Read: Uncovering the roots of Caribbean cooking
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.