reporting from new orleans – how beignets once made me a winner


Once again, flyingnorthblog is on the move.  Sometimes I wake up from a quick nap on an airplane, the memories of hundreds of flights buzzing around my head, and for a moment I won’t remember exactly where it is I am going.  As is an annual tradition, now for more than twenty years, I make a pilgrimage to New Orleans, the birthplace of Jazz, the exposed body part,  and the five-for-one drink special.

As the planes lined up at Newark airport, I basked in my airport-gods-given fortune.  Apparently, they were over my mocking them on a past trip from Sofia, Bulgaria to Warsaw, Poland.  I had hit the travel trifecta: I had a window seat but there was no one sitting next to me, I managed at the last minute to score a latte before boarding, and when I looked in the seat pocket in front of me, there was a new copy of National Geographic magazine, with articles about the world’s population reaching seven billion, Timbuktu in Mali, and Cahokia, at its height in the 13th century a Native American city of 15,000 located in southeastern Illinois.  I had everything I needed.

I’ve been visiting New Orleans since just after high school, usually during the summer months when the weather is disgusting but the hotel rates are cheap.  Just give me a hot summer day and a pool and I’ll be OK as long as the speedo still fits.  The city is quite different pre- and post-Katrina, the marked differences afterwards being the population decline, the change in the demographics of the population, and the increase in the price of everything.  Still, New Orleans is a great place to visit for a few days, participate in the debauchery in one way or another, and then sleep on the flight home.

There is nothing like a beignet.  Nothing more to be said there, except that  beignets once made me a winner.  A few years back, a very dear friend decided to have a contest – the First Annual Great American Bake Off – organized to help liven up our purgatory years living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side [that’s how much we liked that neighborhood].  As I don’t bake, or even cook much for that matter, I had to figure out a way to impress the judges and rise to the top of the heap like a well-made soufflé.  The only thing I was sure about was that I could deep fry something, and having had just traveled to New Orleans, I thought – why not – beignets!

For those of you who don’t know, beignets are fried dough sprinkled with powdered sugar.  This I could handle.  So, the evening of the bake-off, all of the participants showed up with our goods in hand, while the panel of judges was sequestered.  The host, a buxom Wagnerian soprano with a knack for fabulous baked goods, then numbered each entry, so that the judges would not know who made what, but could vote on what they liked the best.

There was very stiff competition, including various cakes, some pies, and potato chip cookies, a decidedly white trash recipe that, like Bill Clinton made his way to the White House, had made its way to the event from the likes of a small town in Arkansas.  In order to further dazzle the judges, I made a trés français display for the beignets, including little French flags.

In the end, I won, and controversy ensued.  Since beignets are fried and this was a “bake-off,” some of the contestants cried foul.  I told them that they could try to beat me at the second annual event.  Fortunately for me, there was never a second annual event, so to this day I am the reigning champion of the Great American Bake Off.

And I have New Orleans and its beignets to thank for that.