Friday, June 13, 2008

Some Day We'll Find It, the Praline Connection: Candy and Other Indulgences in New Orleans

Five days is not enough time to spend in New Orleans. Five days is especially not enough time when you've curated a comprehensive collection of Cajun and Creole food suggestions from chefs, critics, and chocolatiers, and when you're visiting the city with every other hungry participant in the Association for the Study of Food and Society conference. I arrived, put down my bags, met a few of my colleagues, and announced my plans to head straight to the Praline Connection. I received a chorus of "that's just a candy store" replies. I believed otherwise, but it didn't seem polite to argue, so I followed a buoyant group of young sociologists and agronomists to Coop's, a cheap eats hub known for its rabbit jambalaya. Over the next several days, I also made it to Petunias in the frenzied French Quarter for spicy pain perdu (with so much sausage that I turned the leftovers into lunch while I was locked up in the hotel editing my conference paper), Iris in the neighborhoody Carrollton area (for sublime foie gras, beautiful snapper, and some kind of cocktail that included New Orleans rum, Campari, and prosecco), holes in the wall like Cafe Maspero (for muffulettas) and Johnny's (for Po Boys), and a privately catered crawfish boil amidst the mountable dinosaurs and Marilyn Monroe statues at Mardi Gras World. New Orleans foodie insiders recommended that I meet resilient B&B owner Patty Marino (of Bijou) and Slow Food organizer Poppy Tooker, but there just wasn't time.

Still, I did meet Mischa Byruck from the sustainable food organization Market Umbrella, who, after asking what I was interested in, got on the phone to an exgirlfriend and announced "I'm hosting this group of culinary tourists and they want chocolate!" She sent me to Magazine Street, toward Bittersweet Confections and Blue Frog--unfortunately, holding to the Big Easy's Catholic roots, both shops (along with many others) close on Sunday, the day I decided to visit. But down the block at Sucre, I got a hearty Southern welcome from food blogger Blake Killian of Blake Makes, owner Joel Dondis, and Joel's lovely wife Gretchen. Joel brewed me a cup of tea, pushed a plate of ethereal macaroons in front of me, and then invited me into the kitchen to sample chef Tariq Hanna's latest experiment at combining chocolate with the untranslatable bayou flavor known as "nectar."

And before the five days were out, I'd walked from the French Quarter towards the Bywater, passing the NOLA Rising free public art event, and finally settling in for lunch at the Praline Connection--not just a candy store. They had catfish, they had ribs, they had collard greens and mac and cheese, they had red beans and rice, they had gumbo--and, with the help of Howard, my uncle from Lafayette, Louisiana, I ate all of it.

The Praline Connection is also a candy store. And I've heard murmurs that they take so much pride in their sticky pecan patties that they've sometimes contracted out to other factories (including at least one in America's chocolate capital of San Francisco) to ensure the best quality craftsmanship for their classic New Orleans confections. Howard bought a box of chocolate pralines for his daughters, but after that lunch, I was done eating for a while.

I might have left New Orleans--and this story--without ever tasting a praline. I came up with the title for my adventures in New Orleans before I'd lived them out. Don, the Omni Royal Orleans' concierge brought everything together for me. As I sat in the lobby of the hotel, ready to head to the airport with a handful of other well-fed gastronomers, Don brought out a plate of pralines from the kitchen--the chef's secret recipe.

(Photo of Mardi Gras World courtesy of Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World and Photo of Joel Dondis, Emily Stone, Blake Killian, and Joel's wife Gretchen courtesy of Blake Killian.)


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