Mark Twain, Beignets, New Orleans and Cook the Book

“New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.”
― Mark Twain

I may be cheating a bit here, but I wanted to continue my NOLA theme for Cook the Books.


Simone from briciole is hosting and chose Twain’s Feast by Andrew Beahrs for this round.

twain collage

As soon as we returned from our Spring Break trip, I reread the New Orleans chapter.

Twain’s early days in New Orleans begin with his arrival with little more than $9 in his pocket and an ambition to become a river boat pilot on the bustling Mississippi.  Beahrs continues to trace Twain’s later voyage, not as a pilot, but as a passenger down the river when river boats were becoming an antiquated form of transportation. Twain describes the Mississippi as “a wonderful book…which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice” (185-86).  I wonder if Twain viewed New Orleans in the same way, as a city with a wonderful story to unfold to people in tune enough to hear her secrets.  

I don’t think I would get too much of an argument by saying that New Orleans may be the most culinary city in the U.S.   (and maybe the world).  Beahrs concurs that New Orleans may have more traditional food than any other city but he focuses on some once popular seafood:

Whether you’re talking about Cajun or Creole food, you don’t often hear about sheepshead and croaker.  That’s probably in part because they get lost among the riches—New Orleans easily as more beloved traditional dishes than any other American city.   Barbecue shrimp, shrimp étouffée , beignets, calas, daube glacé, po’boys, muffalettas, trout meuniére, trout amandine, boiled crawfish, soft-shell crabs, red beans and rice, pain perdu, pecan pie, bananas Foster, bread pudding with whisky sauce… (191)

Beahrs gets “deep in the woods” with sheepshead and croaker, two forgotten forms of seafood that Twain would have eaten. Sheepsheads are ugly critters.


A toothy sheepshead (fisheries.vim.ed)

Croakers, on the other hand seem a bit daintier and, according to Beahrs can be fried whole.

Atlantic_Croaker (1)

Pretty croaker (

In Twain’s day, these fish were on even some of the finer menus in New Orleans and were even served at Antoine’s.  These “trash” fish fell out of favor and only recently are reappearing on menus because of the sustainable harvest movement.   Even though I am not a big seafood eater (though I developed an affinity for fried oysters on our recent trip), I was dying to seek out some sheepsheads to bake up or some croakers to fry crisp.   I really wish I had sought these out to try in NOLA but I was eating my fill of po’boys and oysters.   

Instead of funny looking fish, I still had beignets from Cafe du Monde in my head and I wanted to do a traditional New Orleans food.

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The original: Beignets from Cafe du Monde with a Cafe au Lait and chicory coffee.  I could not believe the amount of powdered sugar.   It was everywhere!

The Hubs wondered if I could make them.  Of course, I said.  I pulled Jambalaya, a New Orleans Junior League Cook Book, from the shelf as soon as we got home and tried to whip up a batch to oblige.

ever so slightly adapted from Jambalaya (Junior League of New Orleans)

1 pkg. dry yeast
1/2 c. warm water
1/2 c. half & half
1/2 c. egg, beaten
1 t. pure vanilla
2 T. canola oil
1/4 c. sugar
1 t. fine sea salt
pinch of nutmeg
3 c. flour
more canola oil for frying
powdered sugar for dusting

In the bowl of a stand mixer, dissolve yeast in warm water. Let set for five minutes.   In a smaller bowl, whisk together half & half, egg, vanilla, oil, sugar, salt, and nutmeg.   Add to yeast mixture and stir.   Add the dough hook and mix in flour, working in a fourth of the flour at a time.   Dough will be sticky.   When dough forms into a ball, place it on a heavily floured surface.  Cut dough into fourths and roll out 1/8 inch thick.   Cut each circle of dough into fourths.

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Drop beignets a few at a time into hot oil (370 degrees).  As beignets rise to the sruvace and puff, turn them over to brown other side.   Remove from oil and drain on paper towels.   Dust with powdered sugar (a little or a lot) and serve warm.

Yield:  16 – 24 beignets

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My version from Cafe du Eliot.

Mine weren’t quite as light as Cafe du Monde’s, but I think I rolled them out too thick.   The original recipe states that the unused dough could be refrigerated for up to one week.  I only fried up half the dough and froze the rest for another weekend’s breakfast.   I hope the dough freezes well.

I like to believe that Twain enjoyed some of these powdery sugar treats before one of his voyages up the Mississippi.

I enjoyed the book but I found that Beahrs sometimes wandered a bit off topic for me.   Maybe that was necessary as he rediscovered (or tried to rediscover) Twain’s favorites.   The process took him to the tall grass prairie to see booming prairie chickens, the Mississippi Delta, and New England cranberry bogs just to name a few places. Does he become that “freaky Twain guy” as his wife predicts at the beginning of his quest?   Perhaps he does,  but Beahrs is fulfilling a passion and is another author that is prodding us to think about sustainability, local eating, and the history of our American meals.

Join the group for the April/May selection:  Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America by Firoozeh Dumas (2003).     Rachel is hosting this memoir by an Iranian-born author who emigrated to southern California with her family in 1972.   These essays chronicle her cultural adjustments and embarrassing family issues.   There is lots of food and lots of laughter found here.   Posts are due on June 1.



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