Reveillon Dinner and Turtle Soup: A Creole Holiday Tradition

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To try Regina's recipe for mock turtle soup (the real thing is often served at Christmas Eve Reveillon dinners), click here.

I was influenced by two similar but different worlds when I was young. The first was Natchez, Mississippi, where the signs coming into town boasted "Where the Old South Still Lives."

I admit incoming tourists did not always interpret it as the residents intended it; overall, it was meant to say, "We have kept many of the cultured, genteel ways of the opulent days when cotton was king." Since the 1930s the garden club ladies of Natchez built and continue to build an industry from opening our impressive collection of historic homes, with furnishings, silver, china, and hospitality from a time gone by. Natchez hosts visitors from all over the world and does it sincerely. Entertaining comes naturally and there has always been plenty of it. The food has always been good, but the china, silver, and bourbon have always outclassed the food. That is just the way it has always been.

The talented chefs will put their special touch on what they prepare and it will be that special New Orleans experience that makes us remember why we love New Orleans.

Then there was my father's family, the Trosclairs, in Opelousas, Louisiana, where the traditions of the French and Creoles run deep with religion and food. South Louisiana has always been very much a Catholic community. I was raised Catholic in Natchez, which at times seems more a part of Louisiana than Mississippi, much of that because it had such a large Catholic population. I have more Natchez memories because I am here and I have more family here. Sadly, two generations that I was close to in Opelousas are now gone, but my connection and memories to that part of Louisiana will remain strong.

I am happy to say that I did inherit some cooking genes from the Trosclair side of the family. I also have so many food memories and stories from my great aunts. Nan Marie shared many stories and recipes with me in her later years. I vividly remember her detailed description of "Daube Glace" and how it was served every Christmas Eve in the Trosclair house, after midnight Mass. This was called the Reveillon dinner. Reveillon is a French word for "awakening," and this for generations was a French Creole tradition.

There are many different versions of daube. It seems the most common today is more a braised meat in aspic to be spread on toast points or crackers. This is not the way I remember it. I remember Nan's detailed description of good filet of beef, or during lean years an eye of the round, braised in red wine and spices, but still medium-rare, with lots of thinly sliced carrots, parsley, and green onion with natural jus with a touch of vinegar reduced and chilled into an aspic. In her day I have no doubt the gelatin came from cooking it with a pig's foot or two; now we use an envelope. It would be thinly sliced and served cold. Years later, I had a dish prepared in Paris by my dear friend and mentor Arlette Romand, and it tasted just as Nan Marie had described her Christmas memory of Daube Glace to me. It was a memory for Arlette as well from her childhood holidays in Provence. We both shared memories of turtle soup, too, but hers was a clear broth, whereas mine was a hearty Creole soup, almost a stew.

This traditional Creole meal originally was served after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Early New Orleans was almost entirely Catholic, and this was a tradition in most homes (from what I can gather) up until World War II. Everyone would return from midnight Mass and the lavish buffet would be laid out on the table or sideboard. I cannot help but laugh to myself every time I hear "midnight Mass"; my sister Mary works at St. Mary's Basilica here in Natchez (one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the South) and she vows she is going to write a book and title it "What time is Midnight Mass"? Now the title does not work because midnight Mass is now at 9 p.m....

A typical early Reveillon menu had Daube Glace or veal grillades, egg dishes, breads, and puddings, and would often include turtle soup and oysters. Naturally, there was an abundance of wines, cordials, and other fortified drinks. I love this tradition and I think there is something magical about Christmas night. Even as an adult, I feel the excitement and want to stay up late. I want more time in front of my tree and I want more Christmas music, and my family indulges me just up until midnight—then no more Christmas music until next year when I begin decorating my tree.

The Reveillon dinner slowly began to disappear like many of our traditions, but many of the New Orleans restaurants have revived it to bring more visitors to New Orleans during the holiday season. I for one will be there. As I wrote months ago when I wrote about the Gulf oil spill, I will support New Orleans by visiting and spending money. There are so many talented chefs there that I do not worry what ingredients they have to work with—they will put their special touch on what they prepare and it will be that special New Orleans experience that makes us remember why we love New Orleans.

I know John Besh understands the Reveillon tradition and includes it in his book My New Orleans, and Joanne Clevenger at Upperline has a menu for the season with turtle soup, their famous fried green tomatoes with shrimp Rémoulade, veal grillades, crème brulée. The Grill Room's menu is as elegant as we would expect; Antoine's, Galatoire's, and Brennan's all have special menus that help make it a difficult choice. Broussard's menu celebrates the German influence on New Orleans traditions. I wish I had time for all of them. Here is a Web site with all the restaurants and copies of their holiday menus.

The beauty of the Reveillon is it is all about "awakening" the senses with food and celebrating all that the joy of Christmas and the New Year bring. It does not matter what your menu is, as long as it is plentiful, flavorful, and brings your family together. I love turtle soup and it always seems like a special occasion dish to me. My Reveillon menu is a tribute to Nan Marie and my other great aunts from "The Big House" on Court Street in Opelousas who shared memories, stories, and recipes that have stayed with me and shaped me as a person and cook.

Here is a recipe for mock turtle soup, as I know turtle meat is not readily available to all of you. If you can get turtle meat, it is worth the trouble. The boneless chuck is a surprisingly good substitute.

Recipe: Nan Marie's Mock Turtle Soup

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Regina Charboneau is the owner of Twin Oaks Bed & Breakfast in Natchez, Mississippi. She is the author of Regina's Table at Twin Oaks. More

Regina Charboneau is the owner of Twin Oaks Bed & Breakfast in Natchez, Mississippi. She is the author of two cookbooks: A Collection of Seasonal Menus & Recipes from Regina's Kitchen and Regina's Table at Twin Oaks.
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