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NEW ORLEANS: The Festivities

A Creole Christmas

Reveling in rich holiday traditions--and great meal and hotel bargains--in the city that lives to celebrate

November 29, 1998|CONSTANCE SNOW | Snow is a food writer for the New Orleans Times Picayune and the co-author, with Kenneth Snow, of the guidebooks "Romantic Days and Nights in New Orleans" and "Access New Orleans."

NEW ORLEANS — I've lived in New Orleans for 30 years, so the Christmas holidays have always seemed redundant to me--as if we need some special occasion to take off from work, eat and drink too much, argue with our relatives, venerate tradition and muddle the sacred with the profane. What distinguishes December from business as usual is a monthlong festival of jazz parades, bonfires on the levee, gospel concerts, costumed carolers and storytellers strolling the parks and squares.

It's a great time to visit. Convention and tourism business slows between Thanksgiving and the New Year's Sugar Bowl blowout. To keep going during the lull, many desirable hotels slash their rates, and the city's finest restaurants serve up their best on special bargain menus. Crisp and sunny days are an invitation to riverboat excursions and plantation tours or just prowling the galleries and antique shops that line Royal and Magazine streets. After dark, lacy French Quarter balconies are washed by soft gaslight and the ancient oaks of City Park blaze with a million twinkling bulbs. Streetcars clang past Garden District mansions, the illuminated trees inside crackled into kaleidoscopic flashes by leaded-glass doors. Through it all, we ponder the true meaning of Christmas: food.

New Orleans' strongest roots are French and Catholic, and Christmas is, of course, a holy day, by tradition begun with midnight Mass after a time of fasting. Upon returning from church, the early French settlers would sit down to Reveillon, a lavish breakfast that usually included such delicacies as daube glace (slow-cooked beef brisket and vegetables in aspic), elaborate egg dishes, meringues and crystallized fruits, often ending with a jelly-filled cake dripping with rum and whipped cream.

Today Christmas Eve church services and family food traditions are as varied as those in any American city. But the old French custom has been revived by restaurants (this year there are 32; see accompanying article, opposite) in special Reveillon dinners served nightly throughout December.

The modern menus preserve the spirit of the original with contemporary style, presenting both traditional and trendy fare, from the classic daube glace to sage-scented baby pheasant with pancetta and prosciutto, from homey roasted goose with chestnuts and winter vegetables to a lamb shank with stuffed morels and eggplant chips.

The Reveillon promotion is a relatively inexpensive opportunity to sample the talents of some of the country's most celebrated chefs. The three- or four-course dinners are priced from $18.95 to $45 per person, and many include a lagniappe (a little something extra) of spicy cafe bru^lot, eggnog or wine. Similar meals from the same kitchens can cost considerably more the rest of the year.

The special promotion was formerly confined to the French Quarter, but this year restaurants all over town will join in, truly representing the best the city has to offer. For the first time the venerable Commander's Palace in the Garden District will be included, along with the whimsical and romantic Upperline a few streetcar stops away and cozy-chic Gabrielle near City Park. The new boundaries extend all the way to suburban Metairie to embrace the Northern Italian cuisine of Andrea's, served in formal pink dining rooms lighted by crystal chandeliers.

Attending midnight Mass at St. Louis Cathedral on Christmas Eve is still a must with many locals, but the once-a-year crowd can turn it into an ungodly experience. For a more natural high, join the joyful noise at foot-stomping concerts by some of our mightiest gospel choirs, nightly at 8 in the cathedral (Dec. 13 to 23) and at nearby St. Mary's Church (Dec. 6 to 12).

Another Christmas Eve tradition is the lighting of elaborate bonfires along the Mississippi River levees in communities outside the city. The flaming towers are said to guide Papa Noel as he paddles his pirogue to deliver gifts to good little Creole children.

Traffic along riverside roads can be dense, but the mood is festive and the walk along the levee is worth it. Bus tours that include dinner are offered by Gray Line Tours and New Orleans Tours. The Paddlewheeler Creole Queen and the newer Riverboat Cajun Queen chug upriver for the spectacle, but it's a long, rather noisy excursion. I prefer to drive up a few days ahead to watch townspeople erecting the massive bonfire structures, then tour a couple of riverfront plantation to see the traditional holiday decorations. Sometimes I stop at dowdy old Hymel's Restaurant on the River Road near Convent, a no-nonsense oasis since the 1940s for great seafood and slow-pot Creole and Cajun standards.

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