Celebration Distillation, in the Gentilly section of New Orleans, occupies an old brick warehouse with a romantic address: off Elysian Fields, near the corner of Frenchmen and Abundance. The whole operation—tasting room in the front, exposed-brick back room with damply aromatic barrels resting on open wooden scaffolding, as if in library stacks—has a pleasantly homey and easygoing atmosphere; the owner, James Michalopoulos, is a painter, and an artist's eye shows in the renovation and the handsome, simple labels.
The distillery makes both light and dark rums, using molasses from Edgard, in southeastern Louisiana. I tasted molasses out of a plastic hose as Jon Blair, the day's distiller, an ambitious young Tulane graduate, began making a batch. The room smelled powerfully of the slightly medicinal and sulfurous molasses, which tasted much rougher than Steen's cane syrup but was not unpleasant. Blair mixed to a milky foam water and dry yeast that had been isolated, he told me, from Louisiana cane sugar. He climbed up a tank to pour the foam into the molasses; the mixture would ferment for a few days before being distilled in a very rustic still that looked like a sideways water heater. Then it would be filtered and bottled for light rum, or put into old charred-oak barrels, bought from Jack Daniel's, to be aged for dark.
Dark rum, the kind that the original sugarcane islands are still famous for, is usually more expensive. White rum—which Bacardi and others made popular for mixing into drinks such as daiquiris (rum, lime juice, and sugar; named for a beach town near Santiago, Cuba), mai tais (rum, curaçao, lime juice, sugar syrup, and orgeat), and of course rum and Coke—is generally considered of lower rank. But Celebration's white rum, called simply Cane, is worth sipping on its own.
For a rum that has been in release only two years (the company sold its first rum in 1999), Cane is impressive, and can show well against its famous rivals. If Celebration's barrel-aged rums are not yet notable, they are promising, with deep, oaky scents and a slight smokiness. New Orleans has been waiting 150 years for its own rum, made with its own sugarcane, and it already has a very good one. It can wait a bit longer for a great one.
For a taste of New Orleans, combine rum, butter, sugar, and flames
Seldom can the origins of a dish be traced definitively. On the Southern Foodways Alliance field trip an afternoon was devoted to discussing why bread pudding is so closely associated with New Orleans. Two food historians gave talks, and two legendary African-American restaurateurs and businesswomen, Leah Chase and Willie Mae Seaton, offered very different examples of the dish—Chase's an elegant light custard with praline sauce, Seaton's dense and creamy.
Matters remained (tastily) unresolved. But the origins of bananas Foster, a dessert even more firmly linked to the city, pose no such problems. In 1946 Owen Brennan opened Brennan's, a restaurant that would launch a dynasty, and looked for signature dishes to compete with Antoine's and other well-established fine restaurants. In 1951 Holiday magazine asked him for a recipe, and Brennan offered a dessert created by his chef, Paul Blangé: bananas, brown sugar, and rum flambé over vanilla ice cream. New Orleans was then the country's port of entry for bananas, and the fortunes of rum were being revived. The dessert was named for a frequent customer, Richard Foster (who owned an awning company and also served on a city vice committee—one of doubtless dozens of efforts to bring order to the always picturesquely disheveled French Quarter). This was an era when tableside service at a restaurant brought high prices and gave an air of class, and chafing-dish pyrotechnics brought distinction to a hostess. They still impress guests. Once mastered, bananas Foster is easy and quick to assemble, with ingredients that are nearly always on hand.
What makes the dish
I've adapted a recipe from the 1997 edition of Joy of Cooking (previous editions didn't include it), itself adapted from the Brennan's original. For four servings, peel four ripe but firm bananas, cut them in half lengthwise, and cut each half into four pieces. Melt two tablespoons of butter in a large and heavy skillet. Add the bananas, cut side down, and sauté over low heat for ten minutes, turning them once after five minutes. Off the heat sprinkle them with three tablespoons brown sugar, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg.
If you're unused to flaming, finish the sauce at the stove. Heat 1/2 cup rum in a small saucepan, over a low flame and away from flammable objects, until it is about to simmer (it will seem to be thinning, and a few trails of steam may rise from the surface). Tilting the pan away from you, hold a lit kitchen match well above the surface of the liquid; be prepared to snatch your hand away and to right the pan as the flames rise. Carefully pour the flaming liquid over the bananas and swirl with a flameproof spatula or spoon, scraping up any brown bits. The flames will die down after a minute or so. Spoon the sauce over vanilla ice cream and serve.
The showy version calls for a chafing dish and long fireplace matches; but however you choose to assemble and serve the dish, practice making it before you try it on guests. You can transfer the banana-sugar mixture from the skillet to a chafing dish, working carefully to avoid breaking the bananas, and then carry the heated rum to the dining room and light it there before pouring it over the bananas. Or you can make the whole thing, start to finish, in a chafing dish, adding the rum directly to the cooked bananas and scraping the bottom of the dish as you wait for the rum to get hot enough for flaming. This is a more leisurely method, because everything takes much longer in a chafing dish. But leisure was a hallmark of the Old South, and perhaps somewhere in the Big Easy and beyond someone still has it.
Cane, from Celebration Distillation, is a white rum that starts harsh but ends with notes of toffee and vanilla, and the vanilla gets stronger as the taste lingers. Good on its own and very good for mixing either with cola (many southerners favor RC) or New Orleans—made Abita root beer.
Barbancourt white, from Haiti, is stingingly alcoholic (it is bottled at 86 proof, whereas most rums are bottled at 80 proof) and requires mixing, with almost any kind of flavored soda. Its most noteworthy feature is its strong molasses nose, a reminder of rum's origins.
Mount Gay Eclipse, from Barbados, is a light straw color and has a mild caramel flavor—appropriate, because dark rum gets its color more often from the addition of caramel syrup than from the char of oak barrels. Of the easily available aged rums this is the most agreeable and balanced, with a pleasant butterscotch aftertaste that doesn't linger.
Appleton Special Jamaica rum is also a light straw color, and has a lovely, delicate nose. The flavor is delicate too, with subtle oak overtones and hints of toffee. The trade would call this "feminine"; I would call it versatile and very, very smooth.
Sea Wynde, a blend of rums from Jamaica and Guyana, is one of the new premium dark rums that apparently want to compete with single-barrel Scotch. It has a strong oak nose, with the strength (it is bottled at 92 proof) and caramel undertones of cask-aged whiskey, and a slightly smoky aftertaste. This rum is a different animal—strong and arresting.
(Most distillers have their own Web sites; a good introductory site with a great deal of information is www.rumshop.net.)