CHRONICLES OF RECENT HISTORY: Praline people
Pralines, described simply as “dainty and delightful confections” in the 1901 Picayune Creole Cookbook, are a staple local sweet combining two Louisiana products: Pecans and sugar.
The familiar candy appears at the ends of buffet lines at receptions, is still occasionally sold from baskets by vendors, pops up next to the cash register in shops, and is most often purchased as a souvenir or a little remembrance of New Orleans by tourists.
Nuts coated with sugar were known in the Middle Ages, and sugared almonds, sometimes called dragées, are a symbol of good luck and are still given out at christenings and weddings. The idea of a cooked-sugar candy with nuts is credited to the cook of the 16th-century French Duke of Plessis-Praslin, who gave his name to the confection. (The “s” in Praslin is silent. The word “praline” has its own linguistic peculiarity – sometimes it gets pronounced “plarine.” This switching of “l” and “r” is not unusual. Both are “liquid consonants” that can be easily slurred or elided in speech, hence the confusion.)
The original praline was made with almonds. No doubt when the French arrived in Louisiana and planted sugar cane, they substituted pecans, cooked them with the sugar they produced, and came up with the local version of pralines.
In The Picayune Creole Cookbook, there are recipes for a brown-sugar praline, a white-sugar praline with coconut, and a pink one made by coloring the coconut recipe.
While home cooks can produce pralines with ease in this day of the candy thermometer, specialty candy shops do a brisk business.
“People who buy candy are happy people!” asserts Mary Lou Quinn. She should know, as her days are spent making and selling goodies to her cheerful customers at Old Town Praline and Gift Shop, just over the railroad tracks from Orleans Parish at 617 Metairie Road.
She had been a branch bank manager with decades of financial experience when she took up the family candy business 14 years ago. Her grandmother, whose maiden name was Sieriex (“just say ‘C-Rex’”), had originally worked for an owner of the Jacobs Candy Co., whose French Quarter shop sold pralines and gifts in the 1930s. “My uncle bought the business for my grandmother in 1964, and it’s been in the family ever since,” Quinn explains.
“My grandmother lived nearby, and my aunt and uncle and their family lived above the business,” Quinn says.
The Old Town Praline and Gift Shop’s last French Quarter location was at 627 Royal St., where it had been located since 1935. Five years ago, Quinn moved the shop to Metairie. “I love Metairie, but there’s no place like the French Quarter. If you grew up there, it’s in your blood!” she says. Today, her daughter Patricia Weiss has joined her in the business.
Quinn buys her pecans from Bergeron Pecans in New Roads, and she insists her pralines “are different from everyone else’s because we use no dairy products.” Also, ”we use a very old spooning technique, so when it’s poured, it’s smooth. It doesn’t have a gritty taste.” As she explains, she “grains” the pot. “We pull the sugar along the side of the pot.” Thermometers help, but “you can tell by looking at the bubbles if you’ve done it long enough,” she says.
In addition to pralines, Old Town offers Heavenly Hash, chocolate-covered marshmallows, and “Clumpps” of sugared pecans mounded together. And now there is a new treat: Katrina Debris, invented for the WYES-TV/Channel 12 Chocolate Sunday fundraiser. Quinn describes it as “a crunchy hash. It’s really good!” Post-Katrina business has been good, too, she adds. Even if they had suffered roof damage and had to start from scratch, “we decided to just take the chance.”
“You just can’t let a 70-year-old business go away; it has a heart!” Quinn says.
Another family candy company has expanded from a single shop to a corporation with an Internet presence and widespread distribution. Aunt Sally’s is the trademark logo for a “Creole praline” as well as other candies and related products from the Bagur family company. The Bagurs operated a little shop in the Vieux Carré as early as 1910 and began selling pralines in the 1930s, quickly moving into a French Market stall location where Aunt Sally’s can still be found.
The name Aunt Sally’s was taken from a Vieux Carré street vendor whose pralines were remarkably good, according to the Bagur children. When their father, with the help of a Swiss confectioner, perfected a praline recipe, the two Bagur sons sold the wares themselves, sometimes from baskets at cemeteries on All Saints Day, when good Creoles visited their late relatives and met their friends and neighbors.
The company grew to several stores and a brisk mail-order business, with their logo proudly displayed on delivery vans. Patricia McDonald Fowler, a family member, headed the company for more than a decade and fondly remembers Carnival Day, when the family gathered at their French Quarter shop on Royal Street.
Now Aunt Sally’s has a board of directors composed of family members and a chief executive officer who is not a relation, although he is a native Orleanian – Frank Simoncioni. After Katrina, “we were the first to reopen our store in the French Market, the first confectionary store back in the French Quarter. We opened Oct. 3, and we did that with a short labor team, only six of us!” Simoncioni says proudly.
Prior to Katrina, Aunt Sally’s used 75,000 pounds of pecans and 180,000 pounds of sugar annually – that’s certainly a sweet Louisiana product. The company is quickly cooking up new goals in the post-Katrina world, and the French Market store manager, Becky Hebert, notes that Aunt Sally’s pralines are “still made in copper pots, all hand-cooked and hand-poured and hand-boxed.”
Hebert adds that Aunt Sally’s offerings include the original “Creole Praline” plus chocolate pralines. “Our creamy pralines are thicker and a little more fudgy, and they come in four flavors: original flavor, triple chocolate, café au lait and bananas Foster,” she says. Passers-by can watch longtime cook Sam Hill as she stirs and ladles the creamy confections in Aunt Sally’s French Market location at 810 Decatur St., while the pungent aroma of hot sugar wafts over the sidewalk.
A melt-in-your-mouth, only-in-New-Orleans treat, the humble praline is ready to survive anything, even a hurricane.