Beignets and Cafe au Lait

I grew up eating a lot of donuts. The hub of commerce in my family’s suburban neighborhood hosted a number of shops and stores: Stater Bros. grocery, Mexican fruit stands, a rarely open post office, a nail salon owned by a young Vietnamese couple- and “DONUTS” our neighborhood pastry stop. From any location in the shopping center my sister and I could find an excuse to visit the shop that was within walking distance of wherever our parents took us for errands. Church services were concluded with a folding table full of bright pink boxes and fluttering napkins. Early morning basketball games at the YMCA trailed by a team mother’s contribution of holes and bars.

As significant as the donut was to my childhood, the baguette to Paris or Baklava to Turkey, New Orleans boasts it’s own pastry that draws people from all over the the world. Despite the array of toppings and stuffings available elsewhere, New Orleans beignets are a simple, traditional variation that is at times cloying yet perfectly paired with lukewarm café au lait. The memories attached to the simplicity of a small ceramic plate piled with three beignets arranged in a tower of sweet perfection embody a social experience that people rarely leave New Orleans without.

Throughout the city the state’s official donut can be found at many locations, but the line outside of Café du Monde proves their authority in the pastry slinging circle. Nestled waterfront on the Mississippi at 800 Decatur St. Café du Monde has stood in the historic French Quarter since 1862. Adjacent to Jackson Square, the green and white striped awning covers dozens of tiny tables crowded with tourists and locals, musicians and artists, old travelers and tired college students. 24 hours a day 7 days a week year round (with the exception of Christmas Day and when the occasional storm passes through town) the café’s fryers are bubbling, coffee is brewing and oranges are being squeezed.

To eat beignets anywhere else is far from sacrilege- they are served in the mall, at uptown diners, and a few blocks away in any direction at places like Café Beignet or Palace. You can buy the mix in almost every grocery store or tourist market. And it’s likely that you’ll find them at Jazz or French Quarter fest being fried under a pop-up tent for attendees enjoyment.

But the significance of eating warm beignets, straight from the fryer, served by a tiny, quiet Vietnamese woman and paired with milky café au lait goes beyond the food.

For 24 hours each day Café du Monde offers more than sweet pastries and cold beverages- it gives locals and tourists alike a place to escape the many choices they’re forced to make at restaurants with 100 item menus and let’s people focus on conversation- or a place to read or write away from the overwhelmingly loud band practice of a neighbors zydeco band. It’s significance lies in the excitement of finding an empty table- listening to Southern drawls mixed with broken English from a Frenchman- running into friends who are coming from a party while you’re on your way to another- and at times finding an excuse to go to the noisiest place in the city to avoid the quiet of a lonely living room couch or newly empty side of the bed.

It’s almost impossible to miss the spot when you’re moving through The Quarter along any edge of Jackson Square or down Decatur from either direction. Many days a week, especially as the weekend nears, there is a long line extending from the covered patio into the territory occupied by young street performers or carriages waiting for riders.

Outside of the shop couples wait hand-in-hand to taste their first beignet, trumpet players blast sharp notes into the hearing aids of elderly travelers, and children snake in and out of line already hyped by just the thought of the doughy treats awaiting them.

As a space that’s occupied that particular corner for 150 years, du Monde is a recognizable and significant location within the New Orleans eatery circle. Amidst the hustle of French Quarter restaurant openings and closings du Monde stands timeless on the edge of the city as a reference point for tourists or a recognizable (spot) for locals. It’s grand size makes it a prominent, noticeable location- a restaurant with history that’s not lost within the Quarter streets packed with eateries.

In a way, the stand can be seen as a memorial of the simple, old time coffee shops of New Orleans past. Not built to reminisce but kept standing to remind- A space that holds onto the simplicity of food and eating in a space that invites conversation rather than extravagance. Similar to Mondays when all you need is a pot o’ beans or Fridays when all you need is a sack full of crawdads- du Monde’s beignets and café au lait offer a simple menu that fosters an eating experience focused on the people and the space.

Inside waitresses move through the space differently than they do in other restaurants- they move fast, quietly and diligently. Unlike back waiters and front waiters at upscale dining establishments who tell jokes and stories to woo their patrons, these waiters move through their sections saying little and balancing a lot.

When you first sit down they move toward the table quickly with a damp rag, anticipating the mounds of powdered sugar and spilled coffee surrounding empty plates from the previous diners. Tiny hands sweep sugar off of the table onto an empty tray, into a half full water cup. Orders are taken without writing anything down for how much is there to remember other than numbers and milk or no milk?

You want beignet? You want coffee? One order beignet two coffee.

Done.

The smiles are rare but the food comes fast- black trays dusted with sugar stacked high with plates of beignets and sloshing cups of coffee. They don’t inject themselves in the conversation- they don’t try to make friends for tips. They glide through the narrow rows of tables with their hips swaying around a protruding chair, their hands full of trays packed with empty plates and coffee stained mugs. In a city where friends are made the second you step outside of your front door, the service industry is full of men and women making small talk with their tables. But at du Monde there’s little to learn about the woman setting your food down- she takes orders, disappears, brings food, disappears, makes change, disappears- and you’re left to fend for yourself.

A row of chairs are set up outside of this entrance to the café, often filled with waitresses sitting on each others laps, holding idle brooms and sipping chicory. Throughout the day they get their breaks- their time to decompress from hours of quick orders put in by drunken frat guys and hard-to-decipher Texas twang. They smoke cigarettes to the filter trying to prolong their mid-morning breaks and tourists steal pictures of them in their white paper caps and stained aprons- their heads hanging low in avoidance of the constant shutters snapping.

All day the smell of fresh fried dough fills the noisy tented patio. The conversations and laughter that bounce from ceiling to floor to wall highlight the bustling café atmosphere that the place is known for.

Like a snowball that has yet to be shaken, Cafe du Monde is covered in the powder that people sweep from their donuts or lips to their hands to their pants to the floor. Perma-coated with traces of sugar no matter how many times it is wiped or swept. Du Monde is reminiscent of a Willy Wonka candyland treat that would be good enough to lick clean if the soles of shoes in New Orleans weren’t tracking in a nasty mixture of vomit piss and beer foam.

To the eye the tables look clean and dry- but to the touch an elbow or fingertip is caught like a fly in a trap by days worth of spilled coffee, powdered sugar and juice. Young women rest their sticky elbows after an exhausting night of French Quarter trolling, young men wobble the legs of a table back and forth trying to find steady ground on a patio that’s seen decades of traffic.

When looking around du Monde the guests tell a well-rounded story of New Orleans life centered on a local delicacy. The characters represented at each table signify different walks of life- different ways of living- different priorities and goals.

At some tables are people looking nervously about- wondering if they’re supposed to order at the window through which a thick Asian woman shoves greasy bags and sloshing cups- or if they’re supposed to sit tight and wait for someone to attend to them. Their inability to take advantage of a relaxing situation is clear in their darting eyes and wrists that turn watches toward their eyes every thirty seconds. Their brows sweat from heat and stress as they run late for a ghost tour and reservations they might not make. The laidback atmosphere of New Orleans is lost on them.

Other groups sit six to a three person table, laughing riotously about last night’s Bourbon excursion or the shit they got into on Frenchman St. with a young tuba player. The tiny tables and packed in chairs allow friends to rest hands on each other’s knees, prop each other up while laughing too hard, lean hung-over heads on sun burnt shoulders. Time passes slowly while enjoying the company of friends undistracted by the on-goings outside of the café.

Toddlers pick lightly at the crisp brown dough, inhale then expel hot breath to push sugar from their beignets all over the table- their hands are coated with a thick mixture of saliva and sugar, caking their fingertips with white powder. Children are carted throughout the city all day- pushed in strollers eyelevel with exposed crotches of street drunks; strapped to the backs of parents scanning maps and chugging water bottles. Du Monde moves kids from strollers and shoulders to a seat in front of a distracting, simple treat that rewards them for days of travel and hours of touring.

My most recent trip to du Monde took place after sunset, when the lights on Decatur start flickering and the tables slowly empty during the late dinner rush. When people order coffee around 9 to stay up til 3 and eat beignets to soak up a day’s worth of beer. As a space that’s open through the night, the café hosts a mix of people coming from parties, going to sleep, moving through the slow-paced city with all of the time in the world to take a break for a beignet or three.

On this particular night I filed in line as a woman in search of a place to prolong an evening that was saturated with passionate talk, stolen kisses, reconciliation and too much fervor to be sitting elbow to elbow with other café visitors.

We’d done the edge of the Bywater in the grass where dog-walkers and runners trotted by looking out of the corners of their eyes. We’d done a bar where the presence of bad beer, hate and homophobia pushed buttons. And we’d done the car which left room for little, with seats to lean over and emergency breaks to scale.

So I took her to du Monde in anticipation of being able to talk without anyone overhearing. In anticipation of being able to kiss someone with no eyes on either of us but each others.

Du Monde offers an intimate setting for those who break bread together- but simultaneously offers an atmosphere open for watching neighbors break bread. So, I fell into the to-go line in a cluster of people in a drunken haze, wobbling unsteadily in their running shoes and balancing themselves on a friend’s shoulder.

As removed as it is from the actual café, the sidewalk tracing each bend of the river is splattered with coffee and powdered sugar- and the Mississippi is littered with Styrofoam cups floating back and forth between Algiers and the city- reminding us, those who venture meters away from du Monde, that they’re still close. It serves as an extension of the café: full of noise and people by day, but fewer stragglers and drunks at night- and if there are any they’re the kind that don’t bother you since they can barely see your face- the kind that will stay on their side of the sidewalk if you don’t smile at them too broadly- the kind that walk alone and probably never even noticed that they passed you. So sitting on those benches past sunset looking few people in the eye is as close as you’ll get to being alone in that part of town.

She’d asked me to take her to get French donuts, a way to extend a night that got us out of a bar- off a levee- from behind the wheel… around food and lights and a physical action such as eating that distracts your mouth from locking lips in a parking lot. But the shudders of tension and emotion were too much to sit with in Café du Monde full of drunks and mindless wanderers- so the sidewalk along the water gave us a place to go- far enough to remove us from the glance of those at a table a foot away, but close enough to keep the coffee and pastries warm.

As significant as it can be to partake in soft, fresh donuts in the comfort of an old, wrought iron chair, the benches riverside of the Mississippi serve the same purpose. The smell of the fryers still permeates the night air. And the only thing that drowns out the sound of tiny waitresses collecting metal spoons clinking inside of cups is the sporadic trains chugging between the riverside and the café.

As much as I was dedicated to remove us from the physical space of du Monde there was no reason to detach ourselves from the food which ultimately played a crucial role in the success of a conversation to be had over some sort of nourishment.

The act of eating offers relief for two people with too much to say and few words found to say it. Bites between thoughts. Bites between words. Bites between sighs. Bites to evoke salivation in a dry mouth parched from kissing talking chewing biting. The mouth slows everything down to chew while the brain’s wheels turn wildly. The biting, chewing, sipping of coffee and nursing of burnt taste buds offers two people time to tease- lock eyes- collect thoughts.

So beignets: the perfect food to offer distraction-contemplation-confidence.

Their powder strikes first with an overwhelming sweetness the minute it hits the tongue- distracting from whatever thoughts are racing, thus slowing down the mind… Then the thoughts pick back up; the chewing takes long as wet dough rolls over the tongue, filling cheeks- time spent reflecting and finding words… and eventually a full stomach, slowed thought patterns, and time to think has given you the chance to verbalize what your brain was moving too fast for and what your mouth was too full for seconds earlier.

I spent our hour together, teeth chattering with the passing of each breeze. My lips babbling nonsense and unfinished thoughts. My eyes moving from hers, to my feet. When lost in my thoughts my eyes drifted to the other side of the river- moving between the orange glow of a burning fire- the yellow orb from my favorite bar’s porch- the light of a cyclist’s headlamp. My chest rose and fell- cracked- heaved with the touch of a hand long foreign but in a way all too familiar. My own hands unsure of where to go. So in a moment of confusion- into the bag of cooling donuts.

I stuffed my face when necessary with beignets to avoid frowning or smiling at compliments she said- to avoid talking out of place- to fill my mouth with something other than fumbling words and awkward sighs. I took my bites to avoid misspeaking, having to explain, to give myself time to eat instead of making advances at her tempting tongue that tasted of an alluring mixture: sugar-cigarettes-beer. I took bites hoping that it would sweeten my tongue for hers and in hopes that the movement of my chewing lips would attract her eyes.

The beignets served as a way to attract- deter- and ultimately: to eat. To fill stomachs swimming in beer and butterflies, and to soothe hunger pains only mostly stunted by aching hearts.

A night spent by the Mississippi reminiscing and also fully focused on the current moment- one that wouldn’t be made without the woman sitting next to me five years late, or the distraction on the bench next to us in a paper bag. We left that bench unsatisfied and wholly satisfied at the same time- with warm hearts, and tongues itching to say words better left unsaid at this point- but coffee still full and the bottom of a bag caked with sugar and a single bite-worth of dough. We left unable to finish something that started far too late but that won’t be over for a very long time. But by fate (rather than coincidence)- in two years, give or take, the clock will strike and we’ll find each other: seated side by side on a plane, turning the same corner, or visiting a mutual friend. We’ll be able to break bread over some sticky baklavah next to a school she builds in Turkey, or a fresh baguette next to my crappy studio in Paris, or possibly on that bench near the Mississippi over our Madeleine- the beignet.

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