Wednesday, February 16, 2011



Several New Orleans guidebooks suggest that a cash-strapped tourist could make a meal out of hitting the sample trays at the French Quarter's many praline shops. Pralines aren't especially expensive, but as a quintessential souvenir they add up to big business. Competition is fierce, with some shops specializing and others casting a wide net in an effort to have something for everyone: you want your pralines creamy? Crunchy? Flavored with chocolate, peanut butter, coconut, maple syrup, or rum? Or how about Tabasco?

Pralines have come a long way since they first appeared in France in the early 17th century. Although candied nuts had been around since the Middle Ages, almonds coated in caramelized sugar only came to be called "pralines" through association with the Duke de Plessis-Praslin. One story has it that the recipe was discovered when the household cook Lassagne caught his children improvising a fragrant treat using
stolen almonds and sugar, which was then an expensive luxury. Another says that Lassagne added sugar to help the Duke digest almonds, since sugar was also considered to have medicinal properties. The treat became popular across France, and the praline shop founded by Lassagne is still in business today.

The recipe for pralines arrived in New Orleans with the French, but the confection quickly took on a New World form. Almonds were replaced by pecans, which then grew in abundance throughout the city. Refined sugar was replaced by cheaper brown sugar, and the candy coating increased in proportion to the nuts until in New Orleans "praline" meant a matrix of solidified sugar studded with whole or crushed nuts.

The beginnings of the local praline industry also reflect New Orleans' unusual socio-political structure. In contrast with other areas of the US, New Orleans was subject to
the French Code Noir; under its terms slaves were given Sundays off and permitted to meet, play music, and dance in Congo Square to the north of the Quarter. With their owners' permission, slaves were also able to engage in trade, and at the Congo Square public market they were could earn extra income by doing odd jobs or selling food or crafts.

Pralines were a common sight at the market. Made from byproduct sugar and nuts gathered from public land, they cost next to nothing to make, and even when sold cheaply, represented almost pure profit. As noted by Liz Williams of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, "Selling pralines and other candies offered a regular and socially sanctioned source of income for many free women of color and slaves." Some of this income could have been directed towards a particular purpose; under New Orleans law, slaves also had the opportunity to purchase freedom, and at least some praline vendors were able to contribute to buying freedom
for themselves or their families.

In the period after the Civil War, pralines continued to be a popular treat and an important source of income for women who might have few other options. With their bright kerchiefs and fly-shooing fans, the praline marchandes became a city icon (see vintage postcard, top). In SoFAB's "Pecan Candy" display, curator Chanda Nunez explores the complexity of this image: "Because of the popularity of these confections, the highly visible praline vendors were simultaneously celebrated and caricatured by white observers who depicted them as 'mammy' figures. However, these women were entrepreneurs adapting to their time and place." As praline making became more industrialized, manufacturers exploited that historic association; an "Aunt Sally" emblazoned on a candy wrapper amounted to a seal of authenticity (above, two 20th century examples).

Pralines continue to evolve today, with consumers rewarding both tradition and innovation, and tending to define both in terms of ingredients. Laura's Candies (established in 1913 and possibly the city's oldest candy shop) sells an "original Creole" praline ($1.85) based on an 18th century recipe. The crisp, translucent treat is made from brown sugar and pecans with a touch of vanilla.

331 Charters St

The next generation of pralines were made more complicated and luxurious with the addition of butter or cream. Typical of this type is Southern Candymakers' tender and rich "Original Creamy Praline" ($19.95/lb).

Southern Candymakers
334 Decatur St

As the food culture in New Orleans evolved, so did the praline, reflecting new technologies and new cultural influences. Recipes were modernized to include convenience ingredients such as condensed or evaporated milk, or updated with flavorful additions such as coconut or chocolate.

Wandering through the Marigny, a more workaday neighborhood that borders the French Quarter,
I poked my head into Loretta's Authentic Pralines looking for something they didn't have, and walked out with a couple of free pralines; it happened to be Valentine's Day and the woman behind the counter said she just couldn't let us leave empty-handed.

The pralines were delicious--creamy, slightly chewy, one plain and one chocolate, both huge and distinctively ovoid. Even luckier, it turned out that I had also stumbled across one of the most fascinating stories of the new praline economy. Loretta's motto, "Not just a creamy, chunky, delicious piece of candy, but a piece of New Orleans", holds true from almost every angle. When Loretta Harrison started her company 30 years ago as a divorced single mother, her only assets were $700 in seed money and a praline recipe four generations old. Loretta's Authentic Pralines became the first candy company in New Orleans to be owned by an African-American.

Loretta's retail shop in the French Market was destroyed
by the flooding during Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath, with insurance payouts delayed and debts mounting, Harrison had to go back to the drawing board. With help from a Seedco development grant she remodeled her production kitchen to accommodate a new retail store and a popup restaurant, which attracts crowds for Friday lunch. Today, Loretta's has two locations and 15 employees and Harrison is a local figure, even appearing in a 2010 Super Bowl commercial with a tray of her signature pralines.

2101 N Rampart
1100 N Peters St Stall #9

If your mouth is watering, have a look at some posts from other WanderFoodies!


Wanderluster said...

A fantastic post! Can't wait for my next trip to New Orleans to follow the "praline trail" you've laid out.

Bylandersea said...

Fascinating story. I've been to NOLA many times but never knew the history of pralines. Thank you,


ingridbuck@pralines said...

That’s very revealing. I never thought that pralines were that old. It’s great to know the history of pralines.