Thirty-five years ago, when Loretta Harrison opened Loretta’s Authentic Pralines in New Orleans’ old Jax Brewery building, she became the first African-American woman to own and operate a praline company in the Crescent City—a distinction she characterizes as relative. “While mine may have been the first brick-and-mortar store here,” Harrison says, “many other entrepreneurial black women preceded me.”
Indeed, free women of color have been selling pralines in the French Quarter since before the Civil War. The history is, of course, complicated. Though street- vending granted these early “pralinières” a means to support themselves, it also required a certain degree of subservient posturing. In Gumbo Ya-Ya, a book of Louisiana folklore published in 1945, the authors noted that “the delicious Creole confections…have been vended by Negresses of the ‘Mammy’ type.” This kind of racist iconography would persist, with at least one local praline brand employing such shameful imagery into this century.
Like so much of New Orleans’ signature cuisine, the praline has its origins in France, or more specifically, in the kitchen of 18th-century diplomat César, duc de Choiseul, comte du Plessis-Praslin, whose chef is said to have invented the eponymous sweet to help his employer woo women. During the late 1720s, Ursuline nuns imported this French version—an almond coated in caramelized sugar—to the Louisiana Territory, where slaves in the colonists’ kitchens were likely responsible for adding butter, cream, and the region’s native pecan to make the recipe what it is today.
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