Last week I ran into one of the small but delightful things about Phaildelphia that New York does not have, at all. When I first moved to West Philadelphia, almost 30 years ago, there was a small store on 47th Street called “The Carrot Cake Man”. The Carrot Cake Man is a handsome African-American gentleman, perhaps ten or fifteen years older than me, who wears a hat. His name, I have learned, is Vernon Wilkins. In his store, the Carrot Cake Man sold the carrot cakes that he made himself. I don't recall that anything else was sold there.
The store lasted a long time — 19 years — which might be surprising but for two facts. First, rents in West Philadelphia were much lower in those days. But more important, the carrot cake was really good. I don't even like carrot cake. But I liked the Carrot Cake Man's carrot cake and I still do. If you wanted carrot cake, it was best to get there early. The Carrot Cake Man would sell out, every day.
After the Carrot Cake Man closed his store, he continued to sell his carrot cakes through other outlets. In recent decades his habit has been to make trays of cupcake-sized carrot cakes and to sell them on the street or on public transportation. Every once in a while I will have a lucky day and meet the Carrot Cake Man on the way from somewhere to somewhere else.
Last week I was on the way home from work, waiting to board the #34 trolley at 15th Street, and there on the platform was the Carrot Cake Man. “Hey!” I exclaimed in delight. “It's the Carrot Cake Man!” I was very excited, because I had not seen him in a long time. For a moment I was afraid he would not get onto my trolley. I was just preparing to get off and to accost him on the platform when he boarded. I bought six small carrot cakes. They cost $1 each. They are still delicious.
If New York has anything like the Carrot Cake Man, I can't think what it would be. And it seems unlikely that any New York institution could be quite the same, because New York is too big. Individuals like the Carrot Cake Man vanish into it like drops of rain into the ocean. But Philadelphia is not quite so big. You can run into Carrot Cake Man once in a while, purely by chance, and you can mention him to someone else and expect there is a good chance they will know who you mean.
This article from the Chestnut Hill Local discusses the Carrot Cake Man, who has been making and selling carrot cake full time since 1980.