Here’s To the Lady Who Invented Brunch

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French Quarter brunchers at Madame Begue’s in New Orleans, 1894.

It’s 1853 and the 1848 Revolution is still fresh in the minds of many of the working class in the Germanic kingdoms.     New Orleans has become, as Cincinnati, a haven for post- revolutionaries, who see America as the land of opportunity, at least in written form in the government.   New Orleans, was, and still is a melting pot of cultures – one of the things that makes their cuisine so exciting and exotic.   The Germans settled in the area east and north of the French Market, around the Ursuline Convent and north, around the area of the now touristy Lafitte’s.

One of those restless Germanic women, Lizzie Kettenring, had a brother Phillip, who had immigrated and was a butcher in New Orleans’ French Market.    She trailed him across the Atlantic, and met and fell in love with one of Phillip’s fellow butchers, a Creole named Louis Dutreil.    In 1863, the couple opened Dutrey’s Coffee House in the French Market, serving mostly butchers and marketgoers.

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Elizabeth Kettenring Begue and her second husband, Hippolyte Begue.

I’m all about food writers.    And there’s currently a storm of food-history writers bringing back history with old forgotten recipes, new stories, and well researched food anthropology.    What I’m not cheerleeding for is food writers who take credit for, or who have been given credit, erroneously, for inventing something.     Such is the case with Englishman, Guy Beringer, who wrote an essay, “Brunch:  A Plea” in 1895, inspired by a weekend hangover.    It described a vision of a meal, brunch, in which breakfast, lunch, and alcohol converged to help stop the spinning and sate the nausea.    Fine, great – but his essay didn’t invent the concept nor the execution of said brunch.   And, he’s not a genius, just because he connected it with a cure for a weekend hangover.

What Guy Beringer probably knew was that the Germans had been eating what they called second breakfast, zweites Fruhstuck, for decades before his essay.     And, it was that Bavarian immigrant, Frau Elizabeth Kettenring Dutreil Begue, who had institutionalized it at her coffeehouse during the Civil War in New Orleans.    In 1875, Elizabeth was a widow, and married her bartender, another Creole, named Hippolyte Begue, several years her junior.     She changed the name of the coffeehouse to Begue’s, and continued to serve her one meal – the German second breakfast, which would become the American brunch.

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The German butchers were done with their morning work at 11 AM in the French Market, and were hungry to supplement the coffee and bread they had for first breakfast before dawn.   Same was the case for all the New Orleans dock workers, who like the butchers and market vendors, started their day before dawn.  But 11 AM was to early for the heartier afternoon dinner, and way to late to be breakfast.

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Madame Begue cooking brunch in her kitchen.

Madame Begue’s brunch menu was rooted in German cooking, but garnered influence from Creole (New Orleanized Continental French cooking ) and Cajun (country Acadian French cooking -think crawfish instead of shrimp)  cuisine.   The brunch lasted three or four hours and was six courses with chicory coffee.    Her meals were anchored around omelets, as any good brunch should be.   But her most famous brunch dish was Liver a la Begue, a simple prep of calf liver.     Other dishes included fare of New Orleans – turtle soup, artichokes, meat with sauces, and vegetables of the Sicilian vendors of the French Market.

The restaurant’s popularity exploded during the 1884 Cotton Exposition in New Orleans, and tourists flocked to the restaurant to experience this unique second breakfast.    In response to the fame, the Southern Pacific Railroad published “Madame Begue’s Creole Cookery,” with some of her most famous recipes.

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Liver a la Begue, as served at it’s successor, Tugague’s.

Madame Begue died in 1906 and her restaurant was taken over by her daughter and son- in-law- the Anouilles, who then sold it in 1914 and it became what it is today, Tujague’s, at the corner of Decatur and Madison.    Tujague’s had been a brunch competitor of Begue’s since its inception, their famous dish a boiled beef soup with hot mustard sauce.

So when you brunch over the weekend, make sure you thank the spirit of Madame Begue and not the surly Guy Beringer.

 

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