Some three decades+ ago, there were many summers of road trips to New Orleans to visit mom's family. No personal entertainment systems for the kiddos in those days. No TV screens in the back seats, no Walkmans, no nothing. Not even an SUV. This was a family of 5, in a sedan, for like 10 to 12 hours, with my parents smoking in the front seat (this was a very, very long time ago), windows closed, and something like Ray Conniff Jr. and other such "easy listening" or "smooth 'jazz' " on the radio.
There would follow weeks of lazy days, driving up and down St. Charles Avenue on the way to Grandmother's house, down to the Quarter, and back up through the Garden District, and lunch here and dinners and snacks there.
One of the most vivid memories of those days comprising my childhood food delights, right up there with the nectar sodas at the K&B drugstore on St. Charles Avenue, were the visits to Café du Monde in the Quarter. And of course these visits included several orders of beignets (each order comprising 3 beignets), café au lait for the grown-ups, and those little waxy cartons of chocolate milk for us kids.
Sure, getting the beignets hot out of the vats of frying oil, and then biting into them just then when the powdered sugar blended perfectly with that light crust and moist insides, was pretty great.
But even more great was another part of this ritual: the powdered sugar food fight.
The small saucers onto which the hot beignets were piled were just loaded up with powdered sugar. The servers would get a saucer of the order of beignets, which looked all naked and pitiful without their coating of powdered sugar. Then the servers would vigorously shake powdered sugar--billowing clouds of sugar coming from giant shower head contraption things--onto the beignets before taking them out on cafeteria trays to the customers.
The process left a heavy coating of powerded sugar--heaven for a kid--and also a healthy pile of powdered sugar at the bottom of the saucer. And then the food fight: seeing how hard we could blow on the beignets to send a cloud of sugar onto everyone else. By the end, we had it all over our faces. All over our clothes. Even better if someone was wearing a dark color. Those were the days.
And then we got a little more picky about our beignets. I guess we were starting to get our foodie groove on. We started to prefer the beignets over at Morning Call in Metaire. Sure, you're not right there close to Jackson Square and the Mississippi River, but Morning Call was still pretty darn charming. And it did have really good beignets.
And then, as the decades wore on, we would try, and try again, to recreate those days of childhood trips to the Quarter. Which of course included a visit to Café du Monde. The last time we went, years ago, the service was so hurried (it always was efficient, but this was hurried in a no bueno way), and the place so unkempt, try as we might to enjoy it, we had to admit: It was not the same.
Beignets slowly dropped out of the rotation of food things we did in New Orleans.
Sometimes Mom would re-create them at home for us, and they were great. But it's just not the same as sitting at the Café du Monde, in those metal chairs, crowded around those small round tables, on the tile floors, with the table full of the thick white saucers piled up with beignets and sugar, and cups full of that beautiful creamy light brown café au lait.
I had not thought about eating beignets for some time. Until today. At épicerie.
For a coffee break, and as part of our architectural tour of Austin, I drove us all to épicerie. As I knew they would, they admire the marble, the fixtures, the color contrast of that dark midnight blue and the bright glossy white trim.
As we finally move forward to order, Mom is the first one to see them written up there on the chalkboard.
"What? You have beignets??!?"
"Yes. Made fresh to order."
"Real New Orleans beignets?"
[I find out the owner's Louisiana roots are in Shreveport. This is good enough for Mom. I had no idea they had beignets.]
"I'll take the beignets."
They get coffee. I have tea. I need to test these macarons that Mollie is raving about. I asked for one each: the lavender, the espresso, and the salted caramel.
The beignets arrive. Not an order of three on a saucer as at Café du Monde. And not as fully doused by a cloud of powdered sugar coming out of a shower head spigot, but just as piping hot on delivery.
We do some sharing of the beignets. We do not overdo, but we make a good dent. We are happy that these beignets are a mere (albeit hefty) walk from chez moi.
épicerie gets extra style points for the serving vessel, in terms of color and shape. The shape allows the powdered sugar to settle in a lovely pattern on a rim that is a constrasting color. On those white saucers at Café du Monde, there is no striking contrast. Then again, considering the heaps of white powdered sugar, there would be no area not covered by the sugar, making the contrasting color of a serving plate a moot point.
Much has changed since those Café du Monde visits decades ago. But it is a funny thing that decades later, in somewhat Central Austin, I can walk to a little piece of my French/Louisiana past, and make it very much part of my present.