December 2012

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How to make proper beignets

Making beignets at Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans. Photo by David Lansing.

I like the Hotel le Marais. It’s small, conveniently located (a block from Bourbon Street), and they give you a free cocktail at the bar when you check in. They also have a very nice Continental breakfast. Usually that means bad coffee and worse pastries, but here they actually have bacon and eggs and fruit and yogurt and all kinds of good stuff. Still, when I woke up this morning, what I was thinking about was beignets and chicory café au lait. So I headed back down to Jackson Square and Café Du Monde.

Damn. I think the beignets were even better this time. And I wanted to see how they made them. So I walked around to the back—the side facing the Mississippi River—where they have a big window on the kitchen. There were about a half dozen other people standing in front of the window, their noses pressed up against the glass, watching the beignets being made.

Take a look at the photo above and I’ll tell you what happens: First, the dough machine spits out about a square foot of rolled out dough which is quickly moved by a conveyor belt beneath a round dowel that spins, and as it does, it cuts the dough into something like 48 (I’m guessing) little rectangles. Then the gentleman in the picture scoops up the doughy pillows, two or three at a time, and without looking up or even backwards, blindly tosses the dough into a vat of hot oil behind him. This is the most amazing thing to see. Dough being chucked backwards into boiling oil. It’s like watching Derek Jeter dive to his right and make a perfect blind toss to the second baseman on the front end of a double play ball.

When he gets all the little pillows into the dough, he hustles over to the vat of hot oil and uses a basket to flip the beignets. Then he scoops them out of the oil and into baskets before going back over to the dough machine and scooping up more dough.

It has to be a numbing job (I wonder how long they keep these guys?). But it’s something to watch.

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Bebe takes a breakfast order at Penny’s Cafe in Violet, Louisiana. Photo by David Lansing.

To get to Penny’s Café from the Hotel le Marais, where I am staying, you take N. Rampart past the Louis Armstrong Park, following the curve of the Mississippi through the Lower Ninth Ward and into St. Bernard Parish, until you get to Violet.

There’s not much to Violet, Louisiana. There’s the old Our Lady of Lourdes Church, which has been boarded up ever since the storm surge from Hurricane Katrina topped the levee and destroyed the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet Canal, and maybe there’s a dollar store or two, and then there’s Penny’s Café.

On a wall next to the bathrooms at Penny’s is a photo taken after the hurricane hit on August 29, 2005. The photo shows what looks like a pitched roof sitting in the middle of a lake. That roof is Penny’s which was still under about 12 feet of water three weeks after the hurricane had passed. It’s hard to believe a business could come back from something like that, but here it is, still serving the #2 breakfast special, which is what I had—two eggs any style, sausage, bacon, or ham, grits or hashbrowns for $3.99.

The waitress, Bebe, calls me Honey. “Honey, you want sausage, bacon, or ham? I think the sausage is best.”


“Link or patty? I’d go for the links, honey.”


“Grits or hashbrowns?”


“Honey, you want coffee?”

“Yes, please.”

You look around Penny’s and it looks like a Coca-Cola museum. There are Coca-Cola trays on the walls and Coca-Cola clocks and old Coca-Cola signs. Even the salt and pepper shakers are in the shape of small Coca-Cola bottles. Obviously Penny (who is in the back yelling at the cook) has a thing for Coca-Cola.

You can’t be in a rush for breakfast at Penny’s. Bebe will get to you when she gets to you, but there are a lot of other customers here, wanting their banana pancakes and their crab cakes with gravy and their crawfish omelettes. It all takes time. Which is just fine by me. It’s what I came to Penny’s for in the first place. Just to relax and sip endless cups of coffee. Like everybody else here.

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The display window at the Voodoo Shop in New Orleans. Photo by David Lansing.

I was walking around the French Quarter, over by Preservation Hall, not really looking for anything in particular when I came across the Voodoo Store. They had a display case out front full of skeletons and statues of the Virgin Mary, bottles of love potions and packets of herbs, charms, beads—all kinds of things. Up at the top was a sign that said Come On In And Shop For A Spell.

Well, I was intrigued.

There was so much weird stuff inside this shop I don’t even know where to begin. On a wall in the back were dozens of little bags of herbs and seeds and stuff for various spells and potions. There was stuff for finding love, losing love, and getting revenge on love; potions for finding lost dogs, lost loves, and lost hair; packets designed to bring you wealth or happiness or good luck.

A very large woman standing by the counter asked me if there was something in particular I was looking for.

“Well,” I told her, fingering each of the individual potions hanging on the wall, “it’s kind of hard to explain.”

“Uh huh,” she said. “Why don’t you give it a shot?”

“Well, I’m not exactly sure what kind of a potion I’m looking for.”

“Then let me help you. Does it have something to do with love…that’s our most popular.”

“No, mam.”

“You got enemies then?”

“Well, not exactly. It’s more like I’ve got these friends, see, that are…”

“They’re what?”

“Well, they’re stupid I guess is the best way to put it.”

“Stupid how?”

“Stupid in that they just say stupid shit and don’t even know they’re saying it. You know, about the government and the president and stuff like that. They mean well, but…well, I don’t know how else to put it—they’re what you might call educated Crackers.”

“I know the type perfectly well.”

“They sayin’ all the time that we’re the greatest country in the world and all like that, but then they just can’t help demeaning people. Makes no sense to me. These are the sort of people who are always saying, “Don’t get me started,” but the problem is you can’t never shut them up. And they don’t have a clue as to what they’re saying. They just like to rant. Know what I mean?”

The woman laughed and said she knew exactly what I meant.

“So then,” I said, “you got any sort of a spell that might work on people like that?”

“No, sir,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m sorry I don’t. It’s easier to cure a bitch with ringworms than a stupid cracker.”

I nodded and then bought a potion for Peace. Maybe I’ll spread some of it on my friends’ dinner tonight when they’re not looking. Not that I think it will do much good.

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Beignets at Cafe du Monde

Cafe du Monde in New Orleans. Photo by David Lansing.

When I get to Café du Monde, the takeout line extends out the side, around the back, and almost all the way down to the Grey Line Tours kiosk. Normally, I’d just go somewhere else for breakfast, but Christine warned me it would be like this. “The lines are horrible, but the wait is worth it,” she wrote me yesterday. And, really, how can you come to New Orleans and not make at least one visit to Café du Monde for café au lait and a box of beignets. Even if you’re not crazy about beignets—and I am not—you still have to order a box.

I’m not expecting much from either the coffee, which is blended with chicory, or the French-style donuts. Which is why I don’t get a table in the café. I figure this way I can sit on a park bench outside the restaurant, take a couple sips of my café au lait, a bite of beignet, and be done with it. Maybe feed the rest of the donuts to the pigeons all around. But, damn, these aren’t half bad. Hot, sweet, fresh. And the café au lait is much better than I expect as well. Before you know it, I’ve downed my coffee and am licking the powder sugar off my fingers from the last beignet. And thinking of going back for more.

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