Francis Lam: The Rice Fritter that Freed the Slaves





[Francis Lam is a frequent contributor to the Food section of Salon.com]

..."Calas came to New Orleans with the slaves from Ghana, where they grow rice," [Poppy Tooker] told me. "Today, if you go there, you can still see people frying them, and they call them cala."

"Starting in the 1700s, calas vendors would stand outside St. Louis cathedral, waiting for church to let out. They had a call," Poppy said. She opened her mouth wide, as if singing, and recited, "Calas, calas, belle calas. Tout chaud!"...

"And here's why it's important. Before Louisiana became American with the Louisiana Purchase, it was the Code Noir that regulated all the roles and relationships between whites, free blacks, and slaves. And in the Code Noir, there were two important rules. One, all slaves had to have Sundays off, so many women would spend the day making and selling calas in the street....

I smiled, gladdened by this story, but later I learned that perhaps the history of calas and slavery was not so tidy. "This is slavery, dear," the scholar Jessica Harris said to me. "Histories of slavery are rarely tidy. It's complicated in this case, because there were lots of free people of color; not all calas vendors were enslaved. And the ones who were often sold them for their mistresses. If they were lucky, they were allowed to keep a portion of the money, or perhaps have it go towards their freedom."

The Code Noir, I also learned, was hardly a warm-and-fuzzy slave code, despite containing such charmingly progressive directives as forbidding owners from feeding their slaves a diet consisting only of rum. (Also charmingly, the first article in the Code Noir basically says "NO JEWS ALLOWED.") And it was technically not under the Code Noir that slaves bought their own freedom. "Remember," the writer and filmmaker Lolis Eric Elie reminded me, "for much of the colonial era, New Orleans was under Spanish rule, and the Spanish slave codes included the practice of Coartacion, which is what gave slaves the right to buy their own freedom. So there were calas vendors who freed themselves. (That stopped when Americans took over, though, who proposed instead that free blacks choose a master and re-enter into slavery.)"...


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