Through the early 20th century, Louisiana’s Catholic Creoles who attended Christmas Eve midnight Mass typically went home afterward for a comparatively light, but festive meal called Réveillon. And on New Year’s Eve, many folks celebrated an even more elaborate version of the gastronomic custom.
The French word réveillon stems from the verb réveiller, meaning to wake up or revive, and the tradition of holding this late-night meal had followed migrating French to Canada and Louisiana.
In France, Le Réveillon had begun as the symbolic awakening after Christ’s birth, and was at first meant to quell appetites after a day of fasting. Over the centuries, however, what began as a simple breakfast of biscuits, tourtières (meat pies) and a hot drink evolved into a lavish and elaborate meal that, in today’s France, is the culinary highlight of the French Christmas calendar.
When Christmas Réveillon was common in Louisiana, it was strictly a family affair, with Southern writer Harnett T. Kane noting that the event revolved around grandmothers and grandfathers, who were given “the best chairs, the finest view, the first cake, the first kiss, the first bow from Jean and Jeanne.”
Beforehand, a typical cook spent hours “steaming, pounding, broiling, marinating, seasoning, tasting and retasting.”
On the table, a country Réveillon might feature gumbo or stew, while in grander city homes, the meal could be more opulent and merit the appearance of a family’s finest china and silver.
In New Orleans, dishes often included eggs, raisin breads, French loaves, souffles, French toast, grits and grillades (gree-YAHDZ, pounded beef), along with eggnog and fruit dishes. Wine and cordials, of course, were common, as was daube glacée (dobe glah-SAY), a highly seasoned mold of jellied meat that Kane claims “nobody in New Orleans (was) known to refuse the offer of a second or even a third slice.”
Desserts could be boozy wine or rum-soaked cakes filled with jelly and topped with whipped cream. Then there were elaborate molded confections, along with the towering French croquembouche, made of balls of pastry webbed together with caramel, and the traditional bûche de Noël, a rolled sponge cake frosted with chocolate and decorated to look like a yule log.
Way into the wee hours of morning, and with the anticipated arrival of Papa Noel, the celebration would end with brandy and strong coffee.
The second holiday Réveillon came on New Year’s Eve, and included friends. Untethered to religious ritual, this gathering was more sumptuous, usually with a seated meal that could include Champagne, foie gras, myriad oyster dishes, truffle-stuffed turkey, glazed fruits and decorative meringues.
For some local country families, the Réveillon tradition never died, but in New Orleans it faded out around 1940.
In the mid-1980s, however, French Quarter Festivals Inc. revived the tradition by organizing some of the finest restaurants in Orleans, Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes and offering elegant Réveillon meals at the standard dinner hour throughout December.
With menus reviewed for historical accuracy, participating restaurants not only attract tourists, but also bring in a strong local following. So, although Réveillon lingers in our state’s rural areas and is extremely strong in France, a relatively hassle-free version of the custom is also alive and well in New Orleans, and even a few places in Baton Rouge and Lafayette.
Note: During the month of December, more than 45 of the New Orleans-area’s top restaurants are offering prix-fixe Réveillon dinners ranging in price from $34 to $90.
Menus fall into two categories: Réveillon Traditional, with food inspired by the original Creoles, and Réveillon Contemporary, with more modern-day menus using techniques and products that weren’t typically available to early Creoles.
For a list of participating restaurants, call (504) 522-5730, email email@example.com, or check out the French Quarter Festival Inc. website at fqfi.org.
Saint Street Inn on Brook Avenue in Lafayette will be offering a Réveillon menu. In Baton Rouge, Maison LaCour on North Harrell’s Ferry Road is offering Réveillon menus Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, and Juban’s on Perkins Road features a Réveillon menu throughout December.
Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is a member of the Newcomb College Culinary History Writers Group and the author of LSU Press’s title “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can contact her through www.cynthianobles.com.
Sources: Laborde, Peggy Scott and John Magill, Christmas in New Orleans (Pelican, 2009); Kane, Harnett T., The Southern Christmas Book (McKay, 1958); www.museevirtuel-virtualmuseum.ca/edu; and special thanks to Maureen Detweiler of New Orleans.