Jan 24, 2024 - Food and Drink

Calas Cafe gives permanent home to crucial New Orleans food history

Brandan Pellerin holds up a paper tray of calas, smiling as he stands in front of The Calas Cafe. The food cart has brightly colored signs advertising the food and its history.

Brandan Pellerin operates The Calas Cafe at 1010 Treme St. Photo: Chelsea Brasted/Axios

The Calas Cafe is looking to go from pop-up to permanent, providing a dependable home for one of New Orleans' most culturally vital cuisines.

Why it matters: Calas are a key part of the city's history, once providing a way for enslaved Black women to slowly make enough money to buy their way to freedom.

  • "It represents Black ingenuity, resilience and their determination to forge a better economic outcome for them and their families," says Brandon Pellerin, who operates the Calas Cafe at 1010 Treme St.

Flashback: The recipe for calas is believed to have evolved from West African food tradition, which enslaved people brought with them to New Orleans.

  • In Louisiana, enslaved women cooked up these sweet rice fritters and sold them as street vendors on Sundays, their only "off" day.
  • Though owners of enslaved people often kept the proceeds, some were able to keep at least part of their earnings, which the women kept to buy their freedom.
  • The vendors eventually practically disappeared. By 1940, however, just one calas vendor remained in the city, according to NPR's reporting.

But Black New Orleanians continued making the fritters at home, keeping the tradition alive.

Brandan Pellerin holds a paper tray of calas, which are small Creole rice fritters. The plate of three of them is dusted with confectioner's sugar and served with a dollop of lemon curd.
Pellerin serves his calas with lemon or pistachio curd. Photo: Chelsea Brasted/Axios

Zoom in: Pellerin, who also operates food security nonprofit Harvest NOLA, says the Calas Cafe offering a permanent place for locals and visitors to experience the dish creates an important connection to that history.

  • "We get people pulling up with tears in their eyes because their grandparents and mothers used to make this dish and they simply have not had a place that highlights the significance of it," he says.
  • The cafe is brightly decorated, with signage celebrating the calas story and its historical vendors, within easy sight of Congo Square, a place where enslaved people once found community, music and a social escape.

What he's saying: "If we can have Cafe du Monde with the French story, then we can have a Calas Cafe," Pellerin says.

The calas served at Pellerin's cafe are gluten-free, fried in coconut oil, dusted in confectioner's sugar and served with a pistachio or lemon curd.

  • A serving of three is $5, and drink options include a chicory coffee with oat cream.
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