Big Easy brunch: Feasting on ‘second breakfast’ at New Orleans

New Orleans’s most notorious morning meal is also its most chaotic: daily starting early, under the green-and-white-striped awning on Decatur Street, visitors queue — sometimes by the dozens — for pillowy beignets blanketed in powdered sugar and café au lait in the 155-year-old Café du Monde. Those in the know jump the line and weave through the clusters of small, round tables, eyeing seated patrons, palms dusted with sugar, ready to pounce the minute they standnbsp;up.

However, the beignet crush shares little with the town’s farthest-reaching culinary heritage. For that, you will need to cross the road and head a block north to the corner of Decatur and Madison. Step in the French vanilla-coloured stucco, beyond the wood-topped stand-up pub, recovered by a Parisian bistro and sent over wholesale in 1856, which takes up the majority of the length of the narrow area. Keep walking through a door in the rear with a neon sign reading “dining room,” across a hallway the color of pea soup and lined with wooden shelves filled with local artifacts — and you will end up in the area where the restaurant brunch wasnbsp;functioned.

New Orleans is widely called the birthplace of such indulgences as cocktails, such as the Sazerac and the Hurricane; it is the town where Buddy Bolden riffed the first jazz notes. However, it’s a lesser-known actuality that this southern city is also where brunch — instant breakfast, as it was initially christened — wasnbsp;born.

Windowless and chairs only 30, the back room of Tujague’s looks almost unchanged from when Elizabeth Begue, a German-born immigrant, served the town’s earliest brunch back in 1867. “Here in this region, it was the only place that would serve you a meal prior to dinner,” Tujague’s general manager Jay Turney says of Dutrey’s Coffee Exchange, since the restaurant was originally called (it later became Begue’s Exchange, before Tujague’s took over in 1916). “Tujague’s was in a prime spot. It was right next to the current market, so they’d butchersfish and all of the freshnbsp;create.”

Tujague’s — pronounced Two Jacks — location gave it simple access to components, but what it basically provided was a captive, hungry client base: butchers who began his day at the crack of dawn, heading into work on simply a cup of coffee and a croissant. Begue’s own brother worked in the current market, and — after discovering how hungry he was by the end of his shift — started cooking seven-course “second breakfasts” for him and hisnbsp;coworkers.

Those brunches — replicated now at Tujague’s and other historical restaurants across the French Quarter and historic Garden District — bear little similarity to the breakfast-centric foods I lineup for on Sundays back in Toronto, where yoga pants and bed head are acceptable attire and the menu is a variety of breakfast selections for late risers. When I arrive for my 9 a.m. reservation at Brennan’s, a 71-year-old icon situated nearby, the tables surrounding mine are filled with dressed-up patrons sipping glasses of brandy milk punch and watermelon juice with sparkling wine, the menu containing such lunchy choices as gumbo and turtle soup, a local delicacy made with lettuce and sherry and, yes, turtlenbsp;beef.

Brennan’s concept is very similar to Begue’s authentic menu, which started with shrimp remoulade — yet another still-ubiquitous offering — and moved on to beef, braised with tomato and red-wine vinegar, herbs and, as this is New Orleans, spicy Creole mustard. The dish, among Begue’s most famous, honoured her Bavarian roots and has been prepared in accordance with a recipe that is used by the restaurant to this day (Tujague’s only introduced à-la-carte offerings about five decades ago, but the offerings remain remarkably similar to Begue’snbsp;originals).

“There is always French toast, there is always an artichoke or spinach dish, a sausage dish,” says Turney, of the normal NOLA brunch. “Brabant potatoes,” he says, naming another classic, potatoes cubes and fried with a rich butter sauce. “Eggs Sardou” — a Creole Eggs Benedict-style dish — “these are throwback dishes. If you see pancakes, it is going to be a spin on Bananas Foster. It is not likely to be just pancakes with maple syrup. You don’t see plenty of breakfast casserole dishes. You don’t see plenty of frittatas, you do not find plenty of omelettes. Should you see an omelette, it is a fish omelette or it has got to have some sort of sausage innbsp;i”

Booze, also, played a vital role, thanks mostly to Begue’s husband. “They were real advocates of French liqueurs. They attracted the grasshopper here, they brought whisky punch,” Turneynbsp;states.

In the Southern Food amp; Beverage Museum at Uptown — where brunch, incidentally, is a cheffy twist on classic Southern comfort food (think biscuits with crab-fat butter, melt-in-your-mouth pork cracklings and boudin burritos) by former Top Chef finalist Isaac Toups — creator Liz Williams claims that the proliferation of brunch tells a distinctively New Orleans story. “There is virtually nothing you can not learn about the town from its food,” she says.

“In these days, a great deal of people lived in rooming houses and boarding houses and there was not always board. So you’re eating at a restaurant because you had no heating and no way to feed yourself. In case you were a single individual, you would not have had a kitchen and you would not have had access to a kitchen. There was lots of street eating and a great deal of restaurant eating. I think that contributed a lot to the concept of brunch. And then the town became famous fornbsp;i”

However, the town’s nightlife — fuelled by jazz and cocktails bars — also mimicked the idea. “Whereas other areas were more likely to have church on Sunday, we had a very French attitude towards church, so it was not tough to bypass it,” Williams says. “People would go out late Saturday night and they would wake up needing brunch and a little hair of the dog, all the eye openers. We have never stinted on ournbsp;drinkin”

Now, imbibing remains a common thread, but as New Orleans’s culinary scene evolves, so does brunch. In Maypop’s dim sum brunch, it is head-cheese and blue-crab-soup dumplings and milk punch kicked up with Korean chili flakes; Lula Restaurant Distillery, in the Lower Garden District, serves up homemade fried pickles, boiled fish along with an epic vodka bar. In SoBou, in the W Hotel, my “eggs and legs” — southern-fried soft-shell crab benny — grew cold as I saw a middle-aged guy in a baseball cap, shorts and T-shirt perform the Charleston along with a barely dressed priest in the restaurant’s burlesque-themed brunch. While out in the Garden District in Cavan, my traveling companion and I ate hush puppies with honey butter and key lime pie among a bunch of elegantly dressed sailors in an equally elegant 19th-century mansion which was formerly a privatenbsp;residence.

Suffice it to say that by the time my Brennan’s reservation rolled about on my last morning in town, I was brunched — and boozed — outside. I skipped the preset menu and ordered a salad of heirloom corn and tomatoes along with the juice of the day. But my best efforts to resist proved useless when three different servers each told me that the Irish java — served using a spoonful of cinnamon — remains made just the way the first Mr. Brennan enjoyed it. Why fightnbsp;heritage?

The writer travelled as a guest of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Ace Hotel. They didn’t review or approve thisnbsp;post.


Should you go

Stay

Found in the up-and-coming Warehouse District — in walking distance from the French Quarter — Ace Hotel New Orleans offers ample neighborhood personality, great live music and two on-site restaurants, each of which servenbsp;brunch.

Rooms from $159 (U.S.), 600 Carondelet St.

Can

Southern Food amp; Beverage Museum: Housed in an old marketplace terminal, the 16,000-square-foot museum is devoted to the food and beverage of the American South, with a huge assortment of citizen-collected artifacts in addition to a cocktail museum, demonstration kitchen and on-sitenbsp;restaurant.

1504 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd..

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

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