Calas Tout Chaud!
When Loretta Harrison started Loretta’s Authentic Pralines 41 years ago, she did so on solid footing in the New Orleans tradition.
“I started this company with my mom’s recipe,” she says, “which she got from her mother, which she got from her mother… And I will one day leave it to my sons.”
Tradition, however, hasn’t stopped Harrison from cooking and serving up her goodies with a twist. There are quite a few versions of her pralines, and after she introduced beignets to Jazz Fest some years ago, she couldn’t make just one kind. She came up with praline beignets, chocolate-praline beignets and crabmeat beignets. Ironically, her habit of serving with a twist also recently landed her in a gray plastic boot that keeps her foot immobilized as she hobbles around her busy kitchen preparing for this year’s Jazz Fest (as she does for every other festival in town).
“I have two stories about this foot,” she explains. “One, I was trying out for the Senior Olympics. But the second one is really the truth—I tore a tendon and never took care of it. I just kept working, and it got worse.”
But she isn’t going to miss Jazz Fest for all of that. In business for 41 years, she’s logged just as many as a vendor at the large festival.
“Working this long at the Jazz Fest, they know that I’m a person who likes to do different things,” she says. “There are some people who do and some who don’t, but I do. So they asked me, since this is the Tricentennial of New Orleans, if I wanted to try something a little different, so I will be doing the calas and three different versions of it.”
Loretta Harrison’s calas is one of only two new foods served and sold at Jazz Fest this year. (The other one is Vaucresson’s alligator sausage po-boy.) Many New Orleanians have heard of calas, but never tried them, as they’re a historic food of the city and no longer sold commercially. Related to the beignet, calas are rice fritters made with leftover, cold rice mixed with flour and eggs, among other things, and then deep-fried.
Loretta Harrison will be making what she calls original calas, but also a sweet potato calas and a savory shrimp calas, not unlike a crab cake, but chewier and served with a remoulade made with mayonnaise, roasted garlic, capers and artichoke hearts. Harrison hopes she doesn’t have to get into a fight with local food historian Poppy Tooker regarding her original calas, as they’re known to have been round like balls, whereas Harrison’s version is flat, for quicker and easier frying.
“I don’t want to take anything away from history,” she says. “But this will make it fry more evenly and that will help me with the lines and lines of people. I know the lines are going to be long.”
“My biggest challenge at Jazz Fest is looking at those long lines and serving them quickly,” she continues. “My customers come every year from all over the world and they come to the booth and they want to talk and know from me how things are going and they want to enjoy. So my challenge is to have those long lines but to not have people wait a long time in them.”
Harrison hopes that Jazz Fest will provide her with a sign in front of her booth to help explain the history of calas, which she retells as a snack food sold by slaves who’d make the calas on Sundays after church and then go up and down the streets selling them “to anyone designed to eat them:”
“They would give some of the money to their masters and some of the money they would keep, they were allowed to keep, to buy their freedom.”
Standing by the fryer, Loretta Harrison pulls freshly fried calas onto a tray using her bare hands, seemingly untouched by the searing temperature. 41 years of experience have clearly left their mark.
“Everything is not hot. Not to me…”