If you live in New Orleans and you run with food-obsessed people, it's a situation that you've encountered a million times. A group of pals are coming into town for a long eating weekend, with a formidable four-day gastronomic itinerary mapped out. Landing on Thursday, flying out about noon Monday—and in between, a thousand different NOLA culinary experiences to check off the list. "We land at 2, then go straight to Casamento's for oysters, then to Guy's for a sausage po-boy, check in for a quick nap at the hotel, drinks at the French 75, then two dinners and a night of music on Frenchmen Street. Then on Friday morning, beignets for breakfast…"
«LOUD WARNING BUZZER»
It's that last phrase—"beignets for breakfast"—that veterans know as the undoing of many an ambitious busman's holiday. Visitors who follow through on that simple, culturally-appropriate plan are setting themselves up for what locals call a World of Pain.
On the surface, starting the day off with Louisiana's version of coffee and doughnuts sounds magical—and in a way, it is. A standard order at Café du Monde consists of three doughy squares of deep-fried dough, puffed into a crisp balloon of golden-brown goodness paired with a steaming stoneware mug of creamy brown café au lait. The beignets come liberally dusted with powdered sugar (which pairs nicely with the savory, earthy dough), while the café has a distinctive flavorful "whang" to it—a faint, bitter edge that comes from adding roasted chicory to the beans before brewing.
It's a classic combination that sits squarely in the New Orleans culinary pantheon, and one of the compulsory experiences for newcomers to the city.
But y'see, here's the problem: If you make the all-too-common mistake of filing beignets and coffee in the "breakfast" category, you're basically jeopardizing one, maybe two days of your long weekend. For some mysterious reason, you'll feel every little bit of Thursday night's overindulgence as you limp through Friday, with a brain that's foggier than usual and a more-than-vague queasiness that you can't quite shake. Everything seems to be running at half-speed, with a distinct wobble and headache that lingers into the afternoon. Your ambition wanes, lunches get postponed, and thoughts of "where's next?" pump like sludge.
The culprit here is the dreaded Beignet Conundrum: a harsh reality of life in the city that inspires pleasurable excess in all its forms. At the heart of the conundrum lies a two-part lesson in culinary physics.
Beignets are essentially fried air. Like their cousins, traditional "hole in the middle" doughnuts, beignets consist of a little dough deep-fried to a tempting, pillowy pastry. But unlike traditional doughnuts (served by the dozen) or their new-jack variations (loaded with thick blankets of artisanal toppings), beignets have only a dusting of snowy powdered sugar to add sweetness. (You can add a thicker layer, but you'll only end up looking like Pacino at the end of Scarface. Never a good look if you've successfully completed third grade, my little friend…)
Café au lait is borderline caffeine-free. This is one of the cruel ironies in one of our nation's most European-inflected cities: The signature coffee drink is damned near healthy. The city's historic penchant for chicory-spiked java (often called "New Orleans' blend) hails from French colonial days, when the roasted root was used to extend coffee during lean times. Punchline here: chicory has pungent flavor, but no caffeine. Add an equal measure of hot milk to your shot of blended hooch, and what looks like your regular morning cup contains only 25 percent of its fabled active ingredient.
So that physical slowdown, that slightly-sleepy borderline stoned feeling you get while roaming the French Quarter the day after a rollicking night before? It's real.
A Solution in Two Parts
Luckily, the solution to said conundrum doesn't involve not indulging in the aforementioned combination. Once visitors realize that the problem is a simple case of mistaken identity, they can tuck into their beignets, but at a time that is less obvious, yet infinitely more practical.
So what's the counter-intuitive sweet spot for said beignet-fication? Let's ballpark it at between 1:00 and 4:00. a.m. or p.m. Doesn’t really matter which.
On the early side, it's after lunch and before the first cocktail hour. (Or if you're truly dedicated, punctuating rounds of glorious day drinking.) A little sugar to get you going and a wee bit of coffee to propel you to your next barstool.
If you're opting for the late shift, you're catching a little middle-meal on your way home after a hopefully well-misspent evening. The classic New Orleans coffee houses—Café du Monde in the Quarter and Morning Call in Mid-City's oak-shaded City Park—are open 24 hours a day, for whenever the whim hits.
Given the option, I'd choose the wee hours of the morning, after several decadent meals, a rollicking night of brass band music in the neighborhood clubs, and a quiet nightcap at one of the many classic watering holes.
And after a long day of raw oysters, extended Creole lunches, and an exploration of the city's culinary riches, having a sinfully sweet little pillow of deep fried goodness just seems to make perfect sense. Chased with a silky mug of soothing hot milk (ok, with a little coffee thrown in), the late-night rendezvous provides a chance to review the riches of the day, and to consider the dishes on tomorrow's itinerary. Starting with the classic question: "Where should we get a nice hearty breakfast?"