The Roots of Rhythm: The Medieval Origins of the New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Beignet
Paper presented at the 2007 International Association of Culinary Professionals conference in New Orleans
New Orleans’ famous Café du Monde has an equally famous limited menu: chicory-laced coffee (served black or au lait) and beignets, gossamer pillows of fried yeasted dough buried under an avalanche of powdered sugar. This simple combination delights tourists and locals (who call them “doughnuts,” using the term in its non-cakey sense) in the never-ending revelry that marks New Orleans. Like so much of New Orleans’ culinary culture, the beignet is part of New Orleans’ French ancestry. Beignets are widely claimed to have been introduced to New Orleans in 1727 by a group of Ursuline nuns who founded an academy for girls in what was then New France.
Nuns are always good for origination myths (think of the nuns in New Spain who are popularly credited with inventing molé poblano for a visiting bishop in the late sixteenth century), so the culinary fakelore antennae should be on high alert. There may be yet-undiscovered beignet recipes hidden in early Louisiana manuscripts, but among the first beignet recipes published in New Orleans (under the name “doughnut”) is the one found in The Creole Cookbook, dating to 1885. The recipe is worth quoting because it may offer clues to the origins of beignets and their migration from the Old to the New World: