Yeasts of the Southern Wild

Maker of the “world famous buttermilk drop,” New Orleans actor Dwight Henry is expanding his baking empire

Dwight Henry at his Buttermilk Drop Bakery in New Orleans. (Paul Costello)
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As I entered the one-story, brick-and-galvanized, gaily illustrated Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café in New Orleans, to the smell of cinnamon and sugar glaze, I heard this exclamation from deep inside: “The devil’s music shall not be heard in the house of the Lord!” And again. A little differently. And again! A little differently. And no music at all. What kind of bakery, I wondered, is this?

Well, that was just the Buttermilk Drop’s proprietor, Dwight Henry. He was rehearsing for his role as Marvin Gaye’s father in Sexual Healing, a forthcoming biopic about the great Motown singer. Three years ago, an arty young film crew, who had come to know Henry through his pastry, talked him into taking the lead male role in his first movie, Beasts of the Southern Wild, which won a best-picture Oscar nomination.

Now Henry has been to Sundance, Cannes, the White House and on TV with Oprah Winfrey. With Richie Notar, a New York restaurateur who has partnered with Robert De Niro, Henry will soon be opening another outlet for his cooking, in Harlem. With Wendell Pierce, star of HBO’s “The Wire” and “Treme,” he has at least one more New Orleans bakery in the works. With Brad Pitt, he’ll be appearing this fall in his second feature film, Twelve Years a Slave. “I died in those first two movies,” he observes. “In this next one, I kill somebody.” Legions of veteran actors would kill to have one death scene, en masse if necessary. Henry the baker takes the movies as they come.

Gaudy images outside and inside his establishment (on the ceiling, even, and the roof!) depict a beaming, roly-poly figure with a face a bit like a Super Mario Brother’s on a head very much like a buttermilk drop—which is a round, brown, glazed, cakey confection slightly smaller, but heavier, than a racquetball. Otherwise, the place is not big on ambience. The two tables are usually unoccupied, because the business is primarily takeout. There are separate windows inside for ordering and paying, but customers pretty much use the former window for both, so there’s a lot of milling around. Still, turnover is brisk. Along with her order, a lady wearing fleur-de-lis pajama pants and a New Orleans Saints hoodie offers an unsolicited endorsement:

“Charles got the hypoglycemia, and wakes up in the night, got to have a cinnamon bun, and he don’t want a cinnamon bun you get at the store comes in a bag, he’s got to have a Henry’s cinnamon bun.”

Another patron, in a T-shirt that says “Ride It Like You Stole It,” looks up at the baker painted on the ceiling and announces, to no one in particular, “Still and all, you ain’t no more than me.”

When you look at Dwight Henry himself—medium-sized, trim and ruggedly good-looking, his demeanor an affable glaze over a tightly wound core—you see a real baker. “When I was a junior in high school, in the Ninth Ward, everybody worked at the Reising Sunrise bakery there,” he says. “My first job, I was just picking up, putting away and cleaning out. But I’d look over at the boys in the bread department, and I’d think to myself, ‘Someday I’m going to be in bread.’”

A bland ambition, you might think, for a spirited New Orleanian youth, but Dwight Henry is heir to a great tradition. When outsiders think of New Orleans cuisine, baked goods probably don’t spring to mind, but the 1885 book Creole Cookery includes 128 recipes for breads and 165 for cakes, compared with 88 for soups, fish and shellfish combined. New Orleanians know their bakeries—past (ah, the one at the old Woolworth’s on Canal!) and present. Leidenheimer’s, currently the largest, retains the artisanal specialties of several competitors it has bought up over the years. Leidenheimer delivery trucks are highly visible around town, emblazoned as they are with cartoonery by local artist Bunny Matthews. (Vic and Nat’ly, two well-known characters identified with the Yat dialect, biting into either end of an overflowing shrimp po’ boy, with the caption, “Sink ya teeth into a piece of New Orleans cultcha!”)

The French bread, so-called, of New Orleans is unique. Its loaf is long and with rounded tips. Its texture combines airy interior and shattery crust. This bread must be substantial enough to hold the contents of a po’ boy—anything from fried oysters to chicken livers to eggplant parmigiana to roast beef “debris”—yet soft enough not to cut into the roof of the biter’s mouth, and absorbent enough to retain a significant portion, though never by any means all, of the juices involved. When stale, that bread is right for the distinctive local version of French toast, which local menus and cookbooks call pain perdu, as in the old country, or even “lost bread,” in literal translation.

Then there’s king cake, served at Mardi Gras and other holidays (if you get the piece with the little plastic baby inside, you have to provide the king cake next time), and the beignets of Café Du Monde, and Doberge Cake, and Bananas Foster bread pudding, and crunchy “stage planks” (sometimes called gingerbread tiles), and symbolic St. Joseph’s Day loaves, and the special big round bun of a muffuletta sandwich. Last summer, fire destroyed the Hubig’s Pies factory on Dauphine Street, the only place in the world turning out Hubig’s New Orleans-style pies. So many hungering local pie-lovers have launched campaigns in support of Hubig’s rebuilding that the company’s website declares, “We appreciate the attempts to help, but ask those using the Hubig’s name, brand or likeness to cease.”


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