Beignet Basics: A Sweet Story
Beignets- the French Doughnut
No trip to New Orleans is complete without a stop at Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter for those sugar coated delights called beignets (pronounced BEN-yeas). Served three to an order, they're the perfect inexpensive pick-me-up when you've been walking the streets all day.
If you'd like to know where the locals go when they need a sugar fix, or how to make them yourself at home, read on!
(all photos property of the author.)
Working on the Cafe du Monde Line
A sugary foot in the door...
The pastry arrives with the Acadians
The Acadians were people of French descent living what’s now the Canadian coastal areas of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Mostly simple people making their living from the sea, when the British conquered the region they refused to sign oaths of allegiance, holding out for 45 years against the vastly superior English military.
When the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1763, the Acadians were given a year and a half to either assimilate or leave- most chose to go, and Louisiana seemed an obvious choice for reasons of language and culture. Even though Spain ruled the colony at the time, local loyalties remained with the French.
Already adept at fishing and trapping, Acadians found the rich waters around the city ideal.
Over time “Acadians” was localized to “Cajun,” and we have them to thank for such wonderful foods as gumbo, jambalaya, and beignets.
Want to try it yourself?
Cade du Monde
Cafe du Monde opens
...with an interesting business strategy
(Photo from a 1967 slide purchased from an estate on ebay. That slant parking is long gone, now part of a small cobblestoned plaza.)
Some recipes have the dough filled with savory meats or sweet fruits and jams, but the sugar coated beignet became king when Cafe du Monde opened in 1862.
1862 was also the year the city was conquered during the American Civil War. Rather than let that stop the new restaurant, they engaged in some interesting covert warfare. The coffee they served was very strong and chicory flavored- locals were used to this, but the Yankees couldn’t stomach it.
The fried beignets were also only served already doused with mounds and mounds of powdered sugar. As any visitor can attest, it is flat out impossible not to get that fine powder all over…and the soldiers couldn’t get it on their uniforms without risking discipline.
For the most part, the locals got to have Cafe du Monde to themselves through the Union occupation!
See the process
Competition Arrives in 1870
Morning Call Opens in the French Market
(photo from a 1967 slide purchased from an estate on ebay)
Only a block away a new coffee and beignet shop opened, but also served local favorites of the Acadians like gumbo and jambalaya. They also served their doughnuts naked with sugar shakers on every table.
Local loyalties were divided, and for decades people fiercely debated the merits of each establishment. Luckily, with the two cafes so close together everyone could have their favorites and family peace was preserved!
At least it was until 1974, when the French Market announced big renovations. Morning Call’s owners didn’t like the proposed changes and announced they were moving to the suburbs. What might have seemed like a small decision ended up being debated endlessly. This was during the big “flight” to the suburbs. A huge shopping mall had just been built outside of the city and several of the upscale shops on Canal Street were relocating there- many felt this was the death knell for the French Quarter.
That seems like a lot of pressure to put on a fried doughnut, perhaps- and luckily the French Quarter continued on just fine.
A Triumphant Return 38 years Later
In late 2012 Morning Call opened a cafe inside the city proper- in City Park’s Casino building. (The building’s always been called that, but has never held a casino. Go figure.)
With its white tile floors and retro detailing, it already looks like it’s been there forever. You can sit inside, under the iconic arch or out under the oaks and Spanish moss. The New Orleans Modern Art museum’s sculpture garden is right there, and a (free!) walk through the art is a great way to work off some of those sugary calories.
Getting to the French Quarter (parking,in particular) can be a pain for locals, and Cafe du Monde is often packed. Morning Call has lots of free parking, and is rarely mobbed, so that makes it particularly attractive.
Coffee in both places is good,though the beignets are slightly different; those in Morning Call have a sourdough flavor the traditional Cafe du Monde ones do not, so that’s a matter of personal preference.