"Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” No matter the depths of their devotion, surely the French Creoles of 19th-century New Orleans squirmed on the hard wooden pews in anticipation of the words that would free them to burst through the doors of St. Louis Cathedral and into the chill air of Jackson Square in the wee hours on Christmas morning. That this devout, drama-loving bunch had been fasting since the previous midnight to ready themselves to receive Holy Communion at midnight Mass would have put a bit of zippity do-da in their steps as they rushed through the streets in their holiday finery to get home to the lavish holiday feasts upon which they would sup with their families.

The sharing of an opulent meal following the holiday Mass on Christmas Eve and again on New Year’s Eve (the feast day of the French Saint Sylvestre) was a custom inherited by Louisiana’s Creoles from their European ancestors. Often described as “meals fit for a trip to heaven,” only the most exceptional or luxurious foods would suffice for these gustatory gatherings. While their European brethren broke their fasts on escargots, foie gras and turkey stuffed with chestnuts, the south Louisiana celebrant would have enjoyed a regionally adapted menu of oyster stew or turtle soup; lofty soufflés; rich puddings and custards; cold beef daube glace; smothered medallions of pork or veal; and fragrant roast game, perhaps served in a savory pie. Copious amounts of wine, brandy and cordials would have loosened things up for participants on either side of the pond and candied fruits and fanciful desserts such as bûche de Noël or croquembouche would have completed the meal and sent the devout tottering off to bed stuffed and satiated, probably as the sun came up.

These holiday feasts, known as Reveillons, take their name from the French réveil, which means “awakening” and are so named because participants would have partaken of them as invigorating refreshment after a fast and in so doing would’ve been required to remain awake during uncommon hours. The celebratory 12-course dinners’ early 20th-century demise can, no doubt, be attributed in part to an entirely different, though not unrelated, sort of awakening: The one to which eager children began to subject their tired, Reveillon-ravaged parents with the arrival of sunrise on Christmas morning as American holiday practices overtook the old Creole traditions. By the 1930s, the French Creole tradition of le Reveillon was all but forgotten and New Orleans slid that much closer to becoming just another “American” city.

The Resurrection of Reveillon
Kingfish chef Greg Sonnier holds two of his four course Reveillon dinner

By the 1980s, the city’s regretful slide into homogeneity with the rest of America had ceased and it was generally acknowledged that the key to New Orleans’ future prosperity lie in the embrace of its past. In ’88, French Quarter Festivals, Inc., (FQFI) a nonprofit created to market the historic district to locals, resurrected and evolved the old Creole custom of lavish holiday dinners when it proposed to area restaurants that they offer prix fixe, multi-course “Reveillon” dinner menus during conventional dining hours throughout the holiday season to boost patronage during the historically slow tourism season. What began as a family tradition enjoyed in the home would now be a celebration of fine food available to anyone for the asking.

As was required, the original restaurant participants offered menus that honored the old culinary traditions to one degree or another. Oyster, game and lamb dishes were commonplace and beef daube glace, a relic not found any other time of year, was as reliably present as eggnog and bread pudding.

Marci Schramm, executive director of FQFI, says that a committee including chefs, historians and a culinary journalist was charged with approving the many menus submitted for consideration in the heavily promoted Reveillon program. “We have always been picky about this,” Schramm says. “It’s a big commitment for a restaurant: The menu must be luxurious, special. Until last year we also wanted the menus to be traditional. That became a problem.”

As the popularity of the Reveillon dinner program grew, many chefs increasingly found the required association with tradition to be confining. “So many of them wanted to experiment with foams, pearls, dusts, artisan ingredients – all those things that make their jobs exciting,” Schramm says. “Last year we relented and the response was tremendous, the creativity amazing. It’s pretty exciting.”

Whether contemporary or traditional, Schramm says she’s consistently impressed by the annual Reveillon menu at Commander’s Palace. This year chef Tory McPhail’s six-course contemporary menu ($90) is tricked out with luxuries such as smoked pompano and caviar canapés; a cream soup of ham, brie, parsnips and pears; pannéed flounder, rabbit and foie gras pot pie; game bird cassoulet; and fig and white chocolate torte. A festive Mr. Bingle cocktail rounds out the package. “The details here,” Schramm says, “are astounding. They take a concept that’s so traditional, old school and present it in a fresh, unique way.”

A Menu of PlacesThe Resurrection of Reveillon

“Christmas New Orleans Style,” the citywide holiday celebration of which the Reveillon dinners are a cornerstone, has become popular with tourists who increasingly plan annual getaways to take advantage of bargain “Papa Noel” rates on swanky hotel rooms, several days of Reveillon menu surfing and specialty holiday shopping. Many locals embrace the Reveillon menus as an opportunity to enjoy lavish meals throughout the season at some of the city’s finest restaurants at prices that wouldn’t be possible if ordering à la carte from their regular menus. For example, Brigtsen’s traditional four-course menu at his eponymous Riverbend area restaurant is a bargain at $48 with offerings of oyster chowder with bacon and fennel; sea scallops with acorn squash purée and local citrus marmalade; roasted duck with dirty rice and tart cherries; and eggnog créme brûlée.

Beginning Dec. 1, and in some cases continuing even beyond New Year’s Day, 48 restaurants throughout the New Orleans area will offer the four- to six-course, prix fixe Reveillon dinner menus at prices ranging from $34 (The Gumbo Shop, traditional four courses, including a roasted half-duck) to $95 (Restaurant August, traditional, six courses). Many restaurants are fancifully adorned in the spirit of the season, some offer a wine-pairing option with each course and others finish off the meal with flaming, boozy, café brûlot prepared tableside with drama and fanfare that would surely have pleased the early French Creoles.
More Details: FollowYourJoy.com