Monday, February 28, 2011
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Sugar and New Orleans: Some Notes
"Cotton is King; Sugar is Queen; Rice, the Lady-in-Waiting."
One particularly suitable site was a lush stretch of land beside the Mississippi River that was inhabited by Houmas Indians and grazed by bison when French explorers arrived in 1682. The Houmas House that still stands there today was built in the 1820's by Wade Hampton, then the state's chief sugar producer and the region's largest slave holder. In 1858 the plantation and columned mansion were bought by John Burnside, "The Sugar Prince of Louisiana" and owner of more than 300,000 acres. Full of art and fine furnishings, "The Sugar Palace" draws many tourists to Darrow, an hour's drive from New Orleans.
After the Civil War, many former slaves returned to the sugar fields as employees, but the situation proved unproductive and untenable. Plantation owners began to recruit foreign workers--from China, Northern Europe, and Italy--adding to the diversity of cultural influences still felt in New Orleans today. During the same period, the block of Decatur Street that now houses the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park was almost entirely made up of confectioners' kitchens and shops; the row of candy stores was a major attraction for visitors until the block burned down in 1937.
The Chalmette plant opened in 1909, replacing two obsolete refineries on Decatur Street in the French Quarter. It was such a major employer that the city built a streetcar line to deliver workers to the factory door. In the past century the Chalmette Refinery has withstood a number of challenges--WWI, the Great Depression, rationing during WWII. During Hurricane Katrina, nine feet of floodwater ruined the ground floor machines, but the refinery's sturdy buildings withstood the winds and became a refuge for stranded neighbors and a mustering station for the National Guard. The plant was renovated and running 98 days after the storm.
At Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World, old parade floats are stored in a huge hangar until they can be harvested for re-purposeable parts. We were there in time to catch some still-intact floats from a sweets-themed parade a few years back : (above, from left) Mandarin Orange Cheesecake, Gooseberry Fool, Shoofly Pie. I flashed back to my elementary school glory years by calling out their names before the tourguide had even finished asking if anyone could identify them.
Even more sweet stories are featured the Southern Food and Beverage Museum's exhibition "Tout de Sweet: All About Sugar" and Kit Wohl's cookbook, New Orleans Classic Desserts.
Friday, February 18, 2011
Thursday, February 17, 2011
Mother Nature's Cupboard, $3
Back when I was still a pre-schooler, Kentucky experienced a couple of really tough winters. I'm sure it was a terrible and challenging time for most adults, but I remember it fondly: I loved the rapier-long icicles hanging from the eaves, the sledding marathons, and especially a homemade treat that my mother called "snow cream." She and I would bundle up and venture out onto the porch to heap a mixing bowl high with all the fresh snow it would hold. Once back in the kitchen, we would stir it together with milk, sugar, and vanilla extract, then race to eat the sweet slush before it melted.
It turns out that my mother wasn't the first to think along these lines. Back in ancient times, people living in Sicily used to bring snow down from Mt. Etna, store it in caves and crevasses until summer arrived, then enjoy it drizzled with wine or flavored syrups. Later generations of Sicilians would master the arts of gelato, sorbet, and granita, and spread their specialties around the world--and one Sicilian-American would re-introduce us to the delights of eating snow.
Just when I was starting to think I had a snowball's chance of finding an open sno-ball stand, I spotted Mother Nature's Cupboard in the French Quarter's French Market. Although Mother Nature's is primarily a farm stand, they augment their produce sales with tourist-friendly snacks and drinks, and the proprietor was more than happy to make me my first-ever sno-ball.
Court of Two Sisters, $8
Like a rock star who relies on showmanship in lieu of youth, looks, great hair, or straight teeth, Bananas Foster is homely dessert that puts on one hell of a show. Its basic constituents are sliced bananas, vanilla ice cream, butter, sugar, cinnamon, and booze. What makes Bananas Foster extraordinary is that these ingredients typically come together at tableside and over an open flame: it's a performance dessert.
The dish originated in 1951 at famed New Orleans restaurant Brennan's, and was named for a local politician who was friends with the owner. I ordered it at the Court of Two Sisters, another venerable restaurant, named for sisters Emma and Bertha Camors, born 1858 and 1860, who ran a fashionable "notions" shop on the site. The restaurant's courtyard is the largest in the French Quarter, a romantic expanse dolled up with wisteria, fountains, and gas lamps. It's a great place for dinner at dusk, and a perfect stage for dessert course pyrotechnics.
Our affable server, Jay, set up a prop table with all the necessary accouterments, including a battered copper pan that looked like it might have belonged to Emma or Bertha; Jeff explained that all the waiters fight over that one because it works the best. He cooked the butter and sugar over a small brazier, then added the cinnamon and bananas. Finally, he checked that no one was walking nearby, told us to get our cameras ready, and added the rum to the hot pan: it instantly ignited into a tower of flame. Seconds later the bananas were spooned over the ice cream and dessert was served. I was digging into the warm, gooey mess before my eyes had even recovered from the rum flare.
Court of Two Sisters
613 Royal Street
New Orleans, LA 70130-2181
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
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).
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.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
214 N Carrollton Ave
New Orleans, LA
Monday, February 14, 2011
Chocolate Chewing Candy
Roman Chewing Candy Company, $1.00
While the French and the Spanish have had a more noticeable influence on New Orleans' architecture and language, the city has also been shaped by centuries of Italian migration. Given opportunities to work in fishing and agriculture, Italians from the poorer and more rural south of the country were particularly drawn to Louisiana. Towards the end of the 19th century, New Orleans' Sicilian population grew to be one of the largest in the country, exacerbating racial tensions and leading to a notorious criminal case. In 1890, Police Chief David Hennessey was murdered while investigating a vendetta killing within the Sicilian community. An enraged mob took eleven Sicilian suspects from the jail and lynched them.
Twenty-five years later, New Orleans saw the start of a much happier cross-cultural exchange. In 1915, a young street vendor named Sam Cortese had the idea that the traditional taffy his Sicilian mother made for special occassions might be a big seller. Angelina Napoli Cortese was happy to share her recipe but too busy to make as much candy as Sam needed. So in collaboration with a local wheelwright, Sam Cortese designed and built a mobile candy kitchen, a trim little cart equipped with a stove, a marble cooling slab, and a sturdy hook for pulling taffy. With the jaunty red-and-white cart hitched to a mule, Cortese crisscrossed the city making and selling his taffy--dubbed "Roman Chewing Candy" since "Sicilian" still had some negative connotations.
Sam Cortese continued to trade in taffy until his death in 1969, always keeping to the original price of 5 cents per foot-long stick. His grandson Ron Kottemann took over the business in 1970 and still sells Roman Chewing Candy from the original cart, changing only the stove (a butane replacement for the old coal-burner), and the price (now $1 a stick). Roman chewing candy is available in vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate (think "artisanal Tootsie Roll"), and if you don't happen to live on Kottemann's route you can also buy it online.
Founded in 1921 by emigre Henri Moecklin, Swiss Confectionery is now run by his great-grandson Larry. The shop's Alpine-crowned logo promises "The Peak of Perfection" and Swiss has built its reputation by living up to that promise at the most crucial of times. The staff estimate that of the 200 weddings that take place on an average weekend in New Orleans, they supply the cakes for 60. There's even a custom-built adjoining room where Swiss holds regular cake tastings for brides-to-be.
They also do a brisk business in traditional doberge cakes, beautifully iced birthday cakes, and prim little petit fours (bottom, left). Swiss can make any flavor you'd like, but around here, what most people want for their birthday cake is "wedding cake"--which in New Orleans means almond cake with almond buttercream. The bakery's air was so saturated with almond extract I could smell it in my hair for the rest of the day; it was like the heavenly flip side of enduring a smoky bar.
A sense of playfulness is also evident in Swiss' immaculate creations. The pastry "pattie shells" (below, right) are same kind you'll see elsewhere used to hold oysters or savory vol-au-vents; at Swiss they're filled with jelly and iced in Mardi Gras colors. If you look closely among the photos of elaborate wedding cakes in the shop's brochure, you'll spot this groom's cake: a perfect chocolate buttercream replica of a rumpled four-poster bed.
Sunday, February 13, 2011
Swiss Confectionery, $2
King cake season starts on Epiphany, the holiday celebrated on the twelfth night following Christmas when tradition has it that the Three Kings (or wise men) arrived in Bethlehem with their gifts for the infant Jesus. Between Epiphany and Mardi Gras, Catholics in many countries gather for king cake parties. The rich, sweet cakes are an efficient and festive way of using up luxurious ingredients such as sugar, butter, and eggs before the beginning of Lent.
I couldn't justify buying an entire king cake, but thankfully I had plenty of chances to sample. During the season, many coffee shops offer a free slice with a drink purchase, and some tourist shops that have nothing to do with food sell slices on the sly. It's also possible to get personal-sized king cakes (top photo), king cakes made from doughnuts or ice cream, or tiny king cake charms fashioned from silver or gold.
Saturday, February 12, 2011
Café Du Monde, $2.10/3
One of my fondest memories of a childhood trip to New Orleans involves eating beignets from Café Du Monde--but not at Café Du Monde. My parents and I picked up a couple of orders of the deep-fried square doughnuts on our way to the airport. Our flight home was delayed on the runway, and we were stuck in our seats for several hours while our plane went nowhere. How to pass the time? Break out the grease-stained paper bags! As a rule fried foods don't travel very well, but those beignets were one of the best picnics I've ever enjoyed--although, of course, they never made it off the ground.
Beignet derives from an old Celtic word meaning "to raise", and the pastries are made from a yeasted dough that turns to a golden pillow when dropped in hot oil. Beignets probably arrived in Louisiana by way of France, possibly introduced by Acadians expelled from Canada in the mid-18th century or by Ursuline nuns who arrived in New Orleans in 1727. While French versions were generally filled with fruit, the American beignet is pure dough, served in a thick drift of snowy confectioner's sugar and usually paired with milky, chicory-tinged café au lait.
Café Du Monde opened in the open-air French Market in 1862, rival beignet stand Morning Call in 1870. When Morning Call moved to the suburbs a century later, Café Du Monde became a quintessential experience for French Quarter tourists. Franchises began to appear in the 1980s and they now include more than 50 locations in Japan alone.
800 Decatur Street
New Orleans, LA
A newer player on the beignet scene, Café Beignet has two French Quarter locations. One is attached to the "Musical Legends Park" and boasts everything you'd expect from a Bourbon Street address--live music, late hours, and strong cocktails--plus fresh beignets ($2.95/3). On more sedate Royal Street there's a tiny full-service cafe; at a lacy cast-iron table on the patio it shares with the neighboring police station, you can enjoy an order of light, airy beignets and share your pound of excess powdered sugar with some very jazzed birds.