“I have oranges and bananas! I have pineapples and cantaloupes!”
The nasal twang of those words, amplified through a crackling loud speaker, seemed a soundscape from the distant past of my childhood when I first heard them in the late 1990s. I opened the door of my house in the Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans and peered out searching for the source of the sound. Soon it appeared: an open truck painted like a Haitian tap tap, with a display of fruit and vegetables arranged in the truck bed. Enchanted and intrigued, I realized I was witnessing a living embodiment of the past—a throwback to the times I had studied and written about as a culinary historian, when urban areas in the South and the North were provisioned by street vendors, each with a specific cry. The driver of the truck, seeing me at the curb, stopped, and a Santa-shaped man climbed down from the cab and cajoled me into buying more produce than I wanted or needed, then continued on his way calling out his wares. That was my first meeting with New Orleans’s Mr. Okra.
When I told my friends of my encounter, they informed me that Mr. Okra—whose real name was Arthur J. Robinson—was a city fixture with a route that had taken him through the Marigny, the Bywater, the Eighth Ward, Tremé, Esplanade Ridge, and into Mid-City for years. He was one of the city’s living treasures, like the Roman Candy man and Ruthie the Duck Girl. From that day on, I had my ear cocked for his distinctive cry and some dollars ready at the door for purchases. My friends indulged my fascination, and on various Christmases, I received a painting of him by a local artist, a photograph, and—most precious of all—an okra-shaped key ring that plays several of his street cries and sayings. Only last Christmas, I found a children’s book that tells his story.
I never had a sense of his schedule, but rather found him to be a delightful surprise who announced his presence with a distinctive “I have okra!” His cry was briefly silenced by Hurricane Katrina when his truck and home were destroyed, and he relocated to Memphis for a year. The neighborhood was strangely quiet without his voice. Then one day, there it was—at first like a distant aural flashback, the call approached and gained in strength and force like the neighborhoods he serviced. He rounded the corner, complete with his new truck decorated by none other than the folk artist Bob “Dr. Bob” Shaffer, of “Be Nice or Leave” fame, with license plates proudly identifying Mr. Okra. I must have spent a hundred dollars on produce that day. I was so glad for his phoenix-like reappearance.
After some three decades of plying produce, his voice and that characteristic cry were stilled on February 15th, when Mr. Okra died at the age of seventy-four. The visitation was held around the corner from my home, at the Marigny Opera House, in the midst of one of the neighborhoods he loved and served. The Preservation Hall Foundation was in charge of the obligatory post-service second line. Kinfolk Brass Band led the mourners, along with Darryl “Dancing Man” Young, as the line made its way through the streets that Mr. Okra animated, on its way to—in typical New Orleans fashion—BJ’s Lounge on Burgundy Street, his favorite watering hole.
But while Mr. Okra has gone, his daughter Sergio Robinson, who accompanied him on and took over his rounds in later years, has vowed to continue the tradition, and you can bet that when I hear her intone, “I’ve got oranges and bananas! I’ve got eating pears and apples!” I’ll be out in front of my house with a fistful of dollars ready to make a purchase, to keep the legacy of Mr. Okra alive.