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Despite heavy rains revelers keep the Mardi Gras weekend alive as they celebrated on the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans. (SEAN GARDNER/REUTERS)
Despite heavy rains revelers keep the Mardi Gras weekend alive as they celebrated on the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans. (SEAN GARDNER/REUTERS)

The beignet celebrates the craziness that is New Orleans Add to ...

If you come to New Orleans, you may find yourself in search of a sweet local delicacy. You may think that because it's called a beignet, and because it will probably be served in the French Quarter, this tasty wedge of dough and icing sugar owes its provenance to the city's founding nation.

If so, you may want to meet Mary Lacoste. She's a 78-year-old teacher-turned-tour guide who happens to love beignets. But for her, it's not so much the taste as what they say about a city that, despite poverty and hurricanes and oil spills, keeps finding ways to lure people in to sample its delicacies.

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Indeed, "beignet" - by her telling, at least - is a name invented by New York marketers in the 1960s, who wanted something European and "sexy" to freshen the image of a pastry then called a "French market doughnut." And even that name is misleading: The beignet is actually a southern U.S. descendant of a Spanish dessert. The Spanish, after all, spent as many years ruling the region as the French - making beignets, Lacoste says, "a metaphor for the craziness and mixed-up-ness" of the city.

There, in a nutshell, is New Orleans: a place ready to work any angle to profit from the centuries of history that continue to serve as its architectural, culinary and cultural birthright.

But lest we get too serious, we're talking here about a doughnut, one that is served 24 hours a day in a city where a sugary hangover salve is nearly as critical a menu item as any Creole or Cajun dish.

Because the one thing no disaster has been able to steal from New Orleans is its ability to throw a party. British Petroleum and a faltering economy be damned: Try to find another city where, at 4 p.m. on a Monday, you can walk into the Spotted Cat Music Club - one drink minimum, loosely enforced - and spend hours listening to a two-man band belt out old jazz numbers over an expertly played piano.

Try to find another city where every corner store comes stocked with wine and whisky and beer - some of it in 750-millilitre bottles - and a healthy supply of paper bags. Public consumption of alcohol? Yes, please.

Try to find another city where every night, streets are closed to traffic as they turn into a raucous, claustrophobic outdoor beer garden, complete with thousands of beads and the bared chests used to win them. Try to find another city where, weeks before Mardi Gras, great winding parades commandeer important city arteries not once but three times in a single day.

A place that sells drinks in plastic grenade cups and serves quadruple-shot Hurricane cocktails is no Disney. But it is strangely comforting to see Bourbon Street continue to stand tall as an unabashed, unapologetic revellers' redoubt.

New Orleans may not yet be a city rebuilt - many neighbourhoods remain shadows of their former selves, still struggling to recover from Katrina. But the French Quarter, untouched by the hurricane and unworried by the oil spill, "is safe,"Lacoste says. She means safe from physical violence. She could mean safe from the outside evils that have menaced it.

Because, as she puts it, in a city still drunk on food and intoxicated by music, "the biggest thing you have to worry about is falling in the street and getting run over."

 

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