Breaking Beignets by Marc Nieson

Hi I’m Marc, and I’m an addict. I’ve been doing OK, mostly. Got my six- month Sprinkles chip recently, working the program up in Pittsburgh now. Working my way up the 13 steps. Our Baker’s Dozen, as we call it. But ever since I arrived here in N’awlins, I’ve been feeling the urge pretty bad. Couldn’t get through to my sponsor, figured I best get my ass in for a meeting. I don’t know, I keep thinking I should be able to handle this on my own, but, well, you know how it is.

See, they got me staying in this motel over by Decatur and come evening the breezes start blowing up from Café du Monde. That hint of chicory in the air. That pasty dough crackling in the oil. That dusting of white powder and first heavenly bite, whispering to me like some lost lover’s name. Beignets . . . Beignets. Gets so I can’t think of anything else. Can’t sleep. Can’t dream. 3 a.m. and I’m lying there staring at the ceiling, holding onto the edges of the mattress. Biting the pillows. Trying to suffocate, it hurts so much . . .

. . . but then you all know what I’m talking about. We’ve all got something we crave. Something we can’t have. We’ve all sat at that table, right?

I guess for me it all started back when I turned nine. By then my mother had all but given up on birthday cakes, just bought me a plateful of donuts. Stacked them up one atop the other like some pyramid, and stuck in the candles. I went through the whole plate in one night. No prisoners. No turning back.

Back then I was into the jelly-filled. All fluff and tart. That purple stain hiding out somewhere in the middle. That quick rush of sugar. Used to go over to Mrs. O’s Bakery and she’d take me out back to see how they made them. Stood there watching the paddles circle through that deep vat of grape-apple ooze, my knees near buckling. A cheap high, it was. A base-line at best. More about taste than hunger. I was young, what’d I know. I couldn’t yet see where it was all leading.

By high school I’d turned to crullers. Midnight runs to Mister Donuts out on Sunrise Highway. Dealing direct with the graveyard shift baker, right out the back door. Everything still hot and greasy. Scoring trayfuls at a time. A whole crew of us, lined up on the curb — dunking Long Johns and Buttercrunch, cutting with caffeine to make it all last til dawn. We were starting to understand that there was an art to this. A regimen. That there might just be a way to make a life out of this.

Soon I’d dropped out of school. Moved into the big city. New Yawk, New Yawk. Had the whole town down cold in no time. You could drop me into any neighborhood and I could find my fix. Could smell it out by now. 8th Ave in Chelsea for old-fashioneds, custards on 103rd in Spanish Harlem, or that little place off Union Square that had cinnamon buns big as hubcaps. And me, getting right each day, floating over those neon streets and avenues. Or sleeping it off in doorways. The rage and the calm in between. Nothing else made sense anymore. Nothing but the feel of flour risen against the roof of your mouth, its holy host slowly melting, made sacred as you swallow. We were all of us, disciples of dough.

And then, something strange started to happen. First they began pushing all the homeless up to the Bronx, then came the tent stand-off in Tompkins Square, then one by one the donut shops got boarded up. Some of us started talking conspiracy, corporate takeovers, especially when the only choice left was Dunkin Donuts. Or DDT, as we called it. More fakery than bakery. These weren’t donuts they were pushing, but little embodiments of franchises with holes in the middle. No longer any art or even desire to it, just commerce, plain and simple. You’d think the cops would’ve had a vested interest, but they just caved to their superiors. We were being branded, sacrificed. Collateral damage. But then you folks down here in N’awlins know all about that, don’t you?

So I went underground. Holed up with a girl whose family had a zeppole truck. You know, zeppoles — beignets’ bastard Italian cousin. A little less refined, a little greasier. Six to a bag, then shake till the powder gets sticky. We did all the street fairs — San Gennaro, 9th Avenue, then headed south for winter. Covered the whole Eastern seaboard. Switched to selling hushpuppies, fried dough, you-name- it. Our backs were to the wall, but I was in good and learning all along. Running that fryer like a pro. Like some priest, setting each cradled handful afloat, each one duly baptized and basted, then fished out for the masses. The real trick was in the oil, though. Letting it age till the seasoning was just right. Getting that temperature, just right. Had to get it right. Get myself right. Get-right . . . get-right . . .

They say when you work in a restaurant you lose your appetite. That after a while, even bank tellers could care less about money. But with me, it was just the opposite. I started skimming from the oil. Eating up the profits. Couldn’t help myself. No one outside can understand it. That vicious spiral of gotta-get-right, then gotta-get-straight, then gotta-get-right til everything starts bleeding into the same puddle, and that puddle slowly rising up your legs. Its dark swirl growing thicker by the minute. Like some deep jelly vat, pulling you in and under.

We all bottom out somewhere. Mine just happened to be outside Biloxi. I won’t bore you with those grisly details. We all done that, been there. All somehow found our knees again, caught a glimpse of horizon. Found a hand. A program.

But here’s the thing. These meetings. These steps. Sometimes they all just feel like words. Like something that at any moment could be taken away on the wind. No starch to them. No substance. No bite to that mission. No taste left in your mouth at day’s end but sublimation.

Sometimes, sometimes I just want to let go again, you know? Pull back up to the table and give over wholly to the hunger. To its fire and its wave. Surrender, that’s what I’m talking about, not sublimation. The only recipe worth following. Yeast and pure white flour. Firing up that fryer. Then sprinkling those little golden pillows with enough fairy dust to sink your whole face into, your whole body, and soul . . .

You remember it, don’t you? The white napkin set beneath your chin, the parting of your lips. Then feeling it all slowly dissolve away with your sins. Dissolving away into that sweet sleep of redemption . . .

Anyway, if any of you see me crawling out that motel window and heading toward Café Du Monde, just stop me. OK? We’ve made it this far, right?


About Marc Nieson