Good Things Come in Threes
A look at the birth — and constant re-birth — of the beloved beignet.
A native New Orleanian, Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.
The concept of fried dough pervades every culture, starting with the ancient Romans who can claim the “original” fried dough creation with their scriblita, and continuing to the Italian zeppole and the Mexican sopapilla of today.
New Orleans is famous for many foods, but few compare to the city’s own fried dough, the beignet. “Beignet” is French for fritter, and while it’s unclear how and when the unique, square doughnuts originally developed in New Orleans, they have been a fixture at the French Market since the mid-19th century.
One French Market,
Two Beignet Options
For Jay Roman, third generation of Café du Monde’s Fernandez family, the beignet is “a calling, more than a job.” With 11 locations and a food truck to manage, Café du Monde is the dominant player in New Orleans’ beignet scene. According to Fernandez family history, the original Café du Monde stand dates back to 1862, and Roman’s grandfather, Hubert Fernandez, purchased the French Market business in 1942. At that time, beignets were generally called “French Market doughnuts,” something Fernandez rectified in 1958 when he rebranded them “beignets.” Asked why beignets are always served in threes, Roman had a very simple explanation: “My grandfather always sold them in threes, so that is what we still do today.”
Café du Monde was not the only beignet source in the French Market. In 1870, Austrian immigrant Joseph Jurisich opened Morning Call just a few blocks down from Café du Monde. Morning Call featured a smaller seating area than its competitor, but once the automobile was introduced, the company’s curbside service became a late-night favorite of New Orleanians with pajama-clad kids in the backseat.
In 1974, during extensive renovations to the French Market, Morning Call owners (and brothers) Alvin and Eddie Jurisich closed the original location and moved the business to Metairie. In recent years, Alvin’s step-grandsons, brothers Bob and Mike Hennessey, have managed the family operation. Lease issues caused them to close the Metairie location in 2018, and at this time last year they lost their lease in City Park, ending a 149-year run in the city.
Beignet aficionados wax eloquent about the currently elusive Morning Call doughnut. Bob and Mike Hennessey claim the secret is in the dough.
“Ours is a special sourdough formula that provides leavening and a unique flavor,” Hennessey said. Fans will be thrilled to learn that Morning Call will be back sometime in 2020, conveniently located in a new development at the corner of Canal Boulevard and City Park Avenue in Mid-City.
Café Beignet Offers Variety of Settings
“There’s more than one way to beignet,” claims Donna Shay, general manager of Café Beignet. It’s been 21 years since the beignet upstart opened its first location on Royal Street. With a fifth location on Canal Street slated for early 2020, each downtown spot has been carefully curated to offer guests something uniquely charming. On notorious Bourbon Street, Café Beignet provides a safe, family-friendly haven with live jazz music from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. There’s also a Café Beignet in the historic Jax Brewery on Decatur. Following in the 125-year tradition of the Coffee Pot on St. Peter Street, Café Beignet serves traditional calas at that location, in addition to hand-rolled, made-to-order beignets.
In 2013, when the French Market board of directors mentioned they were looking for additional beignet options for the market, Loretta Harrison, of Loretta’s Authentic Pralines, said, “I can do that!”
Using puff pastry instead of the traditional choux paste, Harrison developed a lighter, crispier product that she serves stuffed with crabmeat, chocolate and praline fillings. All three versions are popular offerings at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. At both Harrison’s North Rampart Street café and her French Quarter stall, she’s expanded her beignet menu to include hamburger beignets, along with other fillings like shrimp salad, barbecued chicken, peanut butter and jelly, and for breakfast, bacon, eggs and cheese.
What about you? How do you beignet?
Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, “Louisiana Eats!” Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.