Tuesday, September 13, 2011

I left my powdered sugar footprints at Café Du Monde

Some places are touristy for a reason.  In the case of Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans, it's because the cafe produces happiness in the form of fried dough with heaps of powdered sugar on top.  Their famous beignets are served 24 hours a day, and one order comes with three of the freshly made, warm pieces of pillowy donut perfection. 

For me, the inability to order just one beignet is Cafe Du Monde's unspoken way of communicating that your self-restraint is better left at home.  Some call New Orleans "the city that care forgot"-- and what better way to celebrate this than by indulging in this sweet treat during any of the 24 hours in your day, whichever one happens to strike your fancy.

Plates of beignets are famously accompanied by  cafe au lait, served New Orleans style: the hot milk and coffee are mixed with chicory (root of endive plant.)  With the taste of powdered sugar ever-present on your tongue, there's no need to sweeten your coffee in this setting.  Beyond your tongue, the powdered sugar is, in fact, everywhere: dusting the floor, forming a cloud around customers noshing on beignets, settling into a white dust on your shoes, your clothes, your wallet.  It's best to avoid wearing the color black in New Orleans, because you never know when you might end up here, and every hotel doorman, cab driver, and concierge in New Orleans knows the telltale dust of Cafe  Du Monde.  Though I don't think they place any judgment on multiple visits: in this city, you feel encouraged to enjoy every bite, every sip, and every note of jazz music you encounter with abandon.  

After visiting the city's Southern Food and Beverage Museum, this became even clearer.  (It was my first museum visit ever where one of the employees casually mentioned that I could bring in a cocktail to imbibe while exploring the historical exhibits.)  At the museum, I realized the coffee culture of this city and the 24 hour nature of Cafe Du Monde are extensions of this philosophy.  The exhibit quoted Lyle Saxon's 1928 book Fabulous New Orleans: "it is a very little thing perhaps, this drinking of coffee at odd times, but it is very characteristic of the city itself. Men in New Orleans give more thought to the business of living than men in other American cities."

My great-grandmother used to live in New Orleans, and though I never asked her, I would like to think that she took the time to enjoy 'the business of living,' to nibble on beignets and drink  café au lait when the mood struck.  When their family later moved to Los Angeles, her daughter (my grandmother) would go to a downtown LA spice shop to retrieve the family's chicory coffee supply.  She still recalls the order: the French drip with two and a half ounces of chicory.  I wonder how many other former New Orleanians did the same so they could have a taste of home.
Since Cafe Du Monde had an undeniable magnetic force, we could not stop ourselves from going there four times during our stay in the city-- the lack of a 5th visit being our minor concession to health consciousness.  Underneath that green and white awning, we satisfied our sweet tooth, sought refuge from the tropical storm, and plotted our next destinations to explore.  During our best visits, we enjoyed the soundtrack of the city as jazz musicians played for tips.  While Los Angeles has some talented street musicians, few listening experiences compared to our time here.   Lucky is the only way to feel when you have the opportunity to hear so much classic jazz flow through the open air in such a concentrated period of time.  Even on one rainy day visit, the musicians were still there, playing strong and loud. 

Captured in the pictures below are the scenes of my mom and I slurping coffee and soaking up the carefree nature of Cafe Du Monde.  Beignet orders used to cost 25 cents each back in the days when my great-grandmother was around, but even with slightly more modern prices, coming here is still like being transported to another time.  Servers wear old-school paper hats and songs fill the air that you may not otherwise ever hear live.  I may be only one tourist in a procession of visitors leaving behind powdered sugar footprints, but somehow every moment here still feels special.