When it comes to official state doughnuts, Massachusetts was a Johnny-come-lately when it conferred the honor on the Boston cream doughnut in 2003
When it comes to official state doughnuts, Massachusetts was a Johnny-come-lately when it conferred the honor on the Boston cream doughnut in 2003. Why, it was way back in the momentous year of 1986 that Louisiana had the wisdom to so recognize the beignet.
(A rigorous investigative search has unearthed no other official state doughnuts.)
Say “ben-yay” and you’re close enough to the Acadian pronunciation of what doesn’t seem to be much more than a square of fried dough larded with drifts of powdered sugar. Yet the beignet reaches an apotheosis of exquisiteness in New Orleans, particularly at the Café du Monde in the French Quarter, where they’ve been serving them up for over 150 years with café au lait (equal parts roast coffee, chicory and warm milk).
Truth be told, the beignet was just called a doughnut in Louisiana until 1958. But Café du Monde president Jay Roman says its local appeal is partly because of its long history: “It’s part of New Orleans heritage like red beans and rice or gumbo and all the other things that go to make up the city’s identity. But almost every ethnic background has something similar. People come up to me and say, ‘My grandmother used to make this but she called it a zeppole,’ or a Mexican sopapilla. It may be filled or coated with something else, but it’s identifiable.”
There are now nine locations around New Orleans, but the original on Decatur Street in the French Quarter is most familiar to visitors — be they kings or counselors — not the least that it’s been there since 1862, and that it never closes (open 24 hours), except on the eve of Christmas Eve and on Christmas day.
The original French settlers in New Orleans used chicory to stretch their thin coffee supplies, hence that tradition. You can get coffee without the chicory and use a credit card in the other Café du Monde locations, but not at Decatur Street French Market, where it’s cash only and speed is of the essence.
“Starbucks has more shops then we do, of course, but we have just shy of 400 seats at the Café, and I believe we’re the largest in the U.S.,” said Burt Benrud, vice-president.
A cup of coffee is $2.73. An order of beignets (three) is $2.73.
“It rounds up to $3,” said Benrud. “When you’re serving upwards of 10,000 people a day with as many as 40 to 45 waiters in an eight-hour shift you don’t want to deal with hundreds of pounds of change.”
“No one comes here to wait in line,” said Roman, although sometimes there are lines, even at 4 a.m. Roman is the grandson of Hubert Fernandez, who bought the Café in 1942. Roman started sweeping the floors at age 12. Benrud married a Fernandez granddaughter (Roman’s cousin) and has been in the family business for 33 years.
Neither seemed crystal clear on precisely how many family members were currently involved.
“Twelve,” said Roman.
“Fifteen?” said Benrud. “I haven’t really counted, but it’s a family business — what do you do when you go to work? You bring the family around. My kids are working here, yes, or if not they’re taking care of the fifth generation.”
Generations have worked on the staff as well, which numbers 400 at all the Café du Monde locations, 180 at Decatur Street.
How many beignets can one city eat or the shop sell?
“There’s no real way to say," Benrud said, "all we can really do is measure how many fifty-pound bags of flour we go through, and it’s entirely possible on a weekend to use three tons of flour at just this location.”
Once a year at the Zurich Classic, the show moves to the TPC Louisiana driving range, when Café du Monde serves coffee and beignets in the morning to the PGA Tour players and their pro-am partners.
Hurricane Katrina didn’t wreak any physical damage on Café du Monde in 2005, but the general wreckage in the city kept it closed for eight weeks.
“We were one of the first places to reopen, even if we were only serving insurance adjusters and the military at the time," Roman said. "Even then we had to observe a curfew. Being closed is not what we’re good at. We’re much better at staying open for all but 36 hours a year.”
Benrud added, “Well, we will give everyone a chance to go home to take care of their properties and families when the occasional hurricane hits. When the powdered sugar starts blowing off the beignets, then we close.”