Gerald Herbert/Associated Press
At The Grill Room at the Windsor Court, executive chef Kristin Butterworth – a recent transplant to New Orleans from Pittsburgh – researched for months before presenting her first réveillon menu of braised pork belly with Gulf shrimp and white beans, local snapper with fennel and crawfish sausage and tenderloin with winter squash.
“When I delved into it and started to look at the history and the tradition of this meal, it was so amazing and so interesting to me,” she said. “I wanted to get it right.”
Even the salad took months of preparation, she said. Her winter greens are served with baby beets and squab prosciutto that Butterworth and her team cured in-house with salt, sugar, peppercorn and other spices over the last two months.
“A lot of love went into this menu,” she said.
The elaborate réveillon meals, which stem from the old French tradition of eating a lavish meal after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, have become a popular draw for visitors to New Orleans during the holiday season. In the weeks surrounding Christmas, about 50 restaurants offer four- to five-course meals of pan-roasted oysters, braised pork belly, duck confit, foie gras beignets and other holiday delicacies. The recipes have roots that date back to the beginning of the French city’s nearly 300-year history.
Though some restaurants serve réveillon dinners after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and after midnight fireworks on New Year’s Eve like in the old days, most offer the special menus during regular dinner hours.
Restaurants offer fixed-price réveillon menus on top of their regular dinner menu starting in the weeks before Christmas and continuing through New Year’s Eve. Réveillon dinner prices can range from $35 to $90 a person depending on the restaurant.
John Magill, a historian and curator at The Historic New Orleans Collection museum and research center in the French Quarter, says réveillon is French for “awakening” and was a term used by early Creoles to describe a meal that followed an evening event.
In the 1700s and 1800s, that could be as simple as beignets and cafe au lait at the French Market after a night out at the opera.
“You would eat to revive yourself after an evening event,” Magill said. “It didn’t always have to be a big heavy meal.”
Réveillons surrounding Christmas and New Year’s Eve, however, were grand affairs, he said. Families would spend days preparing a menu of comfort foods such as grits and grillades, gumbo, cakes and pastries, and the New Year’s Eve spread would be even more decadent, with oysters, duck and lamb.
The Christmas réveillon would traditionally take place after a full day of fasting for communion at midnight services.
Select restaurants offer a wine-pairing option with each réveillon course and café brűlot – a traditional New Orleans holiday beverage of strong coffee infused with strips of citrus, sugar, cloves, cinnamon and cognac or brandy.
Some restaurants serve the beverage flaming tableside for added drama.
Though New Orleans is just about the only U.S. city that celebrates réveillon, the tradition is still alive in France, parts of Canada and other French-speaking places where it is a long dinner and celebration held on the evenings preceding Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
Réveillon is also celebrated in Brazil and Portugal on New Year’s Eve. About 2 million people flock to the shores of Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro for music and fireworks.
“It’s like what we do in Times Square but on a larger scale and on the beach,” said Michelle Sobhraj, spokeswoman for a New York-based marketing company that promotes Brazilian tourism.
In Brazil, revelers don outfits in the color that symbolizes their wishes for the New Year, such as red for romance and white for peace and luck. Many carry pockets full of money for continued prosperity and a bay leaf in their wallets for luck.