By Michael Cooper
Le Réveillon dinner held in the evenings preceding Christmas Day and New Year’s Day is a long tradition in New Orleans dating back to the early 1800s. The city’s earliest inhabitants celebrated the start of Christmas with a big family meal when they returned home from midnight mass. Its name derives from the word réveil (meaning “waking”), because participation involves staying awake until midnight and beyond.
Two o’clock in the morning may be an odd time to start a feast consisting of chicken and oyster gumbo, game pies, soups, souffles, lavish desserts, brandy and coffee, but this is how it is done.
There are versions of Réveillon dinners in Quebec and the traditional foods with hearty rural French cooking have been adapted to local Christmas culinary traditions.
Tourtières are a Quebec Christmas tradition like none other. Originally, they were a pie made out of the meat of the tourtes, or passenger pigeon. Due to over hunting, partly but not exclusively for use in pies, the tourtes became extinct in 1914, and tourtière now generally refers to a meat-filled pie. As well, ham with maple syrup, maple baked beans, lard and pork scraps on toast, liver pâté and pouding chômeur made from a series of very basic ingredients of sugar, flour, cream and stale bread are also a Québec Réveillon dinner tradition.
New Year’s Day Tradition
People in Louisiana think eating black-eyed peas, greens, and cornbread on New Year’s Day will bring them prosperity, luck and wealth in the new year. This tradition dates back to the end of the Civil War when Union soldiers left behind Southern crops of black-eyed peas and greens because they considered these foods for animals. These simple ingredients were staples in the households and helped many families prevent starvation during difficult years.
Each ingredient is said to hold significance and meaning. Black-eyed peas represent coins, collard, turnip or mustard greens represent dollar bills, and cornbread represents gold.
Holiday traditions I experienced as a child growing up in New Orleans.
My grandparents and mother were strict French Catholics, so we always went to midnight mass on Christmas Eve then come home to have gumbo and because I had four sisters there was always lots of baked desserts.
My grandfather Emile Jerome Blanchard owned a store on Magazine St. in New Orleans where he imported and sold coffee. He would roast and grind the beans for his customers and even sold it out of a horse drawn wagon in the Garden District before I was born. We always knew when he came to visit because you could always smell fresh roasted coffee and his pipe, which he always smoked. The adults always had a Creole coffee drink called Café Brulot Diabolique on Christmas and New Year’s Eve and I always remember it because they would light it on fire and then drink it hot with flames.
Here is the New Orleans Creole coffee drink that was first created back in the 1880s. My grandfather was born December 7, 1881 and I am sure his parents celebrated the Réveillon Dinner at Christmas and probably also drank Café Brulot Diabolique!
Café Brulot Diabolique (Devilishly Burned Coffee – Religion and the devil are big in New Orleans)
2 sticks cinnamon
8 whole cloves
peel of 1 lemon
1 ½ tablespoons sugar
3 oz. brandy
3 cups strong black coffee
Put the cinnamon, cloves, lemon peel, sugar and brandy in a fireproof bowl and heat on open flame. When the brandy is hot, but not boiling, bring the bowl to the table and ignite with match. Use a ladle to stir and pour the liquid around the bowl for 2 minutes. Pour the hot coffee into the flaming brandy and ladle the mixture into demitasse cups. Enjoy!