Should be the next big hipster food thing
June 13, 2013 9:42 AM   Subscribe

Arabbers (possibly derived from "street arab") are fruit 'n vegetable selling street vendors, going door to door with a horse and cart. Once a common sight in US East Coast cities, there's now only a handful left, in Baltimore. (You may have seem them on The Wire.) In 2004 a documentary was made about these last few remaining arabbers, now available at the Folk Streams website. (Previously about arabbers on MeFi.)
posted by MartinWisse (52 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for the post - awesome topic and Folkstreams is always fantastic.

I would really like to a revival of street vendors. It could absolutely help combat the issue of the food desert without relying on the infrastructure grocery stores need or the bother and complication of farmer's markets.
posted by Miko at 9:52 AM on June 13, 2013 [5 favorites]

i wanna check this out.

i remember when i was very little (late 80s) there used to be an old man who came around with a beat up truck with corn and cantaloupe and stuff from a farm just outside of the city.

it was pretty neat.
posted by sio42 at 9:52 AM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I mostly remember them from the first story arc of Homicide - an arabber was suspected of murdering Adena Watson
posted by dinty_moore at 9:53 AM on June 13, 2013 [8 favorites]

Miko: "It could absolutely help combat the issue of the food desert"

Particularly pertinent in DC, where we still haven't bothered to remove the horse-related infrastructure from some of our poorest and most neglected neighborhoods.
posted by schmod at 9:59 AM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

When they start doing the hollers at 9:00 it's awesome!
posted by Miko at 10:00 AM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Is there any crossover between these guys and the people with stationary fruit/veg carts you see on the streets from time to time?
posted by The Whelk at 10:01 AM on June 13, 2013

This sort of just happened to me a couple times in our new neighborhood, which is certainly on the lower end of the economic scale. We had just gotten done unloading the moving pods and a dude rolled up in a pickup and offered to sell us some beef. He knew his stuff, and had some pretty decent looking cuts, loaded up into coolers in the back of his truck. I get a little skeeved out by buying meat in general, so we kindly passed until we can ask the rest of the neighbors about his deal. His prices were decent, but not really a steal. I'm totally checking this out. Especially if he can get me some cheap shwaggy cuts for braising.

This is the first time we've had access in our neighborhood, and its a bit more common, but we also have a tamale lady that cruises our neighborhood once a week. Thursdays have now been deemed Tamale Night™. So good.
posted by furnace.heart at 10:01 AM on June 13, 2013

In Denver, there are a couple of guys who drop by our house with a truck full of boxes of fruit (presumably from Mexico). After a little haggling, I usually get a nice box for $25. Sure, it ain't a horse and carriage, but I'm not in the mood for "quaint" too often.
posted by kozad at 10:02 AM on June 13, 2013

OMG. Geek warning here. I've been working on researching this old sea chantey that has a verse about a horse in it: "If he dies I'll tan his skin/If he lives I'll ride him again." This verse has been collected and found in a bunch of different kinds of songs since 1830 or so. Well, damned if one of the Arabbers doesn't start singing it, at 9:30 or so. Holy cow - had no idea it was still in use in a non-formal-performance context anywhere. AWESOME. I will totally include that in the eventual presentation!
posted by Miko at 10:04 AM on June 13, 2013 [24 favorites]

Sure, it isn't a horse and carriage, but I'm not in the mood for "quaint" too often.

Thank god the meat dude didn't roll up that way. My sub-two year old would gleefully hold me at knifepoint to flag them down and force me to buy food from them just so he could see the "neigh-neigh" for a few extra minutes.
posted by furnace.heart at 10:07 AM on June 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

@dinty_moore: Sadly, so does Tim Bayliss.
posted by wensink at 10:09 AM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

In New Orleans we have Mr. Okra who drives around in a hand-painted truck. There's a short documentary on him if you've got a quarter-hour to spare.
posted by komara at 10:10 AM on June 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

No, I'm sorry- the next big hipster food thing will be gelato-cart men who sing opera.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:13 AM on June 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Wow, what a wonderful site, I could spend days exploring. Thanks!

My (American) family lived in Warsaw in the early 1960s and I remember the carts that came around with fruit and vegetables. I can still hear the man singsonging yagodi yagodi yagodi- or something like that- maybe blueberries.
posted by mareli at 10:15 AM on June 13, 2013

According to movies, the best way to find one of these carts is to have someone chase you through the streets.
posted by schmod at 10:17 AM on June 13, 2013 [5 favorites]

The guy downstairs from me is hardcore. 2 in the morning and he is still out there trying to sell me 5 bananas for a dollar.

I remember a horse and cart guy still in operation in the late 70s early 80s, the guy was easily in his 80s and I don't remember him having anything other than tomatoes and eggplant. People barely tolerated him blocking the street with his cart even then.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:19 AM on June 13, 2013

We had a variation on this in my neighborhood, growing up. For the curious: I grew up in an ordinary single family house in a subdivision that was developed in the 70's, in a smallish southern town not far from New Orleans as chance would have it. Our equivalent was actually a guy who drove a grocery/produce truck around the neighborhood.

My only memories of this were that his name was Mr. Ledet, he had a bumper sticker on his truck that said, "A bad day fishing is better than a good day working," and my parents never bought from him while I'm pretty sure he made a special trip to our block just to sell to our neighbors across the street. I think he might have had some kind of distinctive horn or call, but TBH his arrival was such an event on our block that he didn't need to announce his presence.

Sometimes I would scrounge up couch cushion change and buy one perfect Granny Smith or Golden Delicious apple from him. I hated red apples as a kid, and that was the only kind my mom ever bought. It's possible that those apples were the first economic transaction I ever took part in entirely under my own steam.

He disappeared at some point in the late 80s or early 90s. My guess is that he retired or got too elderly to continue. He was an old guy by the time I knew him. That said, he disappeared right around the time that new McMansion-ish type developments were springing up in the surrounding area, everyone was buying an SUV, Walmart came to town, etc. He's definitely an artifact of a simpler time, for me.
posted by Sara C. at 10:22 AM on June 13, 2013

I see these guys around Baltimore sometimes. I don't know if the guy selling watermelons out of a truck is a derivative of the horse and carriage, but I see those single-fruit sellers sometimes, often when I'm driving by and have no room or time to stop. But a guy with an actual horse-drawn carriage that's loaded with a variety of fruit visits a corner of the neighbourhood sometimes — people are pretty respectful and don't seem to have a problem with him. (Unfortunately I always miss him by about 60 seconds — too bad, he has a greater variety of fruit than my local tiny grocery store.) Thanks for the link; I've really enjoyed my time spent in Baltimore and and I love learning more about the history behind its idiosyncrasies.
posted by mayurasana at 10:25 AM on June 13, 2013

the next big hipster food thing will be gelato-cart men who sing opera

In a town near the one where I grew up, a college kid recently figured out that he could make a bundle selling ice cream at the beach if he dressed up in a vintage-looking white button-down and white cap and sold it from a freezer mounted on a white bicycle. He's in his third year of this, I think. People eat that up.
posted by Miko at 10:26 AM on June 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Thanks to Facebook, I now know that the guy who used to sell me fruits, eggs, and vegetables off the back of his donkey retired last week and went on pension at the age of 83.

His donkey is 30.
posted by annathea at 10:29 AM on June 13, 2013 [7 favorites]

My mom grew up in West Tampa during the 50s and 60s and told me that several folks used to travel through her neighborhood selling stuff: eggs, fish, fruits/vegetables, etc. She also told me that my grandfather once went down to the port and bought an entire hand of bananas - like, the entire gargantuan bunch - straight off a boat. He hung it on a hook outside while they ripened and my mom and aunt went, well, bananas eating them at will.
posted by jquinby at 10:32 AM on June 13, 2013

These are still around in Baltimore but were sort of absent from the streets the past couple of years. This summer I've noticed that they've been back in larger numbers. Sadly, even as a Baltimore resident what I normally think of is the kid from the Wire who is on his way to being an arabber and heroin addict.

Now I've depressed myself.
posted by josher71 at 10:34 AM on June 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

My dad remembers his parents buying bananas like that from boats in coastal Texas in the 50s.
posted by Miko at 10:35 AM on June 13, 2013

I so wish we still lived in a world with vendors like this vs. wal-mart. I'd love for the milk and egg man to swing by my house everyday.

One day each summer (the hottest part of the year) growing up, my grandfather would drive further south than we lived, and gather a load of watermelons in his truck, and I mean a load. The truck would be over flowing. He wasn't happy unless it was so full he knew he'd have 20 fall off on the way back home. The next week, he & I would drive around every country lane, road, creek, hollar, & field to get to every single household with children. It was a poor southern community. Very very rural. I remember homes with no electric or indoor plumbing, near dirt floors, and the kids had one pair of shoes they were only allowed to wear to school. These families were the poorest of the poor. (obviously we weren't). We went house to house, making sure that each and every single child got to pick out their own watermelon to have and eat out in the yard all by themselves. It wasn't the greatest gift to give these children, but you should have seen the smiles on their faces as they always were surprised to get something for free. Grandpa never asked for money from parents, nor favors in the future, nor did he preach the word of the Lord to these people. They all new him as a preacher. They all respected him. And no, he wasn't ever running for office. He just loved people.

The gift to those children lasted a day. The gift to those parents lasted a week.
His gift to himself doing this lasted until the next year, when he didn't it again.
The gift he gave me lasted a lifetime.

When I am older, and move back to the farm, I would love to revive this tradition, only I'd use a horse and wagon. Doing it 19th century old school.
posted by QueerAngel28 at 10:39 AM on June 13, 2013 [13 favorites]

Follow it up with a nice knish from your local jewer, and you've got something.
posted by anarch at 10:50 AM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

In the film is a rep from the Arabber Preservation Society. Interesting. Their homepage.
posted by Miko at 10:50 AM on June 13, 2013

The peanut man used to come singing through the streets in Charleston about twice a week. Peeeeeeeee-nuts!! Boiled peeeeeee-nuts! Drove me crazy as a teenager - he came early in the morning when I was trying to sleep. I think he walked and pushed a little cart. You bought the peanuts in little brown paper bags but I've always hated boiled peanuts so I don't really remember. This is not the peanut man I remember from the 70s and early 80s, though. This is a new peanut man who looks awesome in a whole new way.

A friend of mine in the 80s in Baltimore knew a bunch of Arabbers - a little googling and I find he's still active; he was one of the founders of the Arabber Preservation Society.
posted by mygothlaundry at 10:56 AM on June 13, 2013

Amusing etymology speculation: the Arabic word for 'carts' and other four wheeled objects is, oddly enough, 'araba' (same root as the Arabic word for Arab, عرب), for some reason. So in Egypt, a car is an arabiyya, and in most Arab countries, a food cart would be an 'araba'.

The upshot being that if any of the original cart pushers had been Arabs, there would have been a weird overlap between what they called themselves ('Arrabers'), and what the customers thought of them as ('Arrabers').
posted by jackbrown at 10:56 AM on June 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

I thought the next big thing was cronuts
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 10:59 AM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

When I was a kid in Baltimore, I used to buy soft-shelled crabs from Arabbers whenever they were in season. They'd go up and down the alleys behind houses.
posted by me & my monkey at 11:01 AM on June 13, 2013

This is not the peanut man I remember from the 70s and early 80s, though. This is a new peanut man who looks awesome in a whole new way.

From that site:

"While in line at the unemployment office Anthony had a chance encounter with Mr. Marion Hayward who sold peanuts for a living. Mr. Hayward explained to Anthony that he should jump out of line and never look back."

So did Mr. Hayward just hang out at the unemployment office looking for people to preach the Gospel of Peanut to, or...
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 11:09 AM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

We have honey roasted peanut guys in New York. They are always really disappointing. Soft pretzels and roasted chestnuts kinda are too now though.

I don't know whats going on with New York. Last time I bought a hotdog on the street the guy put sauerkraut and then mustard on top of it so all the mustard fell off. I didn't even go back and yell at him. Whole city has gone soft.

Maybe I'll move to Baltimore.
posted by Ad hominem at 11:14 AM on June 13, 2013

Not an arabber but my favorite Baltimore entrepreneur.
posted by josher71 at 11:22 AM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

josher71, that guy is amazing.
posted by spaltavian at 11:31 AM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wow. I don't think I will ever in my life hear the phrase "ice cold water" again without thinking of this guy.
posted by Miko at 11:46 AM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Does Camden Yards still have their awesome policy on outside food (namely, that it's all allowed, giving rise to things like the water guy)? I used to go out of my way to only attend baseball games in Baltimore, because it made the whole experience so much more humane.
posted by schmod at 11:53 AM on June 13, 2013

Oh man, Baltimore's Ice Cold Water guy gives New Orleans' ICE COLD COCA COLA guy a run for his money...

(I tried really hard to find youtube evidence of this guy's chant, as well as the Jazz Fest koozie vendors' "Saddlebags, Saddlebags, how ya gonna clap?" and a few other favorite New Orleans street vendor calls, but they are not well documented online.)
posted by Sara C. at 11:55 AM on June 13, 2013

According to my grandmother, my dad's first word was "Strawberries!", as he'd heard it yelled by the fruit cart man. My dad was born in 1925 in Somerset, Kentucky and grew up in Louisville, so this pertains to one or the other of those places around that time. While denying his mother's claim about his first word, my dad does confirm that a variety animal-drawn fruit carts (and ice carts, and rag carts, and tin scrap gatherers) all came by regularly, and each had his distinctive holler.
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 12:04 PM on June 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Does Camden Yards still have their awesome policy on outside food

They sure do.
posted by josher71 at 12:06 PM on June 13, 2013

In fact, there used to be a guy named Mick T Pirate who sold the best pulled pork barbecue sandwiches outside of the stadium. He was a great guy and sadly passed away last month at the age of 51. His dying left a very large hole outside Camden Yards. RIP Mick.
posted by josher71 at 12:09 PM on June 13, 2013

New Orleans' ICE COLD COCA COLA guy

That made me curious and I ran across this Folkways thing. That sounds a little theatricalized to me, but it's probably based on actual cries. Then this incredible Vimeo turned up with an amazing project where an artist had kids in the hospital compose their own versions of strret cries - it starts with a New Orleans shoeshiner from 1958. I think his recording came from this Folkways record, which has several other examples of street cries.
posted by Miko at 12:58 PM on June 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

Back in 2005 I was living in Satsuma Sendai, (Kagoshima Prefecture) Japan. At night Ramen cars and Yaki-imo vendors would prowl the streets whilst blaring their songs. At first I thought it was chanting of some sort, but my Japanese counterpart told me that it was just a sweet potato vendor.

The smells were amazing, but the food was actually a bit questionable, especially the Ramen. Also during the winter you could buy a loads of Mikan (mandarin oranges) from local farmers, and at the train station there was a roasted chestnut stand.

The best part of all this was that the air smelled so good, except when a breeze picked up the fumes from the local paper/pulp factory.
posted by PipRuss at 1:01 PM on June 13, 2013

In New Orleans we have Mr. Okra who drives around in a hand-painted truck.

I came here to mention him, he used to roll by my house everyday, but has changed his route recently.
We miss him, but we do have a Mr. Okra in Your Pocket , so we can at least pretend
posted by St. Sorryass at 1:02 PM on June 13, 2013

So how this post came about. For some bizarre reason I was watching the travel channel, Bizarre Foods was on and it had a segment on arabbers and I immediately thought that's something MeFi would like. Did a bit of googling, found this documentary, then found OmieWise's post from seven years ago that mentioned the docu, but with a link that no longer worked and Bob's your auntie's live in lover.

MTV's Behind the FPP will return after these messages.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:05 PM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have a story or two about arabbers and my grandmother, but my house is drowning and possibly roofless and I'll probably be pumping out my basement until the wee hours once I get home.

I actually did some recording for that film, but it's not my best work, alas. Ooh, wait, does that mean I get to be on IMDB for something other than getting strangled by Spanish police?
posted by sonascope at 1:57 PM on June 13, 2013

When I was a kid an elderly Chinese gentleman named Mr. Wong used to come through our neighbourhood about once a week selling fresh vegetables from the back of his beat up old farm truck. Seems a much more sensible way to do things than having everyone the neighbouhood jump into their cars and drive to the supermarket whenever they need something.
posted by islander at 2:06 PM on June 13, 2013

Does Camden Yards still have their awesome policy on outside food (namely, that it's all allowed, giving rise to things like the water guy)? I used to go out of my way to only attend baseball games in Baltimore, because it made the whole experience so much more humane.

I think this is a pretty common policy for baseball stadiums. They ban things that can be 'missiles', but not sandwiches and plastic bottles. (Though a quick google does show the Oakland Coliseum does have a ban.)
posted by hoyland at 2:15 PM on June 13, 2013

Neat. I've seen this type of thing but never knew there was a name that went with it.

I've been pondering doing something like this myself but with an electric assist bike and a trailer. I'm just in a small town but there are a lot of seniors here who like market vegetables and wares but find it difficult to get to the weekly market. It would be an easy and rather unique way to make deliveries. A modern day horse and cart.

I was talking to the guy that sells these bikes and he said that a guy in another town uses one to haul around a couple of lawn mowers and basic garden equipment. So they can haul quite a bit. He has his clients but is also known to sell his service on the fly. People will just flag him down to mow their lawn when they see him.
posted by Jalliah at 2:19 PM on June 13, 2013

Back in the 90s, I became tired of working full time during the week in an office PLUS Saturday and Sunday on my husband's fruit and vegetable market stall. So one day I took a sickie and scoured the city for a used car lot that would let me swap my motorbike for a van with a sliding side door.

Once I got the van, I attached some wooden battons to the interior roof and glued pieces polystyrene from old brocolli boxes onto the roof between the battons. Then I stapled hession over the lot and spray painted it white.

Next we built a sloping shelf than ran the length of the van, added a little shelf to hold the electric scales, and built in a lock-box to hold the cash. A quick trip to the printer and I had my advertising and order pads.

By the end of the following week I had a customer list of 20. By the end of the first month I had 80. Every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday I would drive around our small city visiting my clients, providing some of the best and freshest fruit and vegetables available. We had local farm contacts, wholesaler suppliers, and occassionally home gardners supplying our stock for the weekend market stall and my week-day van sales.

My customers loved me! Stay at home parents, elderly people, work from home people and resturants became devoted clients. God I loved that business! We introduced some previously unavailable tropical fruits to our cold city and I'd create recipe pages each season as the stock changed.

I did that for a year until our market stall lease expired and the original owner took back the business and we went overseas. His wife tried to continue the van sales but decided that she wanted to pursue her art instead, so they just stopped the van sales all together. Ten years later, when visiting the city, a woman stopped me in the street and said: "You were the fruit lady!"
posted by Kerasia at 4:03 PM on June 13, 2013 [6 favorites]

There's someone trying to bring that back (basically) in Camden to combat the food desert problem.
posted by marylynn at 4:54 PM on June 13, 2013

I live in Chinatown in New York, and we still have plenty of vendors selling fresh fruit on the streets. There's always a buzz when a new seasonal fruit like longans is being sold. There's also a couple that sells freshly made cheung fun in the mornings and some other food carts around the area. And near the subway entrance at Grand and Chrystie there is a lady who sells what looks like zongzi. (she has a very distinctive voice, if you've ever been near that subway entrance at any hour in the daytime you'll know who I'm referring to).
posted by pravit at 5:26 PM on June 13, 2013

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