New Orleans is known for producing rock star chefs in the style of Emeril Lagasse and John Besh, but the original rock star chef of the Crescent City was a 19th-century German woman, Elizabeth Kettenring Bégué, who invented the meal we all now call brunch.
Elizabeth was just 22 years old in 1853 when she traveled from Germany to New Orleans to join her brother, who worked as a butcher in the French Market. She married one of her brother’s friends, Louis Dutriel, who owned a coffee shop across the street from the market, where she began to serve her brothers and his butcher friends a big late-morning meal.
After Dutriel’s death, this thoroughly modern woman married the bartender, Hippolyte Bégué, a man eight years her junior. They changed the restaurant’s name to Bégué’s and her multi-course, three-hour meals became a favorite with tourists who began to edge out the butchers who had previously dominated the dining room.
Post-Civil War New Orleans was a boomtown by the time the Cotton Exposition, a World’s Fair of sorts, opened in 1884. Breakfast at Bégué’s became the No. 1 tourist attraction. Visitors wrote months in advance for reservations, and the Bégués had one of the first telephones in the city installed to try to keep up with travelers’ requests.
Pelican discovers it owns a treasure
In 1900, the Southern Pacific Railroad persuaded her to share her recipes and published “Madame Bégué’s Creole Cookery.” The book was originally intended as a tourist guide as cookbooks were relatively rare at that time. It remained in print until 1937, long after her death in 1906.
Madame Bégué’s fame and her place in culinary history have faded over time. Tujague’s Restaurant, a former competitor, moved into the Bégué’s space across from New Orleans French Market in 1914 and still operates there today. The Pelican Publishing Co. owned the rights to “Madame Bégué’s Creole Cookery,” but even they had forgotten about her book until Zelda Magazine editor Don Spiro contacted them for permission to use a recipe from her book. When Pelican executives realized what a precious treasure they owned, they decided to republish it this fall.
I agreed to write a foreword for the re-edition, but once I read the recipes, which included instructions like “clean a nice, young chicken,” it became clear to me that without a 21st-century redo, Bégué’s book would be nothing more than a novelty. Pelican Publishing agreed to follow her original recipes with updated versions in the re-issue so that today’s home cooks could easily replicate her classics.
Cooking classes from 19th century, beyond brunch
That is how I came to spend the summer taking cooking classes from a 19th-century ghost. Usually, I am the cooking teacher, but under Madame’s tutelage, I threw many culinary preconceptions out of the kitchen window and followed her directions. I learned to make stuffed eggs without the usual addition of mayonnaise and pickle relish. Instead, softened butter bound the stuffing and blanched carrot provided a sweet and colorful accent.
Madame taught me to parboil “shrimps” before adding them to gumbo and jambalaya — something totally counterintuitive to any 21st-century chef. This was likely a food safety step for her, intended to prolong freshness before refrigeration. Previously, my greatest concern was to keep shrimp from becoming mushy, the texture I relate with overcooking. The shrimp in Madame’s recipes retained a firm, toothsome texture and were quite pleasing.
Her German heritage was revealed by the lard, which she used in almost every recipe. Sometimes I substituted butter, sometimes vegetable oil. Again and again, Madame surprised me when dishes I’ve cooked my entire life became new through her methodology.
Thank you, Madame. The cooking classes were great fun and I learned so much. Welcome to the 21st century!
Photo: Creole chicken, red beans and rice and gumbo like Madame Bégué would serve at brunch. Credit: StockFood