The first time I had a beignet is probably, for many people, they first time they’ve ever had a beignet–in New Orleans. I ate my first one (and second and third one…) at the legendary Cafe du Monde in the historic French district, and it was the only reputable restaurant establishment I’ve ever been in that can get away with (no, relish in!) having a healthy layer of sticky powdered sugar on the floor and it being absolutely no problem at all. As for the beignet itself, I loved the soft, chewy insides and the fried, doughnut-like crispy outsides, the way the line cooks dusted each one with a light snow of confectioner’s sugar as it went down the assembly line and the way the sugar fell off the top and pooled underneath the beignet, turning into a viscous, sticky liquid. All the beignets at Cafe de Monde are the exact same–palm-sized fried dough balls with the sugar on top.
I didn’t revisit the beignet until a recent trip to Mobile, Alabama, a Southern city two hours from New Orleans with its own Mardi Gras (many claim the first Mardi Gras!) and its own take on the French beignet. There, I had the chance to not only reacquaint myself with that beautiful ball of dough, but also to try a bunch of different kinds of beignets. Up until this point, I’d thought all beignets, the sweet, sugary things they are, were the same. I learned in Mobile that they do beignets a little differently–just a little more creatively–here.
We visited a place called Panini Pete’s on Dauphin Street in downtown Mobile before we hit the Mardi Gras parades for the day. On this particular morning, we had plans to see Joe Cain’s wailing widows performance and parade, an annual event put on by a solemn, super-secret society who all dress in black (even down to the hats and gloves), wail for the passing of their beloved Joe Cain on the steps of his original home, and march down the streets in mourning.
Because we didn’t know when the parade would be over or where we’d be having lunch, we (the small group of American, British, and Irish journalists I was traveling with) just decided to order a bunch of baskets of beignets (you can buy a whole dozen for $8.99) and share them around the table.
We tasted them all: We started with the banana nut beignet, a kind of panini-style pressed beignet topped with freshly-cut banana slices, candied walnuts, and maple syrup. Because I can’t stand bananas (I know, I know), I shied away from this one, but well, I heard from the rest of the table that they were fabulous. After that, we tried the beignet chicken sliders (what the eponymous Pete calls his response to the chicken and waffle fad), in which two beignets are stuffed with sliced chicken and pressed, topped with powdered sugar and maple syrup, and then served as a sandwich. We also sampled the beignet bacon, egg, and cheese sliders, a commingling of everything you’d imagine in a typical American breakfast sandwich, simply served, instead, on beignets and topped with powdered sugar and syrup. And because it was Mardi Gras, we also got to try the very limited-edition King’s Cake beignets, a special dessert beignet stuffed with cream cheese and drizzled with a sweet royal purple icing and powdered sugar.
After trying a few of the different beignet flavors, I asked my fellow traveling companions if anyone actually knew anything substantial about the history of the beignet. For one thing, I was wondering: Who first popularized it? What was the difference between a beignet and a doughnut? Why powdered sugar? Nobody really knew–all we knew was that the name sounded French and that it’s popular in American gulf cities like, of course, New Orleans and Mobile.
Over the course of the week (people in Mobile are very eager to tell you about their relationship with beignets!), I learned that beignets actually trace back to ancient Greece; from as long ago as the 5th century, the Greeks were known to fry lots of their food (including balls of dough) in olive oil, which, being in the Mediterranean, was a relatively readily-available item. They were brought to the gulf region of the Southern United States in the 18th century by the French colonists, and were quickly adopted into Creole cuisine. The basic recipe is super simple: take some warm water, sugar, evaporated milk, flour, shortening, oil, and powdered sugar, and you’ve got yourself a beignet.
In other words, you’ve got yourself a pretty awesome food, indeed.
Article and photographs by Kristin Winet. A special thanks to Verna Gates and the Alabama Tourism Department for sponsoring her trip and introducing her to Mobile!