The History Behind One of America’s Most Beloved Desserts

The origins of the praline candy can be traced back to enslaved black women in Louisiana.

Engaging culinary histories is a way to process humanity’s shared experiences and how they reflect past and present ideologies. (Gerald Herbert / AP)

The end of the holiday season and beginning of the new year feels like a natural time to reflect on familial traditions. Holidays, inasmuch as they are illustrated by their ornaments and decorations, are also hallmarked by their customary foods, which spangle around festive table centerpieces as the true spectacle of the occasions. Recipes are handed down and prepared for generations, and it’s in these practices that heritage and communion exist.

My mother’s pralines, the sweet pecan candy with a buttery, brown-sugar smell, remind me of the winter as much as the scent of pine does. But I had never thought of the dessert as more than a simple delight until I learned how to make it myself. Once I had stood over the pot full of caramelized sugar and pecans, tracing the surface of a Dutch oven with my wooden spoon and constantly checking the candy thermometer that hung just above the pot’s metallic floor, I wondered why pralines were so beloved among southern families—namely black families in New Orleans.

When I began to research the praline’s origin story, reading food-history books, cookbooks, and academic articles about colonial Louisiana, I saw a story of black pastoral brilliance. Retracing these threads allowed me to recognize all the cultural influences that played a factor in the innovation of the candy in the American South.

The original praline was a 17th-century French dessert described as “almonds coated in boiled sugar.” The southern candy is a riff on this formulation and is markedly different from its contemporary European counterpart, which can be any kind of nut boiled in sugar, and is usually used as a filling for chocolates. The praline that emerged in the South in the 1800s—as a result of colonialism—featured pecans and sugar, and was bonded with a heavy milk. Enslaved black women were responsible for those improvisations, which were made after French settlers introduced their version in Louisiana, where sugarcane plantations were a dominant industry and pecan trees were prevalent.

In his 1919 book about pecans, the agricultural historian Rodney Howard True called the crop “America’s most important contribution to the world’s stock of edible nuts.” Native peoples consumed pecans before Europeans arrived to America, but the pecan’s history as a harvested nut capable of consistent growth and production is linked to a formerly enslaved Louisianan named Antoine. The University of Georgia professor Lenny Wells wrote in his book, Pecan: America’s Native Nut Tree, that the nut had been harvested and perhaps even sold for centuries, but that it was not viewed as capable of being industrialized due to the pecan tree’s fickle temperament. That perception shifted in 1846, Wells wrote, “thanks to the skill of a slave.” Antoine’s ability to produce high-quality nuts came through mastering the perfect combination of grafting partners, in which a tree with premium-grade pecans could have its roots tied to those of a lesser tree to help it produce premium nuts as well.

While the earliest advertisement for pralines can be traced back to 1862, during the Civil War, these candies were possibly developed and sold before then. New Orleans’s unique laws allowed enslaved people to set up their own marketplaces on their day off, usually Sunday, where they would sell goods alongside free blacks, known as gens de couleur libres. In her cookbook Jubilee, which focuses on two centuries of African American cooking, the food journalist Toni Tipton-Martin writes that pralines “vividly illustrate the way that black cooks transitioned unwanted leftovers into financial advantage.”

Creations like the praline fossilize a history of black pioneering in this country. When my mother taught me how to make them, she was teaching me to engage heritage with my hands, to practice the customs of the black women who started selling the candy more than a century ago in the French Quarter. The wooden spoon and Magnalite Dutch oven we use were the tools of many generations of black New Orleanian cooks—such as the late Leah Chase, an icon of Creole cuisine—who come from a lineage of people who worked with less to create more.

The civil-rights activist Rudy Lombard, who led the efforts to desegregate New Orleans restaurants in the 1960s, co-authored a 1978 cookbook titled Creole Feast, which includes the recipes of some of New Orleans’s premier black chefs. In the introduction, Lombard criticized the ignorance that ascribed a “secondary, lowly or nonexistent role to the Black hand in the pot” when defining Creole cuisine. After noting all the European influences in New Orleans food and culture, he wrote, “The single, lasting characteristic of Creole cuisine is the Black element.”

Now, when I enjoy pralines, I appreciate more than their taste. The history of a resilient past satisfies me more than anything else, and I will ensure that praline making remains a tradition in my family for generations to come.