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The Story Behind Réveillon, the Classic French Creole Christmas Meal

A look inside the tradition (and resurgence) of the wee-hours holiday meal

New Orleans Residents Embrace The Holiday Season
Christmas in NOLA
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

One of the many pleasures of living in a city on the verge of its 300th birthday is that it has tradition in spades. Not surprisingly that sense of history extends to its culinary celebrations and, in December, that means Réveillon. These multi-course holiday meals currently appear on dozens of restaurant menus across New Orleans and spell a win-win for chefs and diners alike.

Like so much about New Orleans culture, Réveillon’s roots can be traced to the French Creoles who dominated the city’s early settlement. Réveillon is generally translated as “awakening,” a reference to the fact that the meal required family members and guests remain awake late into the night. The tradition dates back to the 1800s when Catholic families, famished after fasting on Christmas Eve, would return from midnight mass to indulge in a decadent buffet meal.

Popular dishes would have included daube glacé, chicken and oyster gumbo pies filled with game, eggs, turtle soup, souffles, grillades, grits, candied fruits, wine, brandy, cherry bounce, eggnog, fortified wines, and coffee. Dinners lasted until dawn.

So depending on how you look it, Réveillon was either a very, very late dinner or a very, very early breakfast. “...Creoles were known to entertain very late on other special occasions and personal celebrations, somehow finding the night more festive than the evening,” writes Liz Williams, Director of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in her book New Orleans: A Food Biography.

But within a century, Williams notes, Réveillon dinners disappeared as “American” Christmas traditions usurped Creole French rituals. She also points out that Réveillon depended on a cast of servants, often slaves, to prepare a meal while the family was out at services, and to then to oversee the meal and dishes into the wee hours. In contrast, Williams notes modern holiday gatherings tend to center around cocktails and nibbles, and that even “midnight mass” doesn’t always end at midnight. “If we’re going to try to hold onto traditions and make them work for our era,” she says, “we have to change.”

After lying extinct for several decades, Réveillon re-surfaced in the 1990s, primarily as a marketing device by French Quarter restaurants interested in boosting business in December when convention attendance ebbed. Williams sees the current prix-fixe menus offered at restaurants as a “modern interpretation. They keep the spirit of Réveillon as a holiday, celebratory meal. The important thing now is that they give a reason for people to sit down and enjoy a long meal together.”

Now with dozens of restaurants offering Réveillon menus, friendly competition benefits diners as the city’s most lauded chefs go to task to come up with approaches that embrace both creative takes and pay homage at once. James Beard Nominee Chef Isaac Toups of Toups’ Meatery and Toups South for instance, explains that for this year’s Réveillon inspiration, “I looked to my past experience working for Emeril Lagasse. I looked at the rich classics and added my own spin with updated ingredients and techniques.” Many of the same dishes that French-speaking Creoles would have dined on nearly two centuries ago, including gumbo, oysters, game or daube, can still be found on most contemporary menus.

And while Réveillon menus certainly don’t come cheap, this prix-fixe menus represent a tremendous value considering that most dinners are four to six courses and offer access to top shelf ingredients and complex preparations that don’t appear on the regular menu. “Réveillon is a different approach to how we usually eat,” says Williams. “It allows for experimentation. It’s exciting to see the tradition expand to become city-wide.”