popular business selling his product that would be known as “Roman Chewing Candy.”
Here the story takes a happier turn into the heart of the city’s nostalgia.
Sam would get a mule-drawn Roman Candy wagon. It would be commonly seen around town and have a magnetic effect, pulling in customers who likely were not even thinking about a chew of taffy.
Suddenly they were standing outside the wagon window deciding between strawberry, chocolate or vanilla.
That wagon can still be seen on the streets, though sometimes pulled by a truck, and now operated by Ronnie Kottemann, Sam’s grandson, who still hand-pulls and hand-wraps each stick – just as his granddad did.
Being a wagon it doesn’t get to travel very far, but legends know no boundaries – including that of the Roman Candy man – so the scene shifts to a restaurant on one of the British Virgin Islands. David DeVun and his wife, Mary, Ronnie Kottemann’s sister, are having lunch.
They are sailing the islands and are especially interested in learning about rum.
They get into a conversation with two couples at nearby tables and discover that they’re from Baton Rouge and Covington. Well. Idle chatter morphed into crazy ideas, crazy ideas turned into serious talk. A new concept was born: Roman Candy Rum. But how to produce it? No problem.
According to DeVun, they decided on the traditional flavors of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry.
Actual samples of the candy were sent to a flavoring company, which “produced the best flavoring I ever tasted and nailed it.” Arrangements were made with a Puerto Rican rum distillery to, provide the flavored booze.
A Florida company does the bottling and then ships the batch to New Orleans for distribution. Bottles were imported from France.
“So, just as the candy is made from molasses,” DeVun says, “so is the rich, imported rum we make our product with. It is a true 70 proof quality rum that definitely kicks it up a notch.”
To date the product is sold in New Orleans and has entered the Baton Rouge market.
And so the tale continues. Next year will be the centennial of Sam Cortese beginning his business. A chew of taffy would be a fitting tribute, so too might be a swig of rum to toast a trail of molasses that took turns in unpredictable directions.