Dr. Jessica B. Harris is an award-winning culinary historian, cookbook author and journalist who specializes in the food and foodways of the African diaspora. With this column, "My Culinary Compass," she is taking people all over the world — via their taste buds — with recipes inspired by her extensive travels.
Compass points: 29.57 degrees north, 90.46 degrees west. New Orleans, Louisiana.
The Crescent City at the bend of the Mississippi River is one of the places where my heart sings. One of the reasons that I love the city is that it is a linchpin between the culinary cultures south of the United States and those to the north. Nowhere is this more evident than in the city’s preeminent confection: the praline. Even today, few travelers leave the city without a box of them clutched in their hands or tucked in their luggage as witnessed by the numbers and variants of the candy available at the airport. And though the praline ladies are no longer fixtures on French Quarter street corners selling their wares, there are still a multiplicity of shops selling the treats, and each has its staunch partisans among the city’s denizens. There are the old-style crispy ones, newer, creamier versions, and still others that include additions like maple syrup.
While the taste of a crisp praline is wonderful with a strong cup of chicory coffee café au lait in the morning, I must admit that what truly fascinates me about the confection is not so much its taste as its history. Several years back, I hosted a one-day Food Forum with the Historic New Orleans Collection, one of the city’s preeminent cultural institutions, on the subject of the praline, and invited friends from other parts of the Americas to discuss the sweet treat. The attendees heard that the candy’s name is originally French, harking back to the Duc du Plessy Praslin. They have long been a fixture on the New Orleans landscape. 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.
Most New Orleanians knew some of this, but they were astonished to discover that the patty they thought was uniquely their own was shared not only with parts of Texas, where they are prepared with peanuts and known as "prasle de cacahuate," but also in Charleston, where they are sold under the name "monkey meat." They are shared with the French Caribbean, where they are called prepared with coconut and become "tablettes coco" and with Jamaica, where they are known as "pinda cakes." In other parts of the American South, they become a simple peanut patty. The candy is even found as far south as Brazil, where they have the appellation "pé de moleque." The only appreciable change in the candies is the nut. The local nut, be it peanut or coconut, Brazil nut or pecan, is dropped in melted sugar or molasses and formed as a patty.
The equally fascinating thing about the history of the confection is that they are the work of women confectioners and, in many notable cases, the candies were used to generate income and, in times of enslavement, may have enabled many of the women to purchase their freedom and that of their relatives. So, the next time you’re in New Orleans and heading to a plane, take a minute or two, stop at one of the kiosks and pick up a box or two of the confection that carries an awful lot of history in one small patty.