MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally, today is Mardi Gras, the last day of celebration before the solemn season of Lent, which starts tomorrow in the Western or Catholic calendar. Of course, we must speak of food because the day brings parties and treats of all kinds, especially in New Orleans where they do it up big. And when you think about Mardi Gras treats, I bet you think of beignets - those addicting little puffs of fried dough finished in powdered sugar.
But you may not be as familiar with their cousin calas. And these fritters aren't just full of flavor, they are also rich in history. Chef Gisele Perez is a New Orleans native who writes at painperdublog.com. She joins us now from NPR West in Culver City, California. Chef, thank you so much for joining us.
GISELE PEREZ: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: So what are calas? I'm hungry already.
PEREZ: Calas are a rice fritter. Beignets are more - they're a little more formal. You know, they roll out the dough, and they cut them into shapes. Whereas calas are just a looser dough, and they're dropped from a spoon into the hot vat. And they're just delicious. I think the addition of the rice gives them a little more texture, a little more flavor. And I just really prefer them in a way.
MARTIN: So they're traditionally made with leftover rice. But I have an - I understand that they have an interesting history that actually dates back to the slavery era.
PEREZ: Yeah, and actually even before. I believe their origins are in West Africa where there was also, you know, a tradition of street vending that, obviously, slaves brought with them. And in New Orleans, slaves had a greater degree of freedom than in some areas in the south. They would have Sundays off. So there was an area called Congo Square, which was where the big slave trade was. But also it was a place for slaves to gather on Sunday. And there would be a huge, big marketplace. And then after the marketplace there would be public dances and drum circles. But many of the slaves would go, and the slave women would sell their treats at these open markets.
MARTIN: And you so were saying - you were actually telling us that these recipes show up very early in some of the earliest kind of Creole cookbooks. But you were saying that some of these women were actually able to buy their own freedom with the proceeds that they made from selling these treats.
PEREZ: They were. They were able to buy their freedom, and sometimes they would make enough to buy their families out of freedom. But even those that didn't had a certain degree of freedom. They would sometimes buy a place of their own to stay rather than staying in their mistress's and master's home. So - and they also were sent to shop for their mistresses and masters, so they had a pretty good amount of economic power, you know.
MARTIN: Are - so are calas mainly made for Mardi Gras, or did they used to be year-round treats?
PEREZ: They used to be year-round treats. Mardi Gras is a day where there are many fried treats served - oftentimes, doughnuts, beignets, calas. But calas I think of as being more in-the-home kind of treat.
MARTIN: You know, you are really committed to making sure that recipes like these...
MARTIN: ...Don't get lost in the sands of time, you know, as it were. For something that was so popular and so much a part of the food culture, why do you think it is that they are not as popular or as well-known as things like beignets? Why do you think that is?
PEREZ: Well, I think beignets are well known because there's that very famous Cafe Du Monde right there in the center of the French Quarter where, you know, every tourist goes. And, you know, they sell packets of premade beignet dough you can take home. So everybody knows about beignets. Calas were made primarily in the home. And there was one place that I know of - only one small little cafe in the French Quarter that has continued to make them, but, you know, not as popular as Cafe Du Monde obviously.
MARTIN: Do you think part of it, though, is that it's time-consuming? Or maybe people used to have rice every day, and, you know, it would be logical that there would be recipes, just like with bread pudding, for example.
MARTIN: If you had leftover bread, you'd make bread pudding with it.
PEREZ: Oh, I can tell you that I still make bread pudding all the time.
MARTIN: I bet you do. But I wonder whether is it maybe because people don't eat rice every day or some people don't eat rice everyday. Maybe it's not as - I don't know. What do you think?
PEREZ: Yeah, I think there are a variety of factors. I think that's part of it. I think that they are time-consuming because, you know, it's a yeast dough. So it has to be prepared ahead of time and let the yeast develop. I think it's - I mean, it is fried so people don't eat as heavy.
But I think the main reason is that, you know, women work outside of the home now, and they don't have as big families. Our community in New Orleans - my - I left when I was a child, but we went back to visit every year. My father visited his family and took us back. And, you know, the community lived together. My aunt married the boy across the street. So her sisters-in-laws still lived in the house across the street. Her unmarried sister lived next door. The families all lived together on the same block so there were large meals. And there was time to cook. And, you know, we obviously have lost that in our modern culture.
MARTIN: Well, you're bringing it back, and you're making sure that we all know about it. Gisele Perez is a professional chef and blogger. She blogs at a painpurdublog.com. Thanks so much for joining us.
PEREZ: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.