Gaynell James has fond memories of her mother making sweet and pillowy rice fritters called calas on Mardi Gras mornings more than a half-century ago. Her mother is gone now. And calas nearly were, too.
"They come out in little square pillows," says James, a 66-year-old New Orleans waitress who has been working the tables in the Big Easy for more than 40 years. "They were so good. They were so light. I remember that same taste. Every Mardi Gras we had that. My mom and cousins all made that."
A poor sister to the more glamorous and better known beignet, calas (ka-LAS) are made from leftover rice folded into a sweetened egg batter, then dropped into a fryer. Deep-fried sweet lusciousness.
For more than a century, calas were a staple New Orleans street food, sold on Sunday mornings by Creole women carrying baskets of the fritters on their heads and calling "Calas, bels calas. Tout chauds!" (Calas, beautiful calas! Very hot!) But after World War II, say local chefs and culinary figures, calas largely left public life, most likely the victim of wartime rationing.
"After World War II, for you to know about the calas, you would have to have this as a tradition in your family," says Poppy Tooker, host of the public radio program "Louisiana Eats" and a calas evangelist.
Tooker has led the charge to revive this forgotten piece of New Orleans' culinary history. She has made it her mission to pass on the recipe in every class she teaches at the city's various cooking schools, has brought it to fairs and farmers markets, and has lobbied to have it added to lists of endangered foods maintaied by groups such as Slow Food USA. She and others say the efforts finally are starting to pay off.
"It almost just skipped a couple of generations," says David Guas, a New Orleans native and chef/owner of Bayou Bakery outside Washington, D.C. Guas, 37, says he'd never heard of calas until he got his first job in a hotel kitchen in 1996. "But it's definitely popped back up in the last five, six, seven years on restaurants' menus." He sometimes offers them as specials at his own bakery.
Calas likely came to Louisiana with rice-growing slaves from West Africa. Louisiana historian Christina Vella has found them mentioned as far back as the 1790s. The first calas women came from the ranks of enslaved Africans who, under early Louisiana law, were given one day off per week, often Sundays.
The lore goes that these women sold calas to earn money to buy their freedom, which also was permitted under Louisiana law. After calas disappeared from the markets, they were largely kept alive in African-American Roman Catholic families. In addition to Mardi Gras, they were eaten on the day of a child's first communion.
Calas have been on the menu at The Old Coffeepot Restaurant for at least 50 years, says executive chef Will Falcon. They're typically served for breakfast with grits, or as a dessert with powdered sugar and maple syrup. But it may be the only place with that long a run.
More recently, brand name New Orleans chefs such as Susan Spicer and Donald Link have begun playing with calas, Tooker says. Today, the fritters are becoming more common on menus. And like so many other classic New Orleans treats — such as the seemingly infinite varieties of king cake — they often have a twist.
Chef Frank Brigtsen, also a passionate calas promoter, first learned about the fritters when apprenticing as a cook at New Orleans' iconic Commander's Palace restaurant during the 1970s. But he didn't think about them again until the late 1980s, he says, when he found himself with leftover duck at his restaurant, Brigtsen's.
"It's one of my favorite kinds of recipes because it's one that's born out of necessity and being resourceful," he says. "Whoever came up with this was being practical because good cooks hate waste. To me, that's the most significant part of the whole thing. Anyone can go buy exotic ingredients. But truly good cooks make good food with humble ingredients."
Brigtsen folded the duck into the calas and served them with an orange, honey and mustard dipping sauce. "It was fabulously delicious," he says. "That opened up doors for me."
Today, he makes calas with shrimp and crawfish. He makes red beans and rice calas and jambalaya calas. At Charlie's Seafood, Brigtsen's second restaurant in Harahan, La., he substitutes calas for hushpuppies.
"We're taking something that was forgotten and resurrecting it," he says. "We're exploring our past and our history and treasuring older dishes like that."