In honor of Mardi Gras. I’m pulling out a video from the archives.Beignets (bayn-YAY‑z)
I know I’ve talked about food and culture before. But in this ever shrinking world we live in authenticity is becoming a thing of the past. That’s why the associations I make between food and place are so important to me. And it’s not just food. It’s mountains, or buildings, even colors, and (of course) people.
But, these associations are also the main reason I avoid chain restaurants, even good ones. I want to create experiences that are unique to a place, to a person, sometimes even unique to a day. I am always walking into a restaurant I’ve never been to, never heard of, or sometimes without even knowing what they serve. Once inside I can forever associate that meal with that city, that day, even my particular mood. If that meal turns out to be really good, (or even really bad), then I know I have just in succeeded in creating a memory!
So imagine when countless numbers of people begin making an association between a place and a meal, or a restaurant and a certain dish. Well then magic happens. Icons are created and a culture is born between food and place.
Oftentimes these connections involve the simplest forms of food. Local dishes served for generations and beloved by those who were born there, lived there, died there.
There are so many examples. I am sure you can think of some yourself. In fact I’d love to hear about them!
The Beignet (French Market Doughnut) is one of these foods. It belongs so completely to New Orleans that I rarely even consider having one in my day-to-day life. But get me to New Orleans, and it will be one of the first stops I make.
For beignets in Los Angeles (on Sunday Mornings) there’s Hungry Cat. Which is a terrific restaurant. It’s got a bit of a geographical identity crisis though. Beignets like in New Orleans. Lobster Rolls like on the Coast of Maine. And a Raw Bar that, I can’t decide is either, very East Coast or Tres Parisian. Mind you this is not a criticism. In fact I suspect Chef David Lentz is a bit of a nostalgia-cist (like me!).
I have bittersweet memories of beignets in NYC, a little storefront across the street from The Chelsea Hotel– but I think that’s gone.
I also like a place in Seattle right in the shadow of the Space Needle forever associated with a former friend (I won’t have ex-friends it’s too sad).
Then there’s the place in Oakland I discovered from reading my (formerly) beloved L.A. Times.
Though they will never be the real thing, these places certainly have the right attitude. And that attitude reminds me of a Beignet Story– long lost in the recesses of my aging brain!
I spent two years at FSU as a Fraternity Bro (Phi Gamma Delta)– notice I didn’t call it a frat! That’s another memory (I can’t fully repeat here) but basically you do not to call ‘country’ by an abbreviated nickname, well, in my book; the same is true of fraternities!
Anyway, we fraternity brothers made a road-trip from Tallahassee, FL to good ole N’Owlans. It was one of those drive all day, party all night, don’t sleep, and drive back in time for finals kind of events. I think it was part of FSU’s mandatory curriculum.
Well, just before we left the French Quarter, we went to Cafe Du Monde for BEIGNETS! Now I was no beignet neophyte mind you. My mother took care of that. She used to make beignets at home, in UTAH circa 1968. But my mother missed one critical aspect of a REAL beignet. She used to ‘dust’ her ‘donuts’ in sugar.
Well the real thing is ‘suffocated’ in powdered sugar. In fact my memory tells me that they used to bring you steaming hot beignets in a brown paper bag. They would heap several huge helpings of powdered sugar into those bags, then shake them vigorously, before pouring them out in front of you!
Okay! Maybe it’s just me. But faced with a sugary glob of piping hot fried pastry dough, my first inclination is to breathe in deep. Both in anticipation and because, well, tasting the air around really good food is just something that is ingrained in me.
A word-of-advice. Do not breathe powdered sugar into your lungs! It’s painful. It’s all encompassing. It’s embarrassing! People (tried and true New Orleanians I am sure) laughed at me! They roared in merriment, as only they can! I made their day. I am sure of it. Hell. I’m proud of it. Because it could only happen in New Orleans!
I was mercilessly teased by the other bros all the way back to Tallahassee where they dutifully told me that that sort of behavior was not likely to endear me to any of the Southern Belles who populated my social arena at the time (I remember being secretly relieved by that news, but that’s another story).
Well the coffee is strong
At the Cafe Du Monde,
And the donuts are too hot to touch;
But just like a fool, when those
Sweet goodies cool, I ate ’til I ate way too much.
Cause I’m livin’ on things that excite me,
Be they pastries or lobsters or love;
I’m just tryin’ to get by being quiet and shy,
In a world full of pushin’ and shove.