By Jessica B. Harris
Pralines are a major part of culinary New Orleans. Where they came from, and how they got here is another fascinating tale of the city. Let’s begin with the no doubt apocryphal tale of the origin of the candy that became synonymous with the Crescent City. We are told that the cook of the French Duke of Plessis-Praslin (1589-1675) invented a method for coating whole almonds in grained caramelized sugar, and eventually began to produce the sweets that became increasingly popular commercially. By the 18th century, this form of the candy was well known in Europe and is even recorded in cookbooks as a “prawlin”. This meaning of the word praline is still used in chocolate making and refers to a candy that is prepared from crushed nuts and sugar. The nuts used are usually almonds, but they may also be hazelnuts or other nuts.
From Europe the term, if not the form, moves into the New World and the Caribbean sugar islands where confections prepared from sugar syrups or molasses with the addition of local nuts become commonly sold on streets by vendors who were often free people of color selling to make additional income, or enslaved folk working for their mistresses. The New World candies are found under varying different names like tablette de coco (coconut confections) in Martinique and Guadeloupe, pinda cakes (peanut patties) in Jamaica, and pe de moleque (young boy’s foot!) in Brazil. These candies commonly (but not exclusively) use local nuts: Brazil nuts, peanuts, and so forth.
According to John Mariani’s, 1999 Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, in North America, pralines and their culinary cousins are a specialty of several southern states. In Louisiana, especially New Orleans, the name praline applies to candies made with pecans in a coating of brown sugar sold by Creole women known as pralinières. Even before the Civil War and Emancipation, pralines were an early entrepreneurial vehicle for free women of color in New Orleans. The confection is first mentioned in print in 1715, and was recognized as part of Louisiana food culture as early as 1762.
In 1901 the Daily Picayune, an early city newspaper, reminded people that the pralinières or older black women who sold pralines about the streets of the French Quarter were often found on Canal Street near Bourbon and Royal streets and around Jackson Square in the areas flanking St. Louis Cathedral. In the 1930s, the Louisiana folklorist Lyle Saxon, writing in the book Gumbo Ya-Ya, documented praline sellers, "garbed in gingham and starched white aprons and tignons, or head wraps, fanning their candies with palmetto leaves against the heat and bellowing the sales pitch ‘belles pralines!’ to passersby.”
Street vendors selling pralines are difficult to find nowadays, but the popular candy that is a much-loved souvenir of the city is available in multiple versions in shops around the French Quarter. In addition to the classic crisp pralines, innovations have led to creamy and even chewy versions. The late doyenne of New Orleans Creole cooking, Leah Chase, recalled that in her youth pralines were also available in pink and white versions prepared from both coconut as well as pecans which would place them even more firmly in the arc of New World Caribbean confectionary.
Pralines are still used by many African American women and young girls as a way to gain additional income and they can often be found alongside vegetables and fruits that are available for sale from car trunks and trucks in local neighborhoods. They are sold not only under the name praline, but often simply as pecan candy. The candy's winning flavor has spawned multiple recipes each with its partisans. As for the pronunciation of the word praline and the pecan nut that goes into the classic ones, the local New Orleans pronunciation is "prah-lean," while the nut most commonly used in it is pronounced "pec-cahn" (mispronounce them to a local if you want to hear a rude joke about a pee-can). However you pronounce them and wherever you find them, they have become a symbol of the city and are an edible reminder of its vibrant culinary history.
All three images above are from the Louisiana Digital Database
Praline Woman - Louisiana State Museum Newcomb College Arts and Crafts
Jackson Square - LSU Libraries - Charles L. Thompson Photographs
Praline Lady Study - Ogden Museum of Southern Art
Pralines have become a symbol of the city and are an edible reminder of it's vibrant culinary history
According to Heritage Radio Network, there’s perhaps no greater expert on the food and foodways of the African Diaspora than Doctor Jessica B. Harris. She is the author of twelve critically acclaimed cookbooks documenting the foods and foodways of the African Diaspora including Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons: Africa’s Gifts to New World Cooking, Sky Juice and Flying Fish Traditional Caribbean Cooking, The Welcome Table: African-American Heritage Cooking, The Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent, and Beyond Gumbo: Creole Fusion Food from the Atlantic Rim. Harris also conceptualized and organized The Black Family Reunion Cook Book. Her book, High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America, was the International Association for Culinary Professionals 2012 prize winner for culinary history. Her most recent book is My Soul Looks Back: A Memoir.
Image: Dr. Harris at Lucullus, a culinary antique store in the French Quarter. (Photo by Kristy May).