Monday, January 7, 2008

ode to beignets

Beignets, bugnes, merveilles, oreillettes, beignets de carnaval, bottereaux, tourtisseaux, corvechets, ganses, nouets, vautes. These words are like the snow falling across our fields: light, powdery, and heavenly. In Italy, these words mean Zeppole, Berliner or Krapfen in Germany, and Pąckzi in Poland. Here in the states we use a plain description: fried dough for that’s what they are in their essence. But fried dough doesn’t quite evoke the romance of the Middle French beignet, another word for “bump” conjuring the sweet shape of the confection.

In New Orleans, they are still called beignets. My family once lived in New Orleans so in our house, we’ve always called them beignets, and Caleb has family that still lives in New Orleans and they have always called them beignets. We both have memories of childhood carepackages sent up from the delta city, that classic beignet mix from the famed Café du Monde enclosed. But neither of us remember quite what they tasted like out of those mysterious boxes labeled with a mysterious foreign word. But we remember the glowing ecstasy with which they were described: sweet, but not too sweet, crisp and soft at the same time, tasting of gold. We wonder if the beignets ever even got made in our more Northern homes. We think that maybe the boxes were relegated to the corner of the cupboard, considered too complicated or difficult to make because of the frying, and that the prevalent thinking might have been that it’s better to live with the fantasy or memory of the beignet rather than to recreate it and be disappointed.

Now, thirty-some-odd years later, we made the pilgrimmage to New Orleans ourselves. Though the classic tourist visit to the Café du Monde in the French Quarter wasn’t at the top of our long list of restaurants and street vendors to frequent. How could something that had become cliched still be that good? How could the Café du Monde be anything more than a classic tourist trap? Our trip to the Café du Monde kept getting pushed back in our itinerary. Until finally, we arranged to hit the Quarter on our last morning, on the way out of town. This was a grave error.

If we had only known, we would have gone to eat beignets at the Café du Monde on our first morning, and gone every morning thereafter. The Café is classic, and there are many tourists there, but there are also many locals. In fact, the Café is very much a local meeting place. And the Café is purist in its devotion. The minute we sat down in a spot of early morning sunlight at the 1950’s table in the 1950’s chairs, we knew we had arrived at a culinary temple. The Café is in the French Market, the same spot where the Choctaw Indians used to meet and trade long before and Europeans came to settle the area. The air is cool after a night of rain, and the Vietnamese women who work the floor hustle between tables, then stop for a moment to chat in their melodious voices while they wait to pick up their trays from the kitchen. There are limited things to order at the Café du Monde: the beignets along with coffee or hot chocolate or tea or orange juice. The coffee is dark New Orleans coffee cut with chicory and served au lait if you like. The beignets are magnificent and one of the very best things we ate in New Orleans. They are one of the very best things about New Orleans. We were converted on the spot, and found ourselves collecting our souvenir of beignet mix and can of chicory-laced coffee to have once we had returned home. We would repeat the experience at our own table to relive the memory we had from the edge of the Mississippi.

And we have repeated it. On Sunday mornings, or a day off, or while visiting at friends, we mix the batter and fry the little pillows of dough. We press the coffee and steam the milk. We are converted all over again.


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