By the time the very merry divorcée Adelaide Brennan―a glamorous redhead reputed to be the most beautiful woman in all of New Orleans―descended the winding stairway of the Greek Revival home she shared with her sister, Ella, their annual Christmas Eve bash was in full swing. Many close friends, among them celebrity pals like Raymond Burr and Rock Hudson, and most of the large Brennan clan gathered for the strictly black-tie, Uptown affair, which the sisters hosted from the mid-1960s until the ’80s.
Guests laughed and lingered among the extravagant decorations, all coordinated in Adelaide’s favorite color. Pink candles flickered around the room, and pink poinsettias, ordered from the florist a year in advance, adorned the house. Adelaide hung large pink bows “wherever she could think to put them,” says Ella, now 83. Each year everyone anticipated Adelaide’s fashionably late entrance, and year after year, she delivered her drama.
The soirees were a nod to a nearly extinct Crescent City holiday tradition, known as the Réveillon, which translates loosely to “awakening” in French. In the 1800s, the New Orleans Creoles, a multicultural group of Catholics that included French immigrants, adopted the French tradition. As in the old country, celebrants fasted before taking communion at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, and then they rewarded their piety with luxurious, prolonged feasts in the wee hours after mass. “It was a celebration that also served a practical purpose,” says Gene Bourg, a longtime New Orleans food writer and friend of Ella Brennan. “If you fasted till 1 A.M., you’d be damn hungry.”
Réveillon tradition dictated that the Brennan parties include a lavish late-night buffet with game birds, rich gumbos, and seafood delicacies prepared in the sophisticated, decidedly urban Creole style. For dessert, there were elaborate cakes, like bûche de Noël, a “jelly roll” filled with chocolate cream.
Live jazz and dancing would follow in the ballroom. “In those days, the men would actually dance,” Ella says with a laugh. “It was glorious. We cocktailed and cocktailed and cocktailed.” Every year, the scene was the same. Even for a woman known for her larger-than-life style, Adelaide’s Réveillon was special. Down she’d come in some beaded floor-length gown, fur around her shoulders, long gloves above her elbows. “I can just see her up there, with a long cigarette holder in one hand and a glass of Champagne in the other,” Ella recalls of her sister, who passed away in 1983. “She was like our Auntie Mame.”
Réveillon for all
The Brennans―whose various second- and third-generation representatives own and operate beloved New Orleans institutions such as Commander’s Palace and Brennan’s―have kept the Réveillon going and made it something everyone can enjoy. Ella Brennan’s Commander’s Palace, which rambles like a happy home with ornate molding and robust chatter in all its many rooms, is among the dozens of Big Easy restaurants that began in recent years serving prix-fixe Réveillon menus throughout the holidays. It’s a way to keep alive the storied tradition, which hasn’t been celebrated widely in family homes for years and is now more of a dining-out phenomenon.
The 128-year-old Commander’s, where Chef Tory McPhail, successor to the restaurant’s previous chefs Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse, continues to refine what he calls “haute Creole” cuisine, serves bold, special-occasion food inspired by the tastes of the original Creoles. Several varieties of hearty gumbo are among the appetizer options, as well as foie gras with Louisiana figs roasted in bourbon, says McPhail. Richly sauced, locally fished seafood is in the mix, along with venison, elk, and house-cured duck. “We make sure there are some good game dishes,” says Ella. “We’ve picked up some of our family traditions and brought them to the restaurant.”
As Ella says, the food is just part of what makes the Réveillon mood so lively. “We have music students come in and sing,” she says. “We tell them, ‘Not the serious church music.’ We want the happy songs about how it’s snowing outside and all. [The dinner guests] walk all around the dining room talking to their friends. It’s not structured; it’s fun. People in New Orleans just get so excited about the holidays.”
The ever-growing Brennan clan no longer gathers en masse to do it up on Christmas Eve. But Ella, her daughter Ti Martin, and other family members get together in a smaller group at the Garden District mansion where Ella now resides, next door to Commander’s, which Ti now runs. It’s one of just two days a year―the other is Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras)―when the restaurant is closed. For the contemporary gathering, guests dress sharply and dine on classics catered by McPhail’s staff, and the cocktails flow almost as easily as the laughter. “It’s still elegant,” says Martin, “but not so much that you can’t enjoy a naughty joke. Oh yes, I’m sure Aunt Adelaide would love it.”
For New Orleans chefs, Christmas is a time to honor old customs that have migrated from homes to restaurants.
“The Réveillon has evolved,” says Chef John Besh, whose upcoming book My New Orleans will include a chapter on the tradition, and whose Restaurant August is among local eateries that prepare prix-fixe menus throughout December. “This is a chance to really showcase our culture. It gives people like me, who normally do very inventive things, a chance to return to age-old Creole staples.”
Like his counterpart Tory McPhail at Commander’s Palace, Besh looks to antique cookbooks and old restaurant menus for direction. The result is a seven-course menu of elaborate comfort food, including the likes of shellfish étouffée or daube beef stew―“slow-cooked, complex, [with] lots of love,” he says―and desserts such as a white cake layered with bananas Foster and frosted with Creole cream cheese (Louisiana’s unique clabbered cream, similar to sour cream). For his part, McPhail’s prix-fixe menu combines his zeal for locally sourced ingredients with years of tradition in a robust feast likely to feature a spicy gumbo, glazed quail, and bread pudding soufflé with whiskey sauce.