It was the day after Mardi Gras, so maybe you can imagine the complexity of how I was feeling. I was something like 35% sad another Carnival had come and gone, and 25% on-my-knees-thankful it was over. I wouldn’t have to consume eight jello shots, 10 beers, and any amount of bagged wine again.
At least until St. Patrick’s Day.
The remaining 40% of me felt like someone who had, just 16 hours earlier, consumed…well…eight jello shots, 10 beers, and a plastic bag full of wine.
I was at Red’s Chinese — which I think might have the best hangover food in the city — eating lunch with my friend, Maddie, who was staying with me from out-of-town; as well as in-town buddies, Sarah and Bob. Bob was staring at the table, running his hand through his full head of blonde hair and occasionally letting out groans like he was just hit by a truck called “Fat Tuesday.”
Sarah had just finished admitting she had fallen asleep last night, while Mardi-Gras-binge-eating large amounts of hummus in bed. “So, anyway,” she looked to Maddie and me, “what are you guys up to today?”
Maddie gestured over to me with her hand. On the walk over to the restaurant we had talked about going on an adventure and, though the day after Mardi Gras is the easiest Valentine’s Day to forget, she suggested it might be a fun theme. I explained this to Sarah and Bob – both self-professed history nerds – and asked, “Any ideas for a Valentines Day theme? Maybe some important romance that took place in the city?”
“Well,” Sarah jumped in without pause, “Bob and I just got married, you can write about that,” she let out a big laugh before, off the top of her head, listing off an impressive number of New Orleans romances. Everything from Quintron and Miss Pussycat, to Ernie K-Doe and Antoinette.
These were great ideas, and should be future adventures, but I didn’t have the time to research them. I needed a quicker one. So I took out my phone and Googled, “historic candy store New Orleans.” And there it was.
“Want to go to the oldest candy shop in New Orleans?” I asked Maddie after we paid the bill. “It’s been open since 1913!”
“You think they have some fresher stuff than that, though?” she looked at me like she was waiting for a drum kick and a cymbal to put the exclamation point on her joke. I shook my head and walked out the restaurant door.
It was a beautiful day, and New Orleans had heated up quickly after the freezes of a few weeks earlier and Nyx’ cold rain. It was now 80 degrees and I willed myself not to sweat as we walked through piles of abandoned beads in the Marigny. We stopped for a beer at Brieux Carre, just off of Frenchmen Street (c’mon – one beer’s not gonna hurt anyone!), and then zagged our way through the Quarter: past the solemnity of the U.S. Mint, tours of visitors zipping around Ursuline’s Convent, the palm readers in the shadow of St. Louis Cathedral, and then by shop after shop flush with customers making their last purchases before catching flights back to New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland and the rest of the world’s Mardi Gras-less places.
I normally love seeing tourists. I find their enthusiasm for the city infectious, and it gives me a jolt. But, today, I was hungover and didn’t want their stupid jolt. I wanted quiet. So when we arrived at Laura’s Candies, three blocks from Canal Street at 331 Chartres, I was relieved to get out of the craziness and into the quiet shop, vacant but for the confectioner – a familiar-looking, older black woman with blonde hair – and two other customers debating between the rum-flavored pralines and the chocolate-flavored ones.
I walked by display cases of truffles – flavors ranging from as standard as chocolate, to as experimental as champagne-flavored, filled with silky white chocolate ganache; or the “Aztec Truffle,” packing a fiery kick of cinnamon and chili pepper. I drooled over peanut butter-covered Oreos, green mint-covered Oreos, red velvet-covered Oreos, and Oreos covered by at least six other absurd things I-should-have-written-down-but-didn’t-because-I-was-too-excited, and I realized this was my Heaven. This is where I wanted to spend the afterlife.
Maddie perused the shelves of Cajun spices, seasonings and sauces, while I gawked at the caramel-filled turtles, homemade peanut butter cups, and sandwich-sized s’more squares – all coming in varieties of milk chocolate, dark chocolate, and white chocolate.
“Which s’mores square should we get?” I yelled behind me at Maddie, who was now examining a chocolate-covered Voodoo doll.
“I don’t know?” she put the doll down as she thought. “Milk chocolate?”
“Milk chocolate?!” I whined. “Really? How about the dark chocolate?”
“Well, why did you ask me then?”
“I don’t know,” I trailed off, “I thought you were going to say, ‘dark chocolate,’ I guess.”
We settled on the dark chocolate s’mores square (woo!), the milk chocolate peanut butter meltaway, the white chocolate turtle, the milk chocolate sea-salted caramel, the peanut-butter covered Oreo, and the triple chocolate truffle. We would have had to get one of all six flavors of pralines (which have an interesting and spotty history in New Orleans), as well as Laura’s famous chocolate-drizzled Mississippi Mud concoction of chocolate, caramel and pecan, but – as I said in the Ice Cream King of New Orleans adventure — if you put out samples of something, I’m eating those and then buying something else.
I asked the confectioner, whose name I learned was Rose, what they made in the store, and she told me all of the chocolate and pralines were made by a few chocolatiers in the back room, but that the wall of jelly beans, lollipops, and pre-packaged candy came from elsewhere. “We’re making 40 pounds of candy per week here,” she said. “Some days we’re sending out 200 orders!”
I told her I knew the store was first opened in 1913, but wondered what else she knew about its history. She laughed at me and asked why I was asking so many questions. After I told her how I’m trying to go on 365 New Orleans adventures this year, and that this was one of them, she agreed to shoot this small video for me!
After the video Rose, Maddie, and I continued to chat, while I chewed on free samples of Creole, Coconut, and Maple pralines, so creamy and – I’d later learn – of a recipe dating back to the 19th century.
“I remember hearing,” she said, “that when the store first opened, it was on Canal Street and it only made fudge and pies.” I wrote notes in my phone while she spoke, and when I looked up, I noticed she was looking at my face closely. Examining me. “You look so familiar,” she shook her head. A woman carrying an H&M bag walked into the store.
“I was thinking the same thing,” I laughed.
“Where you live?” she asked.
“I’m down on France Street.” I tried to figure out where I recognized her from. I had never been in this store before, so it couldn’t be that.
“You’re on the river side, right?” That’s the wealthier side of St. Claude Avenue, though as prices continue to rise, young, white New Orleanians are buying property on the lake side.
“Nope, I’m on the lake side.”
“On France Street?” she smiled. “Me, too. What block?”
Well, it turns out we live two houses from one another.
“I’m the blue house!” I laughed.
“I’m the orange one with the Mardi Gras decorations!”
“I run by and wave almost every day, but it’s so hard to see who’s on the porch from across the street!”
We spent the next ten minutes chatting about the neighborhood, our neighbors, flood levels of past storms, and how long each of us have lived there. She had me beat by about 50 years, moving to the block in the 1960s.
When I got home later that day, I looked through old newspapers on the New Orleans Public Library’s database. I couldn’t find much more than what Rose said, but it did corroborate what she told me. For several years beginning in 1933, the shop – formerly known as “Laura’s Fudge and Cake Shop” – ran regular, sometimes-daily (especially around Christmas) advertisements. In the ads, I could see the shop’s location move around the 900 block of Canal Street.
I did one last lap around the shop, taking a look at the old copper kettles and wooden paddles used to make candy, now, the same way black women (and those looking to exploit the nostalgia of praline-making black women) had more than one hundred years earlier.
We exchanged our goodbyes and I gave Rose my promise to stop by her porch and say hello when I ran by. I held the door for a family of four — beads from who-knows-where around their necks — taking our place in the shop, and Maddie and I spilled out into the street. A grey car and a cyclist zipped by, as we opened the box of candies and negotiated which one we’d try first.
“What do you think?” I asked her.
Maddie rubbed her chin with her thumb and forefinger, pursing her lips so as not to reveal her smile. “How about the s’more?”
I nodded my head slowly, fighting to keep a neutral expression, and not saying anything.
“What?!” she 30% laughed and 70% sighed. “Why do you keep asking me, then?!”
“Because I thought you were going to say the peanut butter meltaway…”
The sun was as hot as it was when we entered Laura’s Candies, the Quarter was just as crowded, and I was just as hungover, but — as peanut butter stuck to the roof of our mouths, making it impossible to talk – I couldn’t help but smile.
It’s so easy to dismiss the French Quarter as the Disney World of New Orleans. Sure, tourists abound, but they did in 1913, too. And so, too, did real New Orleanians, descending on the heart of the city to run its streetcars, haberdasheries, restaurants, bars and candy shops.
It’s not hard to imagine a woman like Rose, leaving her newly built home on France Street in 1913. She’d walk down her steps and catch the Desire Streetcar on the corner of France and St. Claude Avenue, in the same spot present-day Rose catches the bus. She’d ride the streetcar as it rumbled up France, made a right on Royal Street, and then traversed the Bywater, Marigny, and Vieux Carre, all the way to Canal Street. She’d get off the streetcar, at the line’s terminus on Canal and Bourbon, and she’d walk the block and a half to 938 Canal Street, the sun shining just as it was today.
She’d walk into the shop, put on her apron, and begin the day’s work of preparing treats just as the city’s tourists, artists, and businessmen began their days. A customer would enter the store. Try a piece of chocolate, place an order, and chat about the day, the shop and the city. 105 years later, it’s not much different. It’s real New Orleans. And there’s nothing Disney World about that.