“Le bon ton” can perhaps best be rendered in English as “the upper crust”, meaning that segment of society assumed to have more polished style and manners than The Great Unwashed. As such, the phrase “bon ton” has been used by a variety of businesses hoping to attract such a clientele, in particular restaurants. One such establishment, the Bon Ton Café at 211 West Capitol Street in Jackson, opened in the early 1900s. The Bon Ton was one of the city’s finest dining establishments, and had the first electric sign on Capitol Street to better attract diners from Union Station.
Another more famous Bon Ton was established in New Orleans in the Natchez Building at 401 Magazine Street. Originally opened in the early 1900s as well, the business was revived in the early 1950s by Al and Alzina Pierce, who came to the Crescent City from south Louisiana, bringing with them their recipes from Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes, becoming the first dining establishment in the city to stake a claim for Cajun cuisine in a city already famous for its Creole culinary tradition.
The Bon Ton’s best-known dish is its bread pudding, which is ethereal. When I worked in the Florida panhandle, we made a similar pudding with stale croissants, but the texture was dense owing to the abundance of air pockets in the bread, which simply could not absorb the custard adequately; a good French loaf is required. Here is Alzina Pierce’s original recipe, which comes via Jackson native Winnifred Green Cheney from her wonderful Southern Hospitality Cookbook (Oxmoor, 1976).
Soak one loaf of French bread in a quart of whole milk and crush with hands until well mixed. Add 3 eggs, 2 cups sugar, 2 tablespoons vanilla extract, 1 cup seedless raisins (optional), and place in a buttered “thick, oblong baking pan”. Bake until very firm and cool. Make a whiskey sauce; cream a half cup of butter with a cup of sugar, and cook in a double boiler until thoroughly dissolved. Add a well-beaten egg, whipping rapidly to prevent curdling. Let cool and add whiskey of your choice to taste. Pour over pudding, heat under broiler and serve.