The reveillon revival: A New Orleans tradition reborn
In an attempt to shore up downtown businesses during the holiday season – a traditionally slow time for the restaurant and tourism trades – Sandra Dartus of the French Quarter Festival hit upon this idea in 1988: reviving réveillon, a traditional meal originally served in the wee hours of Christmas morning, but offered for modern diners at conventional meal times.
Dartus’ brainchild became immensely popular, and restaurants throughout the New Orleans area have outdone themselves with their prix-fixe réveillon menus, which generally start appearing around Dec. 1 and continue until the end of the year, although some stay around longer. This year, an estimated 48 restaurants are participating, and some 20 bars are offering dozens of réveillon cocktails.
- Like so many New Orleans traditions, réveillon has its roots in religion. Devout Catholics who wanted to receive communion at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve had to fast from the previous midnight. Consequently, people were famished by the time they left church.
- Like Mardi Gras, réveillon is a celebratory tradition that comes from France. In its original use to denote a post-Mass meal to rejuvenate drowsy, starving worshipers, “réveillon” is appropriate because it comes from the French word for “awake.” (Notice the similarity to “reveille”?)
- Although this meal is believed to have been originally envisioned as a late-night snack for family and favored friends, it evolved into a culinary extravaganza featuring, among other goodies, oyster stew, turtle soup, egg dishes, grillades, daube glacé, desserts and, of course, wine, port and other adult beverages, writes Ned Hémard in his “New Orleans Nostalgia” column for the New Orleans Bar.
- According to “Christmas in New Orleans” by Peggy Scott Laborde and John Magill, the tradition of at-home réveillon feasts had all but died out by the 1930s because restaurants were becoming increasingly popular for Yuletide celebrations.
- If one round of réveillon repasts isn’t enough to sate you, how about a second? The second réveillon, Hémard wrote, is an evening meal on New Year’s Eve. It’s named for St. Sylvester, whose feast day is Dec. 31. He was pope from 314 to 335.
- Like the Christmas réveillon, this New Year’s Eve version came from France, where, Hémard said, the festivities could range from a meal with friends to a full-dress ball.
- Once revelers recovered from that meal, they had to bestir themselves for the New Year’s Day ritual of visiting friends at open houses, where even more food and drink would await them.
Writing for Edible New Orleans, Jan C. Bradford attributed the current success of réveillon meals to New Orleanians’ innate ability to recycle the past and use it as a springboard for something new. Originally, Bradford wrote, réveillon dinners were limited to traditional Creole dishes, but inventive chefs moved beyond that format to put their own spins on holiday dishes. The result has been a series of feasts that have kept overstuffed diners staggering from one bounteous table to the next.