NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA– There are few things in this world that can compare to the cuisine of Louisiana. It seems as though the Lord deliberated an especially long time (perhaps an hour or so) during his day of creation, on Louisiana’s taste alone. While our uniqueness in spice and everything nice, might not be “biblical,” it is at the very least sacred.
The beloved praline traveled over in the 18th century from France by way of the Ursuline nuns. At first, the recipes involved almonds but changed with good old New Orleans magic, with the abundance of wild pecan trees and sugar cane fields. Pralinières, were women who sold pralines in the French Quarter in the 19th century; a lot of them were free women of African descent.
“My mom made pralines, her mom made pralines, her mom made pralines,” says Ms. Loretta Harrison who is sweetly bestowed with the honor of being the “Praline Queen of New Orleans.” Her shop on 2101 North Rampart, is a must-visit for the sweet tooth afflicted (me being probably the biggest sugar addict around). Her gift of sugar is a sweet tradition that dates back to her grandmother. Her whimsical knowledge of the culinary arts leads to many incarnations of pralines, beignets, buttery cookies and king cakes.
However, at this time she pays homage to the lady entrepreneurs that came before her by inviting folks to taste a plate of history.
“Calas are rice fritters that date back to the 18 hundreds,” says Ms. Loretta.
Upon inspection, Calas look a bit like sun-kissed donut holes and are first cousins to the beignet. However, once the fortunate, who are able to bite into one and taste them, they are introduced to a fluffy white firmament of rice and cozy spices. They are heavenly rice fritters delicately dusted with powdered sugar and history.
Ms. Loretta took me on a journey through time to give me the history, saying, “the Calas were made in Africa when Africans were on rice farms.”
During France’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, — people from the West African Senegal valley were a prize catch because of their knowledge of rice farming. Fast forward in time; as Louisiana changed hands to the Spaniards in the 1700s, the establishment of Coartación gave slaves the right to buy their freedom and in New Orleans, Sunday was the free day to take charge of that opportunity. The enslaved people would sell baskets of Calas on the streets and save up the money to buy freedom. I assure you there is no sweeter purchase.
“Cala, Cala Cala” (pronounced cah-law), rang as a part of the ambiance of the French Quarter. It was the sound of early women entrepreneurs. These women were part of the more than 14 hundred New Orleans slaves that bought their freedom under the thumb of Spain. These gifted women of color laid the mold for black-owned businesses of the future.
Last year, Ms. Loretta unveiled her calas recipe at jazz fest after a beautiful suggestion by Quint Davis and the Jazz and Heritage Festival Crew. Jazz Fest wanted a special way to bring in the 300-year celebration of the city of New Orleans. “customers were raving about them at the fest. It has been a dying art and a dying piece of food,” says Ms. Loretta.
There are many recipes down the rabbit’s hole of google for Calas. Some use yeast, while others use baking powder, but most rice fritter recipes continue with properly cooked white rice, eggs, sugar and a blend of cinnamon and nutmeg. The confection is then fried to a golden brown.
The Cala is simply a New Orleans tradition! And when you tell the story of the African in the America’s, food has always been front and center. Ms. Loretta perfectly said on my visit that, “the calla, that is our history, that is our story.”
Ms. Loretta’s Calas will be making a triumphant return to Jazz Fest 2019, in their many forms. Offerings will include the original Cala, a savory version and my personal favorite, the sweet potato Cala.