Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Julia Moskin on New Orleans's Love Affair with Sugar: Don't Forget Bread Pudding!

I think Julia Moskin is probably right when she characterizes New Orleans as a city drenched in sugar, and when she attributes the city's love affair with sweet things to the sugar-plantation economy that brought it such wealth in the first half of the 19th century. My alma mater, Loyola University, came into being due to the riches the Jesuits gathered from operating their sugarcane plantations with slave labor. The money they brought to their coffers through those plantations also enabled them to buy prime real estate in the center of New Orleans that is now fabulously valuable.

Sugar, sugar everywhere, but as abbé Guillaume-Thomas François Raynal wrote in his Histoire des deux Indes (1770), 

Les tourments d'un peuple à qui nous devons nos délices ne vont jamais jusqu'à notre cœur.

Raynal was commenting specifically on the extensive sugarcane plantations of the French colonies in the West Indies, and on the massive human suffering entailed in the production of sugar by slave labor.  It struck him as . . . odd . . . that Parisians would weep real tears at the imaginary sufferings of characters on the stage, then retire after their plays to coffeehouses where they consumed pastries and coffee sweetened with sugar produced at the expense of human suffering, human lives, for which no tears were ever shed.

So, sugar, then, sugar and New Orleans: a pairing that touches me through my own family history, since my black-sheep ancestor Samuel Kerr Green went to Plaquemines Parish south of New Orleans in 1822, when his steamboat business in Nashville failed after said boat wrecked--to Plaquemines Parish, where he worked for a number of years as an overseer on sugarcane plantations owned by noted planters in that area, until he had amassed enough money to set himself up on his own plantation in Natchitoches Parish. The parish in which Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin is set . . . .

The history of New Orleans is, indeed, bound up in the history of sugar and its production by slaves, and my own family history is, as well, in its own way--which should serve as a reminder to me, I imagine, that I am every bit as susceptible as were French folks of the 18th century to enjoy my delicacies today while completely ignoring the human misery that brings those delicacies as affordable commodities to my household.

All of which underscores Moskin's point: you can't talk about sweets in New Orleans (or anything else in New Orleans, for that matter) without talking about history. Because Moskin recognizes the importance of history to the New Orleans = sugar equation, I have to admit I'm a little puzzled that she seems to think that Beulah Levy Ledner "invented" the decadently sweet doberge cake during the Great Depression, when that cake is so clearly an adaptation of the traditional Austro-Hungarian dobos torte--and when the pronunciation of "doberge" in New Orleans tells us quite plainly that New Orleanians have long understood that they're eating an adaptation of the Austro-Hungarian torte as they enjoy a doberge cake. An adaptation, not an invention . . . . 

That quibble aside, I think Moskin's article does an excellent job of surveying the wide range of traditional desserts and candies in New Orleans. It doesn't miss pralines, calas, sugar-dusted beignets, the outstanding ices and pastries of Brocato's (always enjoyable, if you can get past the plain rudeness of the folks who staff that venerable institution). She's right to point to significant restaurant desserts like Brennan's bananas Foster and griddled apple pie at Camellia Grill. And she's certainly on target as she focuses on the importance of king cakes to New Orleans at this time of year, though I think it needs to be pointed out that that particular dessert has been evolving in new directions in the past several decades.

When I first went to New Orleans as a student in 1968 (and in the many years in which my family vacationed there prior to 1968), I wouldn't have turned my hand over for a slice of king cake, dry and tasteless as it was then, in the traditional form baked by McKenzie's and other New Orleans bakeries before people began demanding cream-filled cakes, rich cakes iced with this and that sugary confection. The kind of king cakes Moskin now says people eat with verve on a daily basis during Carnival season in New Orleans, that is to say, whereas king cake tended to be eaten only at Carnival parties when I first arrived in New Orleans, and then, later, as a leftover breakfast treat with a cup of chicory-enriched café au lait.

The one dessert I'd have definitely included if I were writing an overview of New Orleans's love affair with sweets, and which Moskin overlooks, would be bread pudding. Because French bread is traditional with most New Orleans meals, and because it becomes stale quickly, bread pudding is a staple of New Orleans tables--a way to transform stale ends of baguettes into a glorious rich dessert.

Maybe Moskin missed bread pudding because it's as much a homestyle dish--as predictable as red beans and rice on Monday following Sunday's roast daube or panné meat--as it is a restaurant offering, though many New Orleans restaurants do feature bread pudding on their menus. But it should also be noted that we're talking something altogether different here than the stodgy old staple many Americans outside New Orleans know as bread pudding.

Bread pudding in New Orleans is bread pudding transmogrified. It's stale bread, eggs, butter, sugar, and cream elevated to transcendent new heights by the addition of grated coconut, raisins, pineapple or peaches, pecans, bourbon, and cinnamon and allspice, so that once you've had New Orleans-style bread pudding, you'll never want to go back to the Anglo-American version again.

And now that I've written that line: where are those portions of dry loaves of bread I tucked away in the freezer several weeks ago?

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