Monday, March 29, 2010

"Belle calas, tout chaud!"

As Clyde Woods describes in “Katrina’s World,” the Bourbons ruled France and its colonies, including New Orleans, for nearly two centuries. One of the hallmarks of their colonial rule was the Code Noir, which has been seen as a progressive document ensuring that slaves in the Louisiana territory were treated more humanely than their counterparts in Anglophone North America. Of course, this humane treatment only extended to the replacement of “the rack, mutilation, and dismemberment” with such tactics as “being branded with the fleur-de-lys” (431).

One notable policy of the Code Noir was the ability of slaves to purchase their freedom. In “Calas: The Rice Fritter That Freed the Slaves,” Francis Lam discusses the role of the cala, a rice fritter originating in Ghana and similar to the more famous beignet, in the history of slavery in New Orleans. Because work was forbidden on Sundays, some slaves supposedly sold calas on the street on that day in order to raise funds to buy their freedom. The tradition of selling calas on the street continued past the end of the Code Noir and outlived slavery in the United States, only ending around World War II.

As a result, calas are deeply entwined with the history of free and enslaved blacks in New Orleans. In fact, calas were not only sold by slaves, but by free blacks as well. And some slaves were selling at their owner’s behest, earning money for their master rather than their freedom. One of the most prominent cala chefs, Poppy Tooker, repeats the comment “I think if you have the calas tradition in your family and y'all think you're all-white folks, you have to look a little harder.” As Lam concludes, this intermingling of cultures is what makes New Orleans distinct among American cities.

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