or many tourists, a trip to New Orleans isn’t complete without a
café au lait and a plate of beignets, the famous square doughnuts
capped with a thick dusting of powdered sugar. Depending on how
often you get to the Crescent City, wrapped up in this tradition
are the novice rituals of burning your mouth on the volcanic
pastry because you couldn’t wait for it to cool, and/or accidentally
inhaling a cloud of confectioners’ sugar as you raised that golden
pillow to your lips.
It’s not just visitors who’ve long been captivated by this
tradition. “Eating beignets to me means being in New Orleans
on vacation—they’re synonymous with the French Quarter,” says
New Orleans native Lolis Eric Elie, a journalist, story editor of the
HBO series “Treme” and author of Treme: Stories and Recipes
From the Heart of New Orleans (Chronicle Books, 2013). “We
didn’t go there every day growing up, so there was a kind of
specialness associated with it, and a childhood rite of passage of
how much sugar do you put on and how long do you wait so it’s not
too hot. Something about that ritual reminds me of my childhood,
and reminds me why New Orleans is a special place.”
THE ROVING PASTRY
The word “beignet” comes from the early Celtic word bigne,
meaning, “to raise.” It’s also French for “fritter.” How these
golden-fried delicacies ended up in the Crescent City is a classic
American migration story.
Europeans have been eating fried dough at least as far back
as ancient Rome, when moist dough was dipped in boiling animal
fat to make the Roman pastry known as scriblita. Eventually,
French cooks developed two kinds of pastry: doughs using yeast
as a raising agent and those that rise with their own steam. And,
thus, the choux pastry—which forms the traditional beignet
Beignets made their way to North America in the 17th
century when French settlers migrated to Eastern Canada.
They’re thought to have arrived in New Orleans in 1727 when
the British invasion of the region forced thousands of French-Canadians to migrate south.
It wasn’t until some 130 years later, in 1862, that Fred
Koeniger opened a small 24-hour coffee stand called Cafe Du
Monde at the upriver end of the French Market, slinging coffee
and, later, square holeless doughnuts dusted with powdered sugar.
For more than a century, Cafe Du Monde was one of just two
24/7 coffee stands on Decatur Street, the other being Morning
Call, which Joseph Jurisich opened in 1870. Morning Call would
become distinguishable by shakers that let customers apply their
own confectioners’ sugar. By the 1920s, beignets were a fixture
of both cafes, which were hailed by area newspapers as unifiers
of locals and tourists of all stripes.
“No class distinctions are recognized there,” wrote The
New Orleans Item in June 1928, describing Morning Call and
Cafe Du Monde (as later reported by The Times-Picayune).
“Sweet young things in evening dress rub elbows with unshaven
hucksters in overalls; dowagers sit down beside yeggmen; cake
eaters, gamblers, debutantes, artists, taxicab drivers and tourists
from all parts of the world mingle and fraternize together.”
The pastries weren’t actually called beignets until 1958,
according to a column by The Times-Picayune writer Howard
Jacobs, titled, “Good Old Doughnut Has Gone Cultural On Us.”
By 1974, Morning Call had moved out of the French Market to
suburban Metairie, making Cafe Du Monde the only game in
town until Cafe Beignet debuted at Conti and Royal Streets in
1990. (Morning Call has since closed the Metairie location but
is still in City Park, its largest outpost, which opened in 2012.)
Owned by a group of close friends—half of them behind
New Orleans Steamboat Company and the other half owners
OPPOSITE: SoBou’s most popular beignet variation is made from a sweet potato batter
and sauced with foie gras fondue and chicory coffee ganache.
ABOVE, TOP: Morning Call, New Orleans’ second-oldest coffee and beignet storefront,
has since left the French Quarter, operating today in City Park.
ABOVE, BOTTOM: Cafe Beignet, which opened in 1990 in the French Quarter, now
operates three locations.