Pralines Are More Than Just New Orleans Signature Candy

How generations of black women crafted a livelihood from sugar, milk, butter, and pecans

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 CÃsar, 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 Praslines painful indigestion, or a clumsy cook knocking almonds into a vat of caramelized sugar. Either way, the praline became a hit in France.

"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 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 werent even in the picture. Despite the candys 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 pralines history, says the first account has found 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.

Gwendolyn Knapp is editor of Eater New Orleans.
Editor: Erin DeJesus