-by Mandy Hudson, Southern Living Magazine
Fresh candy made at Pralines by Leon draws sweet-toothed customers from Nashville and beyond.
Move over, Willy Wonka. That fictional character of candy-making fame can’t compete with the real deal. Tucked away on Nashville’s Second Avenue, the sugar master who operates Pralines by Leon boasts a storied past rivaling any in Music City’s historic district.
Every day except Sunday, Leon Vlahos rises early to turn on the heat under his bright copper pots. “I had one kettle in my family that was more than 100 years old, but I gave it to my daughter in Memphis,” Leon says as he dons his familiar white chef’s hat and apron.
In 1888, Constantine, Leon’s Greek immigrant grandfather, arrived in New Orleans and began the long-lived saga of this candy-making family. After working at a French Quarter bawdy house, Constantine realized the clientele frequented the house not only for the advertised services but for the fabled sweets and pastries that were served there. He soon began making his sugary creations full time.”My grandfather started with pralines, “Leon recounts, “and my father expanded to include turtles, pecan rolls, and English toffee.”
The family left New Orleans for Birmingham in 1940. Because of patriotic reasons, Leon’s father named the new Alabama company Mary Ball, a reference to President George Washington’s mother.The entire family cooked. “There were six of us – four sisters, my brother, and me,” Leon says. “Even my sisters’ husbands cooked.” At first, his older siblings confined little Leon to the unenviable task of washing sticky kettles. “But my great-uncles, who were in their nineties, loved me and knew that I was interested, so they showed me how to cook. I started making candy in 1942 when I was 7,” says Leon.
One big-name candy manufacturer recognized the Vlahoses’ special way with confections. “Mrs. Russull Stover came by to see me 42 years ago,” Leon recalls. “She said, ‘You have the finest candy in the world – never change it.'” Leon’s father passed away in 1955, and Leon’s mother sold the company shortly afterward. Leon, who’d met his wife, Myrna, in Birmingham, declined a job with the new company. “I was the youngest of the candy-makers, and I got out,” he says. “Right after Mother sold it, they bankrupted it.” Although Birmingham customers begged Leon to restart Mary Ball, he decided to work with a clothing company, which took him to Nashville some 20 years ago.
Sweet on Nashville
Still, candy called. “My ability to cook never left,” he says. He opened Pralines by Leon in 1988, moving into the present downtown location in 1994.”All of my candy is good – caramels, turtles – all of it,” states Leon, talking beyond the namesake pralines. “We don’t use any preservatives whatsoever.” Instead, the confectioner makes each concocted batch fresh daily. His famous pralines enjoy a worldwide reputation.
Eighty percent of our business is through mail order,” Leon says. Packed in bright red tins that range from 1.5 to 5 pound, the sweets ship to customers as far away as Australia, the Czech Republic, and China. The largest domestic orders come from California and Texas.
Pointing to a particular tray, he says, “I invented this. No one in the world has amaretto, Jack Daniel’s, and bourbon pralines.” His reputation for creative praline mixtures led to his making the sugared delicacies for a Senator’s dinner after President George W. Bush’s first State of the Union Address. “They chose my pralines out of all of the pralines in the United States, ” Leon says. “We’re very proud of that.” A framed letter of thanks from the secretary of the Senate hangs in the store.
End of an Era?
So far, Leon’s grown children – Christy, Chris, Cleo, Stephanie, and Courtney – have chosen not to enter the candy business, although Chris knows the cooking techniques and helps out when he’s available. Leon’s eight grandchildren are still too young to make career decisions. “One of our customers came in and cried when she found that out,” Leon says. “She inquired, ‘Who’s going to continue making candy?’ I suppose I’m the last of the Mohicans.”
For now, he continues to rise at daybreak six days a week to fill the steady demand for his pralines and other goodies. “You won’t eat candy fresher than this anywhere,” Leon says. “Our customers want something different, and they want something good.”
Current diet trends haven’t slowed the business, adds Myrna. “These are old recipes, made before low-carb and sugar-free tendencies. The people that come here are not dieting,” she says with a laugh.