Tee Eva’s Pralines & Pies
5201 Magazine St.
New Orleans, LA 70115
Oh, I’m a sno-ball eater. I will eat the sno-ball with condensed milk, and the chocolate ice cream, with vanilla ice-cream, with evaporated milk. I crumble up a fresh-cooked praline and mix it into my sno-ball, and then I’ll put the praline flavor over it. It’s awesome. –“Tee Eva” Perry
Though she worked in food service for many years in her earlier adulthood, Eva Perry’s professional life didn’t blossom until 1989, when at 55 years old she established Tee Eva’s Pralines & Pies. It was while watching the Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme blackening redfish on television that she realized that she, too, had a culture and a talent to market. After all, Eva had learned her trade from a long line of country cooks—while she grew up in New Orleans, both sides of her family were bayou Creoles. Her sweet tooth had been well-established during childhood. Some of her best memories are of her aunt’s lemon icebox pie and bread pudding; of making pralines with just-gathered pecans and brown sugar straight from the mill; and of the frozen icees she purchased for a penny from a Greek-owned store in her neighborhood. Eventually she graduated to sno-balls. When she was a child, that meant a pile of coarse, hand-scraped ice flavored with either strawberry, spearmint, or pineapple syrup. Back then, there were just three flavors. You can find many times that amount today at Tee Eva’s Pralines & Pies, which Eva passed down to her granddaughter, Keonna Thornton Sykes, roughly eight years ago. Don’t be fooled when Eva says she’s retired, though. She’s still making red beans, still shaving ice, and still taking the late shift at the shop most days.
What follows is a portion of the original interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: “Tee Eva” Perry, Tee Eva’s Pralines & Pies – New Orleans, LA
Date: July 8, 2011
Location: Tee Eva’s Pralines & Pies – New Orleans, LA
Interviewer & Photographer: Sara Roahen
Sara Roahen: This is Sara Roahen for the Southern Foodways Alliance. It’s Friday, July 8, 2011. I’m in New Orleans, Louisiana at Tee Eva’s, and I’m with the proprietor. Could you please tell me your name, your full name, and what your occupation is?
Tee Eva: My name is Eva Perry. I’m now retired. [Laughs] So I don’t do very much anymore. I kind of do some neighborhood community work and stuff like that you know, and work at my church and help different members and friends. But I mainly help my granddaughter. She’s the owner of Tee Eva’s Pralines & Pies here at 5201 Magazine Street. So now I, in turn, help my granddaughter because I gave her the business, I guess about seven or eight years ago, yeah. So this is what I’m doing now.
Could I ask you for your birth date?
September 12, 1934.
So you’re retired, but I’ve seen you in here many times, and it sounds like you keep very active.
Well I’m a helper to my granddaughter. You know if I’m going to help anybody, I’m going to help my granddaughter. They always taught me to keep it in the family.
What is your granddaughter’s name?
Her name is Keonna Thornton Sykes, yeah.
When you first opened up your business, what year was that?
When the business started? I think it was around about 19—probably was 1990 I got started with my business doing my pralines and pies, and there was a little shop on Freret Street, at 4711 Freret. [Interviewer’s note: Tee Eva’s Pralines and Pies was established in 1989.] I think it’s a bike shop there now. When I was doing gourmet dishes there, I used to work seven days a week and seat about like 16 people. It was a sit-down restaurant. It was fabulous, a little place; it was cozy. You could seat 16 people and I would go in very early morning and I would get my lunch ready for noon. Started at 11:00 [a.m.], I think; 11:00 until 2:00 was lunch, and then I would serve dinner from 5:00 until 9:00 in the evening. And then about 9:30 I would start making pralines and baking pies for the next day.
I used to work from 7:00 in the morning until about 2 o'clock the next morning when I had my little food service restaurant, Tee Eva’s Praline and Pies. And you know what I served? I have a menu but I don’t have it out right now, but my menu was entitled of red beans and beef stew on Mondays. On Tuesdays I think I had meatballs and spaghetti. On a Wednesday I had stuffed cabbage rolls with potatoes and carrots and cornbread. On Thursdays was baked chicken. I might have it a little bit turned around because it’s been some years now. Fridays was fish, chicken, stuffed bell pepper, and maybe two vegetables on the side, or whatever vegetables I might have thought of to make.
And my place got vandalized and they took the door off of my little shop and they took all my pies and pralines and they took the TV. They didn't take any money. So then I gave the shop up because I had got so comfortable there and I thought it was just a very good place to do a good business for the community. And I had to look for somewhere else to do a business after that.
I didn't have sno-balls when I was on Freret Street. But when I moved to Magazine Street, that’s when the sno-balls arrived because I was at Fannie’s Sno-Ball’s at 4430 Magazine, and Fannie had been there for oh, God, how many years? Her son, he grew up there; it’s her nephew, or her brother’s child I think, but he grew up there and this lady, she’s had the sno-ball place for 70-some years. The sno-ball machine was already there when I moved there, so I just started buying flavors and started calling the ice man, and the same ice man had been delivering ice there. He still delivers ice here to me and he had been delivering ice there for 50-some years.
Who is that?
Would you believe that—Duplantier, yeah. He started when he was a boy with his daddy. And his dad passed away and he took over the business and now his sons work with him in the business. Well I’ve been selling a sno-ball I think about 17 years now, so—.
You moved pretty quickly to Magazine Street [after being vandalized]?
It wasn’t very long. I kind of had to look for some places where would I find another little place as cute as that little place was. You know I tried. But it didn't happen, so it could have been from, I think around ’95 I found Fannie’s place. I had gone to bed that night and I was lying down reading the want ads, you know in that part of the paper, the Times-Picayune, and I happened to come across this little small ad, very tiny, but it showed up in big letters to me. I saw it in big letters. It was tiny, tiny in the Times-Picayune and it said sno-ball shop for rent, 4430 Magazine. I think I still have that little piece of paper somewhere(s). And I’m like a packrat you know; I don’t throw nothing away. Everything means so much to me because this is accomplishments to me, you know what I’m saying? A single woman, and I was in age when I started this business, so it wasn’t like I was 20 or 30-years-old when I started this business, you see. I was over 50, but I had to maintain you know [Laughs]. You can look at me and see I maintain.
Did you know right away that you wanted to sell sno-balls, or was that a tough decision?
This place already had its machine at Fannie’s Sno-Balls when I moved there. So then it wasn’t no thought about it. You know I said, “Okay, I can do sno-balls,” because that’s what it was—a sno-ball place.
Then what I had to do, I had to convert it into this little restaurant-style. It already had the overhead, the vents and all. It had all of that already but I had to get a stove instead of the grill, you see. So we took the grill out and the deep-fryer because I don’t fry food, but I’ll bake food. I don’t eat fried foods. So then it became Tee Eva’s red beans and rice, crawfish pie, jambalaya, filé gumbo, I mean you know it was on. [Laughs] Back making the foods again, but I didn't do my seven-day-a-week menu. I didn't do that because by the time I got over at 4430 Magazine, it got to be a little much because the pralines had took off and the people had me making pralines for weddings, for parties, for birthdays, to promote their businesses; they just loved those pralines, you know. And pies, and so you know I just stuck mainly with the pies and the pralines and I just did a small amount of food. So I downsized the food to the crawfish pie, the jambalaya, filé gumbo, and red beans and rice. Excuse me. So that’s what we still have here, the same kinds of food.
Now I should say for the record that when we talk about “here,” you’re now in a third location. Can you tell me when you moved here?
Two years ago.
You didn't have to come too far?
No, just a few blocks down the street from where I used to be, from the 3400 block over to the 5200 block of Magazine Street, and I’m still on Magazine Street. That’s the good thing you know. So the customers could find Tee Eva without struggling.
And of course, after I retired I started doing a little work in the movies. Well you know to tell you the truth about it, I did a little work way back in the movies in 1990 when Oliver Stone came here to New Orleans, and he was working on this movie JFK. And that’s all the people at—see that picture right there? I saw all the people over at De La Salle [High School], and I said, “I wonder what’s going on over there?” Driving down St. Charles Avenue and I had a basket of pies and pralines. So I went and I says, “What’s going on?” And I reached me a newspaper and that’s when it stated it was Oliver Stone, you know, going to be working on his movie. So these people were in line because they were going there for casting. And so I went home and I dressed up. See that outfit I put on? [Laughs] And I went back and I started selling pies and pralines at the back of the line.
Can you explain, because we’re not videoing, what you put on when you dressed up?
Te material, it was like Spanish, like you would say like Mexican. It had red, yellow; it was a weave skirt, cotton weave skirt, and it had all the beautiful colors—the red, the yellow, green. It had black in it. Oh that skirt—that skirt was gorgeous. And I had a red blouse on. I had a red blouse on and I had on this gray shawl that came over my shoulders; turtleneck, and I had on red boots. And I had a beige scarf tied on my head, and I had grapes. They were in bunches; the earrings were in bunches of grapes. And everybody thought that I was a person that was going to get the part in the movie and I didn't even know what the part was [Laughs]. It was so funny. They said, “Go and strut it, Mama. You got it; you got it; you got it.” They said, “Oh God, she’s going to get that part. She’s going to get it.” And I don’t even know what the part was. All I was trying to do was sell my pies and pralines you know. I had made one $50 that day and I was trying to make another $50, and that would be my earnings for the day, you know what I’m saying.
And I sold myself up to the casting table and the lady said to me, she said, “Would you like to be in the movies?” And I said, “Of course.” [Laughs] I just—she says, “What’s your name,” and then took a picture of me with my basket and all. And then they—and my telephone number—and about a week later my phone rang and they says, “We are looking for Eva Perry. This is the movie calling.” And I said, “Oh, this is me; this is me.” [Laughs] They said, “Well do you want to work in the movies?” I said, “Yes, I do.” And so then they told me what time call time was and where I had to be at, and the time I had to be, and to bring some clothes and a pair of shoes.
Well you should have seen me getting all these clothes and stuff for the very first time. I guess I had a whole wardrobe. And I took it in with me [Laughs] when I had to go on the set. And what is the first time I worked in the movie? Where did we go? It was right downtown, right by Lafayette Square. That’s where it was. And it was like holding court you know for Oliver’s—like holding court for JFK. And we were like walking across Lafayette Square from the courthouse over to the other side of the park where—and you know, turning around and walking backwards and forwards, like we were taking records from one part of the court to the other. And it was funny. We thought we was going to be seen. [Laughs] We couldn’t wait for JFK to come out. It was two-and-a-half hours long. It was a long movie, but I think we worked about 60 days as extras in this movie.
So you weren't a praline-seller in the movie?
I did get to sell my pies and pralines on the set, but I mean they didn't show that. In fact, you didn't see anything because really it was all cut out on the floor. We went to see the movie and it was two-and-a-half hours long [Laughs] and we never did see nobody we knew in the movie. [Laughs] It was so funny. That was funny because you see all this work we did getting up early in the morning. We used to have to get up like 4:00 or 5 o'clock in the morning and be out on the set by 6 o'clock and hauling all these shoes and clothes out there on the set. [Laughs] You lay around all day long. Well they fed you good, you know. And sometimes you didn't even get called. But we got used to it because I worked every day. It was $50 a day and it helped me to buy ingredients to make my pies and pralines for my business, and help me to pay my rent. You know it was like my income. And so I was happy. I wasn’t sad about anything. I went out happy strutting every day. I was going to work, and in the movies, you see working for the movie department, so all that was well and fine with me. And I had checks coming in the mail. Oh gosh that was exciting. And they had people walking around talking about they’re looking for work and here I’m a movie star. [Laughs] That was funny.
I’d love to know how you learned how to make pies and pralines. Who taught you how to cook?
It started at home. All the women in my family, they—my mama’s family, my daddy’s family—they all country women and they all knew how to cook and bake. So I didn't have a problem learning how to make food taste good and look good because I stayed in the kitchen all the time. And, “May I have some of this? Can I have a piece of that? Can I taste this? Give me the bowl,” you know. I was scraping the bowl all the time and licking my fingers. “I’ll wash the bowl. Just give me the bowl.” You know they’d mix up the cake or whatever, the cake batter, or they’re making cornbread. And they made the cornbread sweet, so after the sweet, “Give it to me; I’ll clean it up for you.”
But it all started at home, and on Sundays we had a very special dessert. And that was lemon icebox pie and bread pudding with raisins. We didn't have them both. We had one or the other. And I always had the choice of what dessert we will have today—this Sunday, you know because Sunday was a special day. We went to Sunday school on the Sunday morning and we went to church. I’d come back home from Sunday school, and after Sunday school we’d go to our 11 o'clock service. You did nothing else but go to church on a Sunday. And when you’d come home you’d get out of your dress shoes and clothes and you’d get comfortable. And the good food that has been made, like the night before, and it’s put out on a table the next day. It’s all heated up and put out on the table. Our table was set every Sunday. We sat at a table that was fit for a king, because that’s the way the family was. You had to—everybody sit down and have food together at the same time and enjoy the goodness and give thanks to the Lord.
And that’s what we did on Sundays. And on a Sunday evening, which would be Sunday afternoon, we had evening services. We had two services a day, 11:00 a.m. and in the evenings at 5:00. And we had, it’s called BTU, Baptist Training Union. And we had that; we studied the Bible for an hour and then the services started. And when we’d come home we had that great dessert. We either had that bread pudding with a good icing on it, or if we didn't have the bread pudding we had the lemon icebox pie. And we looked forward to that every Sunday evening when we’d come home from church.
Where was this? Where did you grow up?
I grew up Washington and Claiborne and in that vicinity. It was at 2929 Washington Avenue, right at the corner of Claiborne. They had a bus stop there. They still have a bus stop there. And across the street it’s got a Pizza Hut now. It’s closed; been closed for some years, but it was Ricca’s Supermarket there. And my aunt raised me, which was my mama’s older sister. And she worked for the Ricca’s; she was their cook. And right on the corner of Washington and Willow there was a Greek store. And you know what they had there? Ice cups—icee; it was about two ounces of it. It cost one penny. It was one penny, and I mean you got a sno-ball now but all you needed was one penny and you got this little frozen cup. And every time I’d find a penny or somebody would give me a penny, I’d go to the corner of Washington and Willow by the Greek store and got me an icee. I’d walk all day long. [Laughs]
So that’s kind of like a popsicle in a cup?
Yeah, it’s in a cup, uh-huh. There’s some people that still make them today. Uh-hm, still make icee today for their children. I think they use maybe a little larger cup, and now maybe it’s like—maybe eight or nine ounces now. But this was like two ounces or an ounce.
What kinds of flavors were there?
They had strawberry, spearmint, and pineapple. That was the three flavors, the same as the sno-balls, strawberry and spearmint. And the Greeks—they were there for years, and he had one daughter and I guess she became like a big sister of mine, because I used to be there by the Greeks every day—every day. It was a store; they sold material, you know, and they sold rations, different kinds of rations at the store. But they made these little cups, frozen cups. And that was my fantasy to go over there every day, and I enjoyed it. But we moved from there to Washington and LaSalle in the Magnolia Projects when they first came up. We were one of the first families to move there.
I worked with the Orleans Parish School Board for years, and then I learned to cook institutional, not knowing that I was going to even go into a business of my own. I had no idea that something like this was going to transpire. But of course that was many, many years ago.
And I got to start seeing where cooking was getting to be such an elegant and big business, and one day I was watching TV. This was years later. And who I see, you know just paying a little attention, Paul Prudhomme. He was doing a blackened redfish, and he’s from Lafayette, Louisiana. So I’m thinking, you know I’m saying, “I need to find something to do that’s going to make me more money than what these people are paying me.” I mean this was years later, you know. I’m all separated from husband, children grown, and I got to make a living for myself. And this is where the business come in at. And you know what I did? I got a flyer. I sat down on a sheet of paper and I wrote out a menu and it said “From My Kitchen to Yours,” and it said “Creole and Cajun Food.” And I gave myself a name, Tee Eva, great entrepreneur. And that’s how it all happened.
Were you called Tee Eva before then?
No. I said to my daughter, I said, “You know, I want to do a business.” She says, “Go ahead if you want to do it.” She said, “Do it,” she said, “But I’m not going to be able to help you, not physically.” She said, “But if you want to do a business, fine with me.” So I said, “But it’s got to have a name”. And it’s like, she didn't hesitate. She says, “Well, you got a lot of nieces, you have a lot of great-nieces, great-great-nieces.” She says, “—and nephews,” she says, “So name it Tee Eva.”
Because Tee is short for Auntee or Auntie, is that right?
Uh-hm, yeah. So that’s it. It didn't take a long time to get the name, uh-hm.
What are some of your earliest sno-ball memories? When you were buying those frozen cups, were there also sno-balls in your neighborhood?
Yeah. Well the frozen cups, I was like four or five years old then when I was buying those frozen cups. And then after that it became the sno-ball as I got older. And then I was going to school, my school years, in elementary school. And the only flavor we had was strawberry, pineapple, and spearmint. That was the only flavors. No other flavors. Now it wasn’t a sno-ball machine like that. It was a little machine and you scraped the ice. You scraped it, a block of ice. It’s like a scoop or something. And you scraped the block of ice and you put it in a cup. And then you put the flavor on it, but the ice was very coarse. It was coarse ice. It wasn’t fine like the sno-ball ice is today.
And you have so many flavors now.
Oh yes, they have hundreds of flavors now.
What is your most popular flavor?
I have like three or four, which is Georgia peach, wedding cake, cotton candy, and cake batter, uh-hm. Oh, I left one out: Creole cream cheese. They love that Creole cream cheese.
What does that taste like?
It’s kind of like, kind of sour, kind of like cream cheese. It’s not so sweet. But you’ll enjoy it. Now you could mix it with cherry, black cherry, and it becomes Tiger Blood; Creole cream cheese and black cherry—Tiger Blood. And that’s really good.
Did you name that?
No, I didn't. I didn't name it. I don’t want to get in these sno-ball wars with these people. [Laughs] I was reading the paper the other day. I said, “Oh, come on. Please. You have a good business, and you’re neighbors. What’s the matter with you? Can't you get along?” You know what I’m saying? I don’t understand them. Why they want to fight over who made the flavor? All you have to do is get—. I think I could make some sno-ball flavor if I wanted to try it but I got enough to do already. [Laughs] So I’m going to stay out of the sno-ball wars. [Laughs]
I should say for the record that there is now a trademark war going on between sno-ball makers, [regarding] who named a certain flavor first. King cake is one of the ones that they talk about.
I cook my syrup, you know for my sno-balls. I put it on the stove and my sugar and I put something else in my sugar and water and I cook it. And it comes out of there, but a very good syrup.
And that’s what you mix with the extracts?
Yeah, yeah. And no, I don’t make the cream flavors, and for the reason I don’t because everybody does not like the cream flavors. So I’ll make the regular sno-ball flavor and if my customer wants cream they can put evaporated milk on their sno-ball and mix it with evaporated milk, or they could mix it with condensed milk, or they can mix it with ice cream or gummy bears. You know whatever they want to put, they can have it—chocolate syrup. But no, I do not make cream flavors.
What about you? What kind do you like?
Oh, I’m a sno-ball eater. I will eat the sno-ball with condensed milk, and the chocolate ice cream, with vanilla ice-cream, with evaporated milk. I crumble up a fresh-cooked praline and mix it into my sno-ball, and then I’ll put the praline flavor over it. It’s awesome.
You’ve always had a sweet tooth?
Always, from—have you heard of sugarcane? Well I guess that started it. [Laughs] And I kept all of my teeth. I kept all of my teeth. And I’ve been sucking on some sugarcane since I can remember to say the word sugarcane. I got a sweet tooth. And that’s why I make those pralines, because it started with the sugarcane. And then the pecan trees were right there in the yard, and I’d go out in the country to my relatives’ and we’d pick pecans right there in the yard. And we’d go inside and clean up the pecans and we’d put on some sugar that come from the sugarcane you know. And so we had the pure raw sugar; it’s brown. That come from the sugarcane. And we’ll put some milk and some sugar and some vanilla and mix it up and throw some pecans in it and whip us up some candy and sit down and eat pecan pralines—at no cost.
Well, did you then—and also now—[put] butter or cream in your pralines?
Butter and cream. Uh-hm, yeah.
Did you use a candy thermometer back then?
Oh no. I don’t even know if they had one. They might have had one but we didn't have a candy thermometer. We didn't have candy thermometer, we didn't have measuring cups; we cooked. And we cooked by scent; that’s how we cooked.
I know that you said earlier that you granddaughter is the one who makes the pralines now. Does she measure?
She measures, yeah. She measures because this is a different time and age you know. But when I was a child growing up they didn't measure. It was called “dump cooking.” You know you peeled it, you washed it, you cleaned it, whatever you had to do to it, and you put it in a pot and you’d season it up and you’d cook it, yeah.
You say you’re retired but—
[The shop] gives me something to do, somewhere to go, something to do because I’m not a stay-at-home person. And I’m so glad that God enables me to be able to do, to help my granddaughter where she can keep it in the family and her grandmother can be her assistant. And I like being her assistant. I enjoy that. It’s my grand-baby, 35-years-old and she’s my grand-baby you know.
You must be so proud of her for doing this.
I am because I was wondering who was going to take over—was they going to just let Tee Eva fold up? And I think that would have broke my heart, you know because it took very good care of me and it’s something that you learn from home. This is not something you learn in school. You know, and it’s not nothing to look down on because whatever your elders teach you, they’re teaching it to you because it’s something that’s going to carry you through life. Look at the people that’s out of work now. You are having more shifts coming up than ever before in history. Even people that’s got money, you know they’re going into the jobs—it’s out, so they’re learning how to do cupcakes, they’re learning how to do candy apples, they’re learning how to make popcorn balls. They are learning things that they should have learned a long time ago when they were little kids, you know. They’re happy to learn it now because it’s going to make a living for them and because what it is, the businesses now, all the big business is going out and it’s going back to mom-and-pops.
So it’s like, God, you say, “I went to school and I got all this education and I got all these degrees. Now what am I going to do with them? Look what I got hanging up—all these accolades hanging up on the walls. Now what do I do?” You got to go back to the drawing board. Hey, and learn how to make sausage or something you know because that’s what it’s going to wind up being. Learn how to be a shoemaker. Learn how to do something. Learn how to be a dressmaker. It won't hurt. People would love to have some dresses made.
You’ve done so much, and mostly I’ve heard about your life past 50.
Yeah, [Excitement] you know what? When I made 50-years-old, let me tell you. When I made 50, I said, “All right, Eva.” This is what I told myself: “You are now 50-years-old. Now you got to really get up off of it. You have worked for people all your life. It’s time for you to do something for yourself.”
Thank you for telling me your story. [Laughs] I think that’s a good place to end.
Yeah, I think so. [Laughs] Getting a life for myself, yes, and it has been most enjoyable. At 76-years-old, I’m enjoying life.
To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.