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Photo: Paul Broussard

Coffee Kept the French Quarter Up All Night

The counter filled with dignitaries and debutantes, farmers and fishermen.

Each came with money in hand for a powdered beignet and a caffeine buzz. Those great social equalizers.

There, over cups of coffee and sticky fingers, class distinction fell away. The hierarchy was flattened. You either liked that combination of bitter and sweet or you didn’t. That simple.

NOLA’s coffee culture has been brewing for centuries. In the 1700s, beans came through its ports from Cuba and the Caribbean, Latin America. By the early 18th century, New Orleanians had developed a taste for the stuff. Coffee stalls crowded the halls of the French Market.

“Cafe noir! Cafe au lait!”

Rose Nicaud, a freed slave, was known to attract customers by calling out her famous brews. “Like the benediction that follows after prayer,” one customer described her coffee. It was a religious rite, transcendental. People were hooked.

In 1862, Fred Koeniger joined the ranks of the caffeine peddlers that came before him. He opened his own stall in the French Market. Café du Monde.

He started small. Coffee only. The drink lacked a suitable counterpoint. He would find it in the beignet.

The exact date these fritters were introduced to du Monde’s menu is unknown. There’s some debate as to how beignets even got to New Orleans in the first place.

The beignet would put Café du Monde on the map

and keep it there for 155 years and counting.

Whatever its provenance, one thing is certain: the beignet would put Café du Monde on the map and keep it there for 155 years and counting.

Today, on the corner of Jackson Square, cooks in white smocks turn out beignets at a breakneck speed. Coffee brews on nearby counters.

In the kitchen, flour covers everything. Hands, fingers. elbows. Pants, the tops of shoes. Powdered sugar gathers in drifts on the floor, a daily snowstorm, no matter the season.

 

Photo by: Zach Smith
Photo by: Zach Smith

Rectangles of dough bob like boats on a sea of cottonseed oil, until they’re fished out of baskets, buried in white, sent out by waiters in starched shirts and black bow ties. Most are served with café au lait, nearly white and laced with chicory.

Café du Monde is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Customers from all over come to eat and drink at wobbling tables, under a green and white awning. There, they are joined, however briefly, in the sweetest of communions. Same as it ever was.

Visit New Orleans and start your story with #OneTimeInNOLA.

Jenny is a writer of culture both high and low. Her work has appeared in V Magazine, Lenny Letter, and TIME, to name a few. She first fell in love with New Orleans over buttermilk biscuits and strawberry preserves. She’s been a NOLA regular ever since.

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