Mr. Okra – A New Orleans Icon


I met Mr. Okra by chance on my way to the Jazz Fest this past May. He is a large man with an ear-to-ear smile and a voice that must be heard to be appreciated.

Mr. Okra truck

“I have eating pears and bananas,” he cried out from a colorful truck, full of fresh produce.

Arthur J. Robinson, nicknamed, “Mr. Okra” had just sold some produce to a woman unable to leave her home. His paid helper, a much younger and spry man jumped out of the Mr. Okra truck and delivered food to the woman with a smile.

This is how Mr. Okra has been selling his produce, including okra, from his colorful truck for decades, There’s even a short film by The Nom de Guerre filmmakers called, “Mr. Okra” (watch here) that tells his colorful story.

As he rides slowly down the streets of New Orleans, he announces by almost singing in a cadence all his own, the produce he has to sell; “I have oranges and bananas, I have eatin’ apples, I have cantaloupe, I have the mango, I have tangerine, I have garlic green, I have pinapple, I have merliton….”

Merliton or mirliton (pronounced meliton)

Merliton or mirliton (pronounced meliton) is a unique vegetable grown mostly in the deep south and was a backyard staple in South Louisiana. Virtually unknown anywhere else, this vegetable originally comes from South America and is now grown in many warm weather climates. Unfortunately, heirloom mirlitons were nearly wiped out by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Gustav.

Each morning begins with loading up his hand-painted pick-up truck with fresh fruits and vegetables and slowly driving through the neighborhoods of Bywater, Tremé and the 9th Ward. His Cajun cadence is melodic, bellowing from the speakers mounted atop his truck and drawing people from out of their homes to buy what items he has available that day.

The Peoples Grocery in Oakland, California started out by doing much the same thing, by bringing the food to people living in poor neighborhoods. Most of them can not afford to get to a supermarket where a variety of fruits and vegetables is available.

Instead, these neighborhoods are caught in a cycle of purchasing low nutrient foods, high in sodium, fats and sugars (See: ANDI – Aggregate Nutrient Density Index) . All of these communities in West Oakland, Bywater, Tremé and the 9th Ward have one thing in common; they live in, what is now referred to as, “food deserts“.

Dr. Bob and Mr. Okra in new 2006 Ford f150.

Mr. Okra serves these communities by giving them access to nutrient rich foods. He does this with a style and flair uniquely his own. By delivering his goods fresh to the people most in need, he has become a highly visible icon and local hero.

In late 2009 the Mr. Okra truck, painted by Dr. Bob, started having engine problems. When this news got out, a group consisting of Tom Thayer of DBA, Nom De Guerre filmmakers, Ronnie Lamarque and his crew at Lamarque Ford, the Mayor’s office, River Parish Disposal, and hundreds of concerned customers, friends, and proponents of Nola culture came together to help.

On May 20, 2010 a benefit concert to buy him a new truck was held at dba on Frenchman Street. Bands including Morning 40 Federation and the Happy Talk Band played in support of the new truck, and Morning 40 had the distinction of being painted on the truck by beloved New Orleans artist Dr. Bob.

Short film, "Mr. Okra" by Nom De Guerre Films.

In true sustainable fashion, some local museums are interested in buying the old truck and extending its usefulness for years to come.

Mr. Okra is a living reminder of a bygone era in the early 1800s, where people would sing, dance, and play drums in accordance with their African traditions in Congo Square, in what is known today as the French Quarter.  Vendors filled the streets of New Orleans and Congo Square, chanting their offerings such as coffee and calas.

Today, if you’re in New Orleans and hear the sing song voice call out, “I have eatin’ apples, I have merliton…”, run and get your fresh fruits and vegetables from a living legend who continues to build community and improve the health and wellness of people in New Orleans.

To support the maintenance and upkeep on Mr. Okra’s truck, please go to: http://nomdeguerre.tv/foundation.html.

Resources:

Video of Mr. Okra
Merliton History
The Peoples Grocery
Supporting Local Food Culture

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Urban Farming in New Orleans


Recently, I spent my morning with Maycon Fry – “Garden Guy”. He works as a Mentor Farmer at Hollygrove Market & Farm (HM&F) in New Orleans, La.

Macon Frye Harvesting Arugula at Hollygrove Market & Farm

The day began with Maycon telling me how he came to this organization, while we harvested arugula using scissors and our bare hands. He’s a lefty so we stared on the same drill (row) across from one another.

After being accepted to the University of California at Santa Cruz’s AgroEcology Program,  Macon had an offer to start growing for Hollygrove, which is supported by the New Orleans Farm and Food Network (NOFFN). It’s been 5 years and he’s happy he made the choice to stay in New Orleans. His program allows him to grow such popular crops as arugula and also teach busloads of visiting students twice a week, which he does with a witty southern flair.

The Hollygrove Market and Farm is an innovative combination of urban farm, local produce market, and community garden space located in the heart of New Orleans.  HM&F partners with the Carrollton-Hollygrove Community Development Corporation, New Orleans Food & Farm Network, Tulane City Center, Trinity Christian Community, and the Master Gardeners of New Orleans.

The Hollygrove area of the City has long been described as a “food desert” because of the lack of grocers in the area. The market represents a larger city- wide effort to bring fresh food into grocery-starved neighborhoods without turning to an outside retailer and, instead, teach people to grow their own market-ready food.

The following day Ariel Wallick, Urban Agriculturalist/Educator with the New Orleans Food & Farm Network (NOFFN), Niko and I loaded up their truck and drove out to buy supplies for a backyard garden build.  When we arrived, Lisa the owner of the home, was overjoyed at our arrival. Even the small children next door were interested and watched from over the fence as we worked.

Backyard Garden Build - NOFFN

We took turns taking wheel barrels full of soil and cow manure to the back yard and filling the raised bed. Then, Niko and Ariel put stakes in to hold up the tomato and eggplant starts. We agreed that the siting for the garden was good – lots of direct sunlight.

Finally, we planted, watered and we were off.

The Backyard Garden Project was developed by NOFFN (one of HM&F’s sponsors) to serve the greater New Orleans residents by offering them raised bed gardens, including soil, plants, trellises and consulting, all on a sliding scale.

At NOFFN they also teach such classes as, Water-wise Irrigation and Urban Rainwater Catchment and Home Orchards and Urban Bee-keeping.

So, if you’re living in New Orleans and want to grow your own, give the people at New Orleans Farm and Food Network a call: 504-864-2009.

The Hollygrove Market & Farm sells fresh produce six days a week and on the three-quarter-mile spread that surrounds the store, train budding urban farmers.

The urban farming movement is catching on in the Big Easy. Stay tuned and watch New Orleans grow!

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