SF Bay Area
Food and drink that has us seeing gold
It is without a doubt that Louisiana is one of America’s truest treasures. The creation and influence of jazz and bounce music has influenced American music in some of the most profound ways. The unique and immersive Mardi Gras parades have intensely increased the tourism count in the boot-shaped state. Even the architecture alone in New Orleans makes it feel as if it were a city in a completely different country, thanks to its French and Spanish integration.
Therefore it really is no surprise that one of their most famous desserts, pralines, is absolutely a tradition of the South. A hard candy usually filled with nuts, the simple delicacy is actually a widely-known candy to locals and usually favored amongst other sweets. It’s such a popular treat that even tourists themselves travel all over to indulge in its taste, aside from other Southern staples in the city.
Pralines originated in France, when an African-American slave was sent to create a sweet dish for his master’s romantic interests. Although the first version of the praline had almonds, once it made its way to New Orleans the abundance of pecans became a staple ingredient. The common factors of a praline, however, have stayed the same since: melted sugar, cream, and nuts. Of course there are an abundance of pralines. New Orleans is the home to the most diverse. Raisin, coconut, caramel, almond, peanut, chocolate, fruit. You want something totally unexpected and tiptoeing on possibly diabetes-inducing? It’s probably in New Orleans.
Pralines are so diverse culturally that depending on where you are located, the word may sound completely different than in a different location. Some people may pronounce it as “pray-leen,’ which was the Creole interpretation, and some may pronounce it as “prah-leen”, which stems from its traditional French origin. Many generations, however, have adapted both pronunciations, and most tourists pronounce it as “pray-leen.”
If you have lived in New Orleans for more than 10 years, more than likely you will know someone who has a family member involved in candy-making. The food business is a very family-oriented culture in Louisiana. One of the best examples is of Mr. Okra, a recently deceased truck driver who was most famous for his daily trek into the neighborhoods of New Orleans, singing with an abundance of fresh produce in his tiny colorful truck, now being operated by his daughter.
But one of the most well-respected, loved, and appreciated praline stores, is also surprisingly one of the least-discussed places in New Orleans: Loretta’s.
Amongst the many praline shops in New Orleans is Loretta’s, the first African-American female to successfully own a praline business. She’s somehow managed to gain national coverage in numerous forms of media while still being able to keep a quiet, calm location in her local Marigny, where she’s had the shop for over 40 years. Her connection to candy-making is so deeply rooted in family that her close relatives at The Praline Connection have also successfully started and ran a soul food restaurant in New Orleans for over 25 years. And looking at Loretta’s, there’s a reason why.
You can sense the heartwarming dedication as soon as you step into her store in Marigny. Wide, bright, and full of devotional items, it is pretty quiet when you first walk in. On this particular day, the cast and crew of “NCIS: New Orleans” was just there, buying some pralines and beignets to use as props for the next episode. A student chef from Delgado is there, and so are two elderly workers. Red and white checkerboard prints are on the table cloth, traditional sankofa wire shapes in the chairs, a long food display below the counter, and an abundance of sweet smells.
Loretta is all about tradition, but she isn’t afraid to spice things up, in a literal sense. She has numerous pralines that stay within the history of the candy but still add variety for the sweet-obsessed. Rum, coconut, and even nut-less, for people with allergies. The nut-less is just as good, tasting like a block of less chunky sugar and milk. In addition, she even has praline-filled beignets, a personal concoction that has gained massive local attention in the past few years.
Her staple is undoubtedly pralines, but surprisingly, meals also make their way in discussion for breakfast or Friday afternoons. Southern food is always the center of the product. For breakfast, or even brunch, a breakfast beignet or burger beignet is at first a seemingly odd decision, but upon the smell, it hits you. The breakfast beignet is a simple bacon, egg and cheese or sausage, egg and cheese on a flaky crust. Her burger beignets also come as two sliders: flaky, buttery pastry crust as the buns, and beef patties dressed with lettuce, tomato, and an addicting sauce to top. It’s the perfect meal for a person who needs food, but plans on walking around the French Quarters soon after. And when you don’t want a burger, there are also crabmeat beignets: a french doughnut fried and stuffed with crabmeat with butter and mushroom sauté. You won’t find anything like that for miles.
Fish Fridays are her most popular of the week, and obviously so. Aside from what is on the normal menu of oysters, tuna, fried fish, or shrimp salads, and po’ boys, you also get a the options of catfish plates, stuffed bell peppers, chicken wings, or just your normal fish and shrimp combo. And yes, there is a combination plate for those who are shameless about their soul food.
What is most entertaining about the restaurant are the tiny surprises that show up upon closer inspection of the place. A lively stack of Easter baskets line a wall, a section of the store for ice cream, iron music notes on the walls to help accentuate the musical vibe of the city. And interestingly enough, her non-perishables, stacked neatly by a wall inside of their own little shelves. She makes her own pickles, her own hot peppers, her own jellies (like blackberry and peach) and jams (amongst them, orange marmalade).
Loretta’s status as being the first African-American female praline shop owner is not at all overly exaggerated, undeserving, nor taken for granted. With 41 years at her craft, it’s safe to say that the delicacy is a result of her upbringing and her style. Even at the age of eight, she knew that this was something special.
“The ah-ha moment started when I was 8-years-old. That’s when I started to make pralines. I was allowed to make pralines when I was 12, so I always knew how to make candy. And so, after I graduated from SUNO, I took a job at a medical library. I made pralines during the day, and I went to work from 3 to 11. And I was selling the pralines to the students, they enjoyed it, they loved it, so I continued to make them,” she says.
But it isn’t just her own tradition of pralines that influenced Loretta to start a family business. It was the tradition that came from Louisiana itself.
“My mom taught me, her mom taught her, and my grandmother’s mother taught her, so we all use the same recipe, nothing’s changed. Except, when I was growing up we only made the original pralines.”
You would think that by having eaten sweets for literally all her life she’d be tired of it, but she swears that it never gets old. “What I do, I don’t work for money, it’s a passion. So I love my candy, I love my job, and I eat it everyday—I have to try it anyways. Oh it was always just fun. When you start having to prove, it’s not fun anymore. It’s fun even now,” she says.
Her secret to maintaining a business full of love and good eats for generations is simple:
“When I come in, I pray for a creative spirit, and He gives me that. So I channel that into what I make. For the praline beignets, I came in one day, prayed about it, and God showed me. And it’s taken off. I’ve made them for six years. We’re celebrating the history of the city, we are a part of that. To be a part of something is awesome. It means that what you do, your contribution matters”.
Header image courtesy of Oni Birden.