Ten Years: Beignets and Coffee and Stories

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Hurricane Katrina.  10 years. 

I was there. Did I ever tell you that? Well, not there…not trapped in the Superdome for hours on end and not stranded on a highway somewhere.  But, I was living there that August, a second year law student.  I was one of the displaced.

An evacuee.

A refugee.

It’s a story that I’ve told countless times, and despite the passage of time, the details don’t change. It’s a week that’s been seared in my memory, and with each year, and each retelling, it’s like watching a grainy black and white movie in my head.  It was ten years ago, but it might have been yesterday.

Every story is different.  So sit back with a cafe au lait while I tell you mine.

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We had just finished our first week of our second year of law school.  Reunions everywhere; each of us swapping stories of summers spend backpacking abroad, summer jobs, trips back home. Excited for what year two would bring, and glad that somehow we managed to survive year one.

As that week closed, I remember talking to mom and she warned me that a hurricane was coming, and that I’d probably have to leave town. It was a big one, and that I needed to get out. Worry already brewing in the back of my mind, I set off that Friday night to see Forty-Year Old Virgin with a car full of friends.

Me: “Hey. Guys. There’s a hurricane coming. I think we might have to leave.”

Them: “No…it’s going to miss us.”

Despite the brush, I couldn’t adapt their attitude of nonchalance.  I think that was a huge part of the problem-New Orleans had heard it all before, and in recent memory, had gotten lucky every time. Heck, the previous year we all got out of dodge for Hurricane Ivan, and saw little more than a few raindrops.

But.. I grew up in Florida. We don’t mess with hurricanes because they don’t miss us (I write as Florida currently prepares for Hurricane Erica…).  Florida doesn’t get lucky.  I spent Andrew hunkered down in our Miami hallway surrounded by mattresses and couch cushions, my ten year old self cringing as our patio screen crashed down outside. I remember coming home from school early for Hurricane Hugo, and mom readying the freezer with gallons of water.

Nope, I was not sticking around.

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That night after the movie, I filled my car with gas, and packed my things…the valuables:  Friends: Seasons 1-10, photo albums, letterman jacket, and Harry Potter books. The essentials, obviously.  I went to bed with a knot in my stomach and spent the next day just waiting.  Waiting for them to cancel school, waiting for the mandatory evacuation order, waiting for my friends to decided who was going where.

At around 6 pm-ish, Lettuce and I decided to take the road less traveled and go east to Atlanta, to Auntie Betty’s house. Most went west, but fearing my SUV would run out of gas in the traffic jam heading to Houston, I decided to go the other way, even though Katrina could still turn that way. Lettuce came with in her own car and the two of us drove caravan-style to Atlanta, taking the counterflowing I-10W. 

It was sort of a fun road trip.   After a few hours, we stopped for coffee late into the night, and each buying the most calorie-fat-and-sugar-laden drinks we could stomach.  Initially high on sugar, eventually we both crashed and drove in weary silence until we finally got to Kennesaw. I think it was around 2 AM, and of course Auntie Betty greeted us with a pot of spaghetti. Of course.

Then, like everyone else, we watched in horror the news coverage that Monday.  The streets once so familiar looked foreign, like the war torn countries across the globe, covered in water and sadness. 

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What next?

Since it was clear we weren’t heading home, Lettuce and I had initially figured maybe we’d stay in Atlanta and try and secure law jobs.  But, first things first…we needed stuff.

The funny thing about leaving home in a bum rush is that packing is not first priority.  As such, we really had nothing…but Harry Potter books and Friends DVDs.  We walked into Old Navy and the conversation went something like this:

“Pajamas. Do you have pajamas?”

“No.  We should get those. Oh, and gym clothes. And lounge clothes”

“Underwear?  Tank tops?”

“Clothes for school?  Socks.”

And so it goes. Rather than being overjoyed at the prospect of shopping until we dropped, we instead found ourselves frozen and overwhelmed.  We literally needed everything.

Having secured some sort of wardrobe, we started hatching job plans.  Then, through sheer luck, Lettuce found on message boards that schools across the country were accepting students from Tulane and Loyola. Relieved, we jumped to the phone, getting on list after list as schools decided what to do. The first call we got back was from Georgetown.

“If you can get here by Monday, we have a spot for you.”

Hallelujah! D.C. bound!

Lettuce and I were in. Now, to get Yam, our third Musketeer, on the same page.

Yam evacuated NOLA for her hometown in Layfayette with nothing more than gym shorts and flip flops.  I kid you not.  After some frantic phone calls, she was coming to DC, too.

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That decision out of the way, we had a gazillion more. Where we were going to live? Where were we going to stay until we found some place to live?  When do we register for classes?

Thankfully, Lettuce knew Garbanzo, and Garbanzo had a friend who just happened to be living in a large house akin to “Real World, D.C.” and we had a place to stay for the weekend.  First things first.

Driving into DC that Friday night…our excitement was palpable.  The cloudless blue sky framed the Washington Monument as we made our way to 18th and P and arrived at a house where college football festivities, including flip cup were in full swing.   Truthfully, it may have been the best weekend of the semester, before the reality of the past week sank in and before the reality of back-to- school happened. For that weekend, we were footloose and fancy free with not a care in the world and that excitement that comes with moving to a shiny new city, albeit a temporary one.

We reunited with Yam on Saturday night, and Monday we were back to school. Monday, being Labor Day. Yes, the folks at Georgetown spent their Labor Day getting us refugees, I think 18 total between Loyola and Tulane, settled and ready to start the new school year. Books, meal cards…even massages…it was the best welcome we could have hoped for. They even hooked us up with housing, and Yam and I spent the next 3 months on the third floor of the house of some empty nesters in Friendship Heights, while Lettuce found a friends’ couch on which to surf.

As we settled into D.C. life, we never quite got into a groove.  The three of us look back on that semester and grimace. Discombobulation plagued us, as well as few extra pounds, mild depression, and bad hair decisions.   But we survived it.  We celebrated surviving that semester with our first trip to Vegas.

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After the semester was over, Lettuce and I went back to NOLA. Yam had secured a summer job in D.C. and it made sense for her to see the year out, and she has been there ever since. 

I’m not sure what drew me back.  I’ve never had any sort of love or strong affinity towards NOLA. It’s not my soul-mate-city.  Still today, I can’t figure it.  Must have been the beignets. 

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And that brings me to today’s dish and the end of my story. If you’re still reading, thanks for sticking around! I promise this recipe is worth it.   

One of first things I can remember from my time in New Orleans, and one of the last on my way out almost four years later, is the beignets from Café due Monde. Mom and I went down in August to find me an apartment and I can remember feeling absolutely miserable, sweat dripping for every orifice, waiting in the crammed little café for “some powdered sugar donuts and coffee.” Oh, but they’re so much more than that.  And totally worth any sweaty discomfort.

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And on the 10 year anniversary of Katrina, the perfect commemoration.

Now, I don’t fry things (and you know that), but these are special, and today is a special day. Plus, beignets are not baked. That’s just not how it’s done. 

The dough is really straight forward. Easier than those silly paczkis.

Just the basics: Flour*, sugar, eggs, yeast and just a bit of butter.  And milk!  Don’t forget the milk!

Rise. Knead. Rise. Fry.  

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Fry. Sugar Shower!

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Serve with a café au lait, made with the whole milk (YES. DO IT.) and a bit of chicory. 

Enjoy!

Beignets
Yields 12
Traditional, New Orleans' style fritters
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Total Time
3 hr
Total Time
3 hr
Ingredients
  1. 6 ounces warm water
  2. 3/4 tsp active dry yeast
  3. 2 TB sugar
  4. 1 large egg, beaten
  5. 1 TB unsalted butter, melted
  6. 1/4 cup 2% milk
  7. 2 cups all-purpose flour
  8. 2 tsp vital wheat gluten* (if you use 2 cups of bread flour rather than all-purpose, omit this)
  9. 1/4 tsp salt
  10. canola oil for frying
  11. 2 cups powdered sugar, more or less
Instructions
  1. In measuring cup, whisk together warm water, sugar, and yeast. Allow to sit and rest for 10 minutes until frothy. (I liked to let it jive in the microwave)
  2. In a small bowl, whisk together egg, butter, and milk. Set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. Add the yeast mixture, and egg mixture and stir with a wooden spoon to combine.
  4. Use a wooden spoon (or the dough hook on your mixer, like I did) to work and knead the dough together for about 10 minutes. Remove from the bowl and place on a lightly floured work surface and gently knead for 5 minutes.
  5. Lightly grease the large bowl with a bit of oil. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rest and rise for 1 1/2 to 2 hours or until doubled in size. I let this jive in the oven.
  6. Towards the end of the rising time, place about 2 inches of canola oil in a large, heavy-bottom pan. Insert a fry or candy thermometer and place over medium heat. Heat the oil to 350 degrees F. Get the powdered sugar ready in a large bowl.
  7. Dump the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and gently knead for 5 minutes or until smooth. Use a rolling pin to roll the dough out into a 1/2-inch thick rectangle. Use a pizza sliver to slice the dough into 2-inch squares.
  8. Add 2 or 3 dough squares into the frying oil. While the oil temp will drop, that's fine. Just make sure you bring it back to 350F before frying more.
  9. Allow the dough to fry for 1 minute on each side, or until a beautiful golden brown. Immediately remove from the fryer and toss in the powdered sugar to coat. Serve immediately fresh from the powdered sugar bath.
  10. Return the oil to 350 degrees F and continue frying until all of the dough.
Adapted from Joy the Baker
Adapted from Joy the Baker
The Hungary Buddha Eats the World http://thehungarybuddha.com/

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*The recipe I adapted from Joy the Baker used bread flour. I didn’t want to buy a WHOLE BAG of bread flour, so I bought a few tablespoons of wheat gluten instead. If you have bread flour, just rock with that.

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This was my house when I lived in NOLA. The Witches’ House. Didn’t ask, but I’m pretty sure it was haunted.

NOLA pictures courtesy of Lettuce and Guava.  Thanks!

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4 thoughts on “Ten Years: Beignets and Coffee and Stories”

  • I didn’t know that, what a great story….like great but not great….but a fun adventure in DC.

    I’m not sure I ever told you I did volunteer work with UofG in Louisiana and Mississippi for 5 years (a week at a time for 5 years) after Katrina. Relief at first then helping in affected communities. Greatest experience I’ve ever had.

    Beautiful, amazing, resilient people. So kind and thankful.

    And guuuuurl, Cafe du Monde is the best. Actually, I take it back, kinda. I adore the beignets but am not a fan of chicory coffee. Better iced than hot. Noms.

    • I agree that the people are all that you said and I’m sure very appreciative it’s amazing that you went down five years in a row- that’s dedication. It just wasn’t a great place to live (for me), though I recognize why people go visit.

      The chicory coffee grew on me. I didn’t drink coffee at all at that point, and the 1/2 cream did it for me! Agree that iced is nice!

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