Fall has finally arrived, and it took a hurricane to bring it in! In any event, the air is cool, and today is Hallowe’en aka The First Day of the Dead aka Samhain.
As there is no such thing as coincidence, it just so happens that the new book that has been in production since 2015 is now complete and ready to be sent to the printer/self-publisher. YAY !
So, in honor of the day, the cool weather, an accomplishment long awaited, and the advent of the season of the cook, I submit to you another sample chapter. The pecans are falling from the trees and the kitchen is being fitted out for the holidays, so enjoy this paean to the sweet, the savory, and the sumptuous. No diets or diabetes allowed until Twelfth Night.
Late 1729 – FRERE GERARD DISCOVERS THE PACCAN
It was a fine September day. Autumn had showed herself early this year, and it was a pleasant change. Today the air felt drier and cooler. Instead of waking up in a pool of sweat, I had to cover myself with my robe this morning, as I tumbled awake before Matins.
After Morning Prayers, I prepared the breakfast for the brothers of our little community. It was a simple affair of maize porridge and some of my now regular French and Indian Bread. On market days, I was relieved of clean-up duty by one of the novices so that I may take advantage of the early morning coolness to walk down to the levee to secure provisions for the next few weeks.
Our little community had been in the capital now for just over a year. Speaking as “Brother Kitchen,” it had been a tough year. Food supplies were constantly low, and we often lived on a diet of maize, thin soup, and bear fat. Sometimes an egg or two would be generously donated. But as the year progressed, things slowly got better. The small temporary potager I had hastily planted eventually began producing some small onions, garlic, and shallots as well as some herbs to flavor our plain fare. Other gardens around the city also began to produce.
The German communities upriver were also able to ship some rice, milk, eggs, and produce to the capital on occasion. Even our native brethren occasionally offered us in trade some of the game and fish they had secured from the Lord’s bounty of forest and river. And now, it was harvest time once again, and I looked forward to reaping the bounty of our labors and lining the pantry and larder for the winter months. Personally, one of the greatest joys I discovered in opening up this new land, apart from the opportunity to spread the Word of God, was the discovery of all the different plants and animals which provided food and healing herbs to us.
In many ways these native foods were much different from the victuals of our homeland. America abounds in grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, herbs, and spices which were new to our European palates. A wide variety of heretofore unknown game and fish were also to be found here; to be examined, cooked, tasted, and shared. I did not know it this morning, as I prepared to go to the Levee Market, but I would find a new one today.
Much of the land in and around the new capital, New Orleans, is flat and swampy. Closer to the river, the lakes, and the innumerable streams (bayous), the land actually rises several feet higher. This rise allows for long strips of good forest. Here game, birds, and some productive trees can thrive. M. de Bienville and his brother M. d’Iberville — God rest his soul — upon their arrival found and noted many of these trees producing wholesome fruit, berries, and several types of nuts.
Marking the beginning of the new season, many Indian women and even children had been gathering what looked to my French eyes like, baskets of walnuts. I thought they would be a good addition to the Presbytere pantry, so I asked one of the children if I might try his wares. I broke away the outer shell to find a pretty brown nut with a much thinner skin than our walnuts at home. Breaking away that shell I popped the nut into my mouth. Dieu soit félicité!!! The nut melted like butter in mouth. I say like butter because the taste was nutty and buttery at the same time! What is this delicious litter wonder?
The boy informed me, that in his tongue it was called a paccan. I bought up several bushels of these toothsome morsels and began to formulate great plans for them. The next day, between Terce and Sext, when I would normally be busy in the potager, I left the Presbytere and traveled upriver along the natural levee. As I moved farther away from the town, I encountered a wide variety of trees growing along the bank. A bit away from the bank itself, past the willows and cottonwoods, I began to see the oaks, the gums, and to my great pleasure, some paccan trees, their nuts scattered among the undergrowth.
Hopefully anticipating such a find, I had brought along a large basket, I spent the rest of the morning happily gathering the bounty which our Father had graced this beautiful new world. Returning home with my treasure, I was already planning the wonderful meals these gifts from the Almighty would provide.
Before going any further, we have to talk. New Orleanians are very proud of their culinary heritage, some say even going to the edges of provincialism. The required nuts are known as PA-CAWNS in this region, a PEE-CAN are those brightly colored boxes one sees along parade routes or construction sites. On the streets of the Quarter, in candy shops, and even some bakeries, natives and newcomers can always be identified by a simple test. If someone asks to purchase a ‘PRAY-LINE’, listeners know for certain that this individual is most certainly an outsider, a newcomer, a tourist, a come-here person, or maybe even a real Yankee! Among the natives of the city and region, the confection universally loved by all is a ‘PRAW-LEAN’. Now that this most essential matter is settled, we can move on to creating some.
- 1 part (pound) brown sugar
- 1/2 part fresh Louisiana pecans (peeled and coarsely chopped)
- 1 spoon of butter (about 2 tablespoons)
- 4 tablespoons of water
In a good-size pot, melt the sugar and butter and bring to a boil. Add water as needed to keep the mixture syrupy. Once a good hot syrup is boiling, add the pecans and mix well. Pour the mixture out onto a marble slab or your kitchen counter covered with wax paper. Factors of the spinning earth and universal gravity will shape the mass into a nice circle. Let it cool completely before taking a bite or risk a severe burn in the oral regions.
This is the traditional New Orleans style praline. Variations include using almonds, peanuts, walnuts, etc. Traditional European pralines are various nuts or nougats rolled in sugar. An old New Orleans variation rolls whole or halved pecans in a beaten egg white and water mixture and then coated with sugar.
The above recipe/method is an adaptation of the recipes found in:
The Picayune. The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book. New Orleans, LA: Picayune Job Print, 1901. (Reprint, Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC, 2013. American Antiquarian Cookbook Collection.)
YOUR TRICENTENNIAL MEMO
Native to North America, from Mexico to Illinois to the Gulf Coast to just east of the Alabama/Mississippi line, the pecan is America’s only native nut. Native Americans took advantage of the pecan’s extensive nutritional value beginning about 8,000 BCE. It was then that Native Americans began to shift from hunter/gatherer to farming as a means of food production. Pecans are forest trees and as such would have been classed as a ‘gathering’ source of food, from then even through today. Sometime along the way, Native Americans also began to modify this function by locating pecan trees along their migration routes as well as their temporary and/or established villages. So, by the time the Europeans began to arrive in significant numbers along the northern Gulf Coast, the pecan was an ancient and valued component to the Native American diet.
McWilliams, James. The Pecan; A History of America’sNative Nut. Austin: University of Texas Press; 2013. First Edition.
Although pecans are native from NE Mexico to Mobile Bay,
During this era the French American empire was growing. It was when the French arrived to colonize the Mississippi Valley that the North American praline began to transmute away from its Continental origins. Even today, in Europe a praline is entirely different from the ones a person can buy in the New Orleans Vieux Carré. From its beginning as sugar-coated almonds in the French countryside, the European praline has remained essentially unchanged. Although there have been slight variations in the type of nut used as well as the composition of the coating. One of the more distinct versions is the Belgian praline, which in the USA is called a chocolate with a soft center. Made from ground nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, etc.) and mixed into a creamy paste then covered in chocolate, it is similar to the perennial Valentine or Mother’s Day ‘box of chocolates’.
As the 18th century wore on, and especially after 1730 when the food supply lines began to stabilize, the New Orleans Praline came into its own. Cooks like our imaginary Gerard and Suzanne using the simplicity of sugar and water and the plentiful pecans of south Louisiana, slowly but surely began to evolve the candy that would soon be ubiquitous throughout the streets of the Old Quarter.