Walk around the French Quarter today and you’ll notice the barrage of touristy shops that hock hot sauce, beads, pralines, and crass T-shirts — the basic starter kit for getting arrested on Bourbon Street. But the New Orleans praline — that confection consisting of sugar, milk, butter, and pecans, with a taste like some nuttier cousin of fudge — is so much more than tourist fodder.
The praline itself is a French confection, named after César, duc de Choiseul, comte du Plessis-Praslin, who some believe had his cook devise an almond-studded candy to woo his various love interests. Or perhaps it was his butler who created the treat to cure Praslin’s painful indigestion, or a clumsy cook knocking almonds into a vat of caramelized sugar. Either way, the praline became a hit in France[Trigger Text] tktk.
"The culinary genius of African-American women created the New Orleans praline as we know it."
In Louisiana, where pecans — not almonds — prevail, the praline evolved thanks to the "culinary genius of African-American women," writes praline scholar Chanda M. Nunez, who credits those women with creating "the New Orleans praline as we know it." Even the New Orleans praline's shape — the way it hardens into a little brown puddle with pecans randomly jutting up across its murky topography — seems to evoke the swamp, if, say, it froze over and all its spooky cypress knees were forever preserved in time.
New Orleans’s now-signature pecan candy was actually one of the earliest street foods in America, and a means for emancipated black women to make a living during a time when civil rights weren’t even in the picture. Despite the candy’s popularity in the early 1900s, the praline is often overlooked as one of New Orleans’ most storied foods, which is a shame — the candy is a symbol of a rich black culinary heritage and city tradition.
New Orleans-based food historian and author Rien Fertel, who has done extensive research on the praline’s history, says the first account he’s found of a local newspaper mentioning pralines was actually during the Civil War, in an 1862 ad for holiday "chocolate pralines" at a confectionary shop in the French Quarter. The candy's predecessor, the French praline, likely came to New Orleans much earlier than that, carried over with French settlers and in existence by the very late 1700s, when the sugar-cane industry finally had a foothold in Louisiana.
Fertel believes that vendors began selling pralines on the city's streets as early as the 1860s. It was common then to see black women selling wares in the French Quarter — coffee and calas (Creole rice fritters that are pretty difficult to find these days), waffles and pies. Praline vendors were likely regarded as fixtures by the 1880s, when New Orleans was entering a booming new era. The World Cotton Centennial (aka the World's Fair) would've been underway. The city was emerging as a popular dining destination, and as tourists disembarked from trains in the heart of the Quarter, exiting near the French Market, they would encounter numerous stalls overflowing with food, meat, and produce. It's here that many pralinieres likely walked up and down the market with their baskets, singing songs about their homemade candy to lure in potential customers.
By the 1890s, pralines seemed to be everywhere. The Daily Picayune, precursor to The Times-Pic, ran numerous articles about the candy and its vendors. "There was definitely mention of pralines being on platters at Uptown dinner parties, of pralines' ties to the elite," Fertel says.
But most of the action was on the street. Famed vendors, known by their nicknames, included Tante Marie who sold on Royal Street, Zabet and Praline Zizi who worked Jackson Square, Tante Titine at St. Louis Cathedral, Gateaux Bon Marche at Washington Square, and Mary Louise at Tulane and Newcomb College in Uptown — her daughter Azelie actually inherited this business after her mother's death, adding yet another site, St. Charles Hotel, to her daily roster.
Most pralinieres spoke in a French-Creole patois not heard today. Many had special sections of the Quarter where they worked, much like modern-day buskers — street performers who paint themselves gold and silver, holding statuesque poses — ensuring not to tread on a competitor's turf.
In essence, the praline vendors of that time were street performers: They all dressed the part of a "mammy," the pernicious stereotype of a comforting Black woman whose inherently maternal nature made her content in her servitude. The costume — long skirts, aprons, scarves, and tignons — signified a demented myth of the South, a romanticizing of slavery and reconciliation that was inherently racist. "It was shrewd marketing," Fertel says. "They knew their customers." These costumes also ingrained in many people an interconnectedness of the praline and the mammy figure; in the early 20th century, these women were commonly known as "praline mammies."
"It was shrewd marketing. They knew their customers."
As late as the 1940s, praline vendors were still dressing the part of the mammy. People recorded their songs and drew them in cookbooks. They were likely more popular than even the coffee and calas vendors.
Sadly enough, from around 1918 to the 1970s, it became the norm for white-owned candy shops to capitalize on the praline mammy caricature. The mammy wasn't an uncommon theme in food marketing. Pancake and syrup brand Aunt Jemima emerged at the 1893 World's Fair, and around the same time, both white- and black-authored mammy cookbooks became the rage, according to writer Sarah Walden, whose work appears in Writing In The Kitchen: Essays on Southern Literature and Foodways.
In New Orleans, Luzianne Coffee relied on a mammy image. Early advertisements for Aunt Sally's, New Orleans's largest and most famous praline company, encouraged fans to "look for mammy with the blinking eye" at its French Quarter shop. Gross renderings of mammies appeared on many a candy shop's packaging or signage. Some shops positioned mammy dolls out front, life-sized affronts that were sometimes chained to storefronts so they wouldn't be stolen. Children and families often stopped to pose with these dolls. As late as 2014, at least one praline shop, Evan's Creole Candy Factory, was still using racist imagery in its logo and signage.
It's fairly uncommon to see praline vendors on the streets of New Orleans today. You might catch one at a Jazz Fest gate or roaming down Decatur and Frenchmen on a busy Saturday — no mammy costume in sight. Today, though, you'll just find that every other cheesy tourist shop along Decatur Street has an apron-bedecked gator statue holding up silver platters with praline samples, wanting you to have a taste as they smile with reptilian fangs exposed.
Not all pralines taste good, you know," says Bernadine Lady Rogers, longtime candy maker at Leah's Pralines (and before that, Laura's Candies). She didn't even know that praline shops existed until she was in her teens, because making pralines was something all the black families she knew did at home. "We didn't even use a recipe," Rogers says. "When I was growing up, we just knew it was a box of brown sugar, canned milk which we called cream, and butter." She also remembers a vendor that staked out in front of the long-lost Werlein's Music on Canal Street: "This little lady who used to sit out there with her big basket of pralines."
"A lot of food our ancestors used to do is becoming a dying art, and the younger generation won’t fool with it."
"[For] pralines, you always came down to the Quarter," says Tyrone Stevenson, head praline maker at Leah's. Recalling his childhood in the 7th Ward, Stevenson remembers "hot tamales would pass at night. The rag man would pass. The produce man would pass. A popcorn man." But never a pralinier.
Stevenson is a Mardi Gras Indian — a member of one of the neighborhood "tribes" primarily formed when blacks were widely excluded from Carnival krewes (they're known for their extravagant costumes inspired by the Native Americans believed to have helped runaway slaves). Photos of Stevenson in his beautiful beaded suits, vibrant with turquoise and black feathers hang in the shop, and tour guides are known to stop by to introduce him to tourists. He's been making candy at Leah's for eight years, but he first fell into the job over 20 years ago at Laura's Candies, where Rogers first hired him. When Rogers moved to Leah's some 20 years ago, her devout staff started to follow.
If praline-making doesn't seem like it would be a competitive craft to get into today, think again. "You really have to know somebody," says Suzie Stokes, Leah's manager. Her great aunt purchased the location from Cook's Confections in the 1940s, and today Leah's is one of the oldest candy shops in the Quarter, situated in just two small rooms across from Antoine's restaurant.
At Leah's, up to 1,000 pralines can be turned out by Stevenson, Rogers, and Stokes on a busy day. Each batch of traditional pralines takes about 40 minutes to make, with endless stirring required and a mad rush to spoon out the hot candy before it sets into 200 round, chunky pralines. Many shops today also make variations on the praline, including coconut, peanut butter, and chocolate flavors. "It's mainly tourists," Stokes says of her current clientele. "Most New Orleanians don't really seek them out, you know?"
One thing New Orleanians have been seeking out, though, is a praline beignet made by Loretta Harrison, who has been running Loretta's Authentic Pralines — the city's first praline shop owned by an African-American woman — for 37 years. In September, her praline beignets won the city's inaugural Beignet Fest, where she served a whopping 3,500 of them, turning them out at a rate of over five per minute. She originally started selling her pralines to students at LSU Medical Science Center, back when she was a night supervisor there. "They'd say, 'Miss Loretta, you don't belong here. You need to start your own business.' So I did."
Harrison nabbed a location at Jackson Brewery and a coveted spot as a Jazz Fest vendor in the early 1980s, and the rest was history. Today, she has a location in the French Market, but her spot in the Marigny neighborhood, with its ice cream shop appeal and menu of pralines and New Orleans soul food — crab beignets, stuffed peppers, sweet potato cookies — is a community fixture, a hub for locals and tourists alike.
"We have to keep the history of our food, our culture, our city alive."
For Harrison, the praline is as much about tradition as it is a passion. "I was allowed to make candy on the stove when I was eight years old," she remembers. Her own mother made pralines on the weekends, and neighborhood kids would gather at her house for a taste. Today, her shops use a recipe passed down from at least three generations of women in her family, maybe more.
"A lot of food our ancestors used to do is becoming a dying art, and the younger generation won't fool with it," Harrison says. "My son's better. Not just because it's good money, but the history. We have to keep the history of our food, our culture, our city alive."
One part of that history is the pronunciation of the candy's name. "Downtown, in the 7th Ward with the Creoles, we called it plaw-rines," Stevenson notes. "Uptown, they called it pecan candy." But Harrison begs to differ. "No. That's old school," she argues of Stevenson's preferred pronunciation. "That's country. ‘You going to get some of them plaw-rines?'... That's just how old people talk. They say puh con candy. But whatever you say, it's just a creamy, chunky, delicious taste of New Orleans."
Gwendolyn Knapp is editor of Eater New Orleans.
Editor: Erin DeJesus