Celebrating Baltimore's Culinary Traditions: Where Have The Arabbers Gone?

Carrie Murphy

Remember arabbers? Sometimes called a-rabs, the fruit and vegetable sellers operated out of horse-drawn carts for years in Baltimore, dating back even to the 19th century. A quintessentially Baltimore sight, they've been missing from Charm City's streets in recent years.

Arabbers have had an embattled few years, and their numbers are dwindling quickly. In 2007, Baltimore City busted some arabbers for the conditions of their stable, claiming that the horses were living in squalor. The stable was closed and the horses moved to different locations, including temporary housing at a horse rehabilitation facility in Howard County and at Pimlico.  There was talk of a new stable, and an arabber museum, but neither materialized. Arabbers were also frequent targets of animal-rights activists, who questioned their treatment of their horses. 

Arabbers are notoriously lax about obeying city laws, but technically they must have their horses in by dusk between the months of October and April, and are not permitted to sell during adverse weather conditions, including extreme heat. Arabbers have complained that these regulations have contributed to the demise of their way of life. Some people, including Sun columnist Dan Rodricks, have called for the rehabilitation of the arabber culture, including training new sellers and possibly offering products like gourmet coffee or organic produce.

Growing up in Rodgers Forge, I can easily remember arabbers selling in our back alley, their loud voices calling out the produce they had for sale. My family always bought from them, and, as a child, I loved the novelty of having a horse come basically up into my backyard while my mom picked out fresh cherries and corn.

Rumor has it Food Network star Andrew Zimmern recently accompanied a third-generation arabber around the city in her cart, and apparently there are a few arabbers still working out of a stable on Carlton Street in Southwest Baltimore, but I personally haven't seen any for a long time. It seems to be that encouraging the work of arabbers could be a good solution to solving the problem of Baltimore's many urban food deserts, as well as a reliable way of transporting fresh produce to those who can't obtain it for themselves (like senior citizens). After all, that's what arabbers had been doing for decades before modern life encroached on their tradition. 

If you're interested in learning more about this fascinating piece of Baltimore's food history, there is a 2004 documentary called "We Are Arabbers," some clips of which are available on YouTube. You can also check out the website of the Arabber Preservation Society

Do you know of any arabbers still working in your neighborhood? What memories do you have of arabbers in years past? Do you think arabbers should be allowed to sell produce in Baltimore, or is their day past?

 


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