Just in time for Chanukah, a signature taste of New Orleans is now kosher.
Following a year-long effort by a determined rabbi, Café du Monde has been certified as officially kosher by the Louisiana Kashrut Committee. Beignets made in all six establishments throughout the city and the make-it-at-home boxed mix that is sold in stores nationwide are being made in accordance with the laws of Kashrut.
For over 140 years, Café du Monde, one of New Orleans’ oldest and most famous landmarks, has been known the world over for its light, airy and delicious powdered sugar-coated beignets.
“It must have been a funny sight for the owner to watch me savor a delicious beignet for the first time. But how often can one truly appreciate a unique food? It’s been a long time since I’ve had such intense kavannah (spiritual intention) while making a blessing over a snack!” said Rabbi Uri Topolosky, the driving force behind the koshering effort and the relatively new head rabbi of Beth Israel, the city’s only modern Orthodox synagogue.
Topolosky approached Café du Monde soon after he and his family moved to New Orleans in July 2007. Not one to shy away from new challenges, Topolosky came to New Orleans from Riverdale, N.Y., where he served as associate rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, to lead the rebuilding of Beth Israel. The shul was decimated by Hurricane Katrina after it took on 10 feet of water and lost its sacred collection of seven Torahs and thousands of prayer and scholarly books.
The inspiration for Topolosky’s culinary pursuit was a passing request from a friend, who, upon learning that the rabbi accepted the job, jokingly urged Topolosky, “If you do only one thing for New Orleans’ Jewish community, make beignets kosher!”
So in the past year, in addition to his regular duties building and sustaining a congregation and getting settled into a new city, Topolosky added regular calls to Café du Monde to plead his case. He also suggested that visitors stop in or call to inquire if the café was officially kosher supervised.
Coincidentally, this wasn’t the first time Burt Benrud, Jr., a vice president of H N Fernandez, Inc., which owns Café du Monde, got such calls. “Every December, like clockwork, we would get calls asking about the kosher status of our beignets,” said Benrud.
It wasn’t until two years ago, when Benrud happened to see a news story that reported on the traditional fried foods of Chanukah, that the light bulb went off: Jews were calling to see if they could make Café du Monde’s beignets a unique part of their traditional celebration.
The following year, when his neighbor —who also is a member of the Jewish community — asked him to meet with Topolosky, Benrud agreed to learn what was involved in getting a hecksher — certification of kashrut. “I give Rabbi Uri a lot of credit for reaching out and making the effort to do something for the community. It’s great that we can now say with certainty that our beignets are for everyone.”
Topolosky estimates that a relatively small percentage of the 7,000-member Jewish community in New Orleans keeps strictly kosher, but he points out that many Orthodox Jews and their families have been coming to New Orleans, whether to volunteer with the rebuilding, visit family and friends or to take in the historically beautiful city.
“Café du Monde is a classic New Orleans institution and I thought it would be symbolic for the rebuilding of the Jewish community to have its ties further strengthened with a kosher offering that is so closely associated with the city,” said Topolosky. “A kosher Café Du Monde is yet another example of how our Jewish community is thriving again. For our kosherly-conscious visitors, I believe we’ve added another stop on their tour of our great city.”
During Chanukah, it is traditional to eat foods fried in oil, including jelly doughnuts and latkes, and this year in New Orleans… beignets!