The French Quarter

Well, a very busy day at the actual conference yesterday, so the “French Quarter” post isn’t going up till today.

My co-author Cindy and I presented our paper, and I think we have a great topic that I hope to continue exploring at this same conference next year, although most likely in a different division with a different focus. We (and Anne-Marie, our third co-author, who’s a chemistry prof) did this year’s paper through the Materials Division, and our primary focus was how study of chocolate as a “material” can help engineering students understand general concepts about molecular structure and phase transformation.

Cindy’s an engineer and Anne-Marie’s a scientist. I’m liberal arts, so my part was to talk about how using chocolate in a materials class can also provide a great opportunity to make connections with the broader contexts in which engineering decisions are made. For example, because the cost of cocoa butter is so high, a logical engineering decision for someone working in the chocolate industry might be to substitute alternate materials for some or all of the cocoa butter. Soy lecithin has been used for years as an emulsifier  to stabilize chocolate and keep the fats from separating in a product containing lower levels of cocoa butter. But legally a product cannot be called “chocolate” in most countries if that key ingredient of cocoa butter is removed completely. The Chocolate Manufacturers Association petitioned the FDA in 2007 to change the regulatory definition of chocolate by removing the requirement that cocoa butter remain a principal component, but the FDA told them no. And consumer backlash in response to the taste deterioration following the industry’s 2006 adoption of PGPR as an additional emulsifier (to help hold the chocolate together after removing even more cocoa butter) led to a pledge by Hershey in 2015 to return to simpler, more recognizable ingredients in their product.

Additionally, using chocolate as a material provides an especially dense supply of other broad-context issues. For one thing, cocoa is an agricultural product originating from farms in a pretty limited handful of locations in the world where geography and climate are favorable. “Sustainability” and “fair trade” and “ethical, socially responsible trade” are all concepts that can be explored in connection with study of chocolate as a material. Similarly, business concepts like supply-chain management can be studied. Thanks to a looming imbalance between growing demand for chocolate from India and China and increasingly precarious supply issues in key cocoa-producing countries (ineffective agricultural policies, low-yield traditional farming techniques, unethical labor practices, and other sustainability concerns), the world’s largest chocolate manufacturers have recognized the need to step up and address cocoa’s supply chain issues themselves by sharing data on farming practices and crop yields and investing their own money in programs aimed at stabilizing the entire system from cocoa farms to chocolate factories. Our paper’s focus this year was the chemistry and engineering end; next year we may try to do another paper that looks more at how chocolate can be used as a starting point from which students can branch outward into considering these other political, economic, and social concerns.

But enough shop talk. Time to get down to the serious business of my sightseeing😄

Late Saturday afternoon Cindy and I had both just arrived in town, so we connected to do some initial exploring. Cindy has actually been to New Orleans a number of times, so she knew all kinds of things we could quickly pack into our evening.

We walked north from the convention center through narrow pre-automobile streets that felt almost like a set for a Disney-style park. The only way such streets can work in today’s world is by being open to one-way traffic only. We went straight up Fulton Street (the narrow streets have more shade, something you instantly learn to seek out in New Orleans!) to the French Quarter and Jackson Square. Several people had told me I had to see  Jackson Square, that it was a must-see item on any tourist itinerary, but it truthfully didn’t seem like anything special to me.

On the other hand, I was quite intrigued by the carriages lined up on the street outside Jackson Square. Several of them were being drawn not by horses but by mules. If you enlarge this picture you can make out this one’s long ears.

New Orleans carriage drawn by a mule

I can’t tell you the last time I saw a mule!

Some of the women I met last night at the Multidisciplinary Engineering Division’s business meeting took a carriage ride Sunday, and they said the driver told them that mules withstand the heat better than horses. I just now did a quick online search and found that working mules were apparently a key part of New Orleans’ urban infrastructure and functionality for much of its history. Interesting to learn!

The only other significant French Quarter thing we did Saturday night was to go for beignets and coffee at Cafe Du Monde.


It was so great to be with Cindy because even though the place was packed, which probably would have caused me to turn away had I been on my own, she led the way in through the tight mass of tables until we found one that had just been vacated at the very back of the outdoor seating area (under a roof, but open all around, like a covered patio). An employee was just cleaning away the heaps of powdered sugar from the small marble-topped table with a damp towel. When we sat down, he immediately transformed from busboy to waiter and took our order. Cindy’s experience made our beignet adventure super painless and super enjoyable. And the table was right next to a railing that lined the patio, so we just soaked up the breeze coming off the river and watched the people walking by.

We were so hot that we stopped at Starbucks for cold drinks to sustain us on the walk up to the French Quarter, where we then ordered hot coffee. Hence Cindy's empty Starbucks cup on the table.

We were so hot that first we went to Starbucks for cold drinks to carry on the walk up to the French Quarter, where we then ordered hot coffee. This totally would make sense if you were there. But hence Cindy’s empty Starbucks cup on the table.

Beignets are very similar to the elephant ears, funnel cakes, and fry bread I’ve eaten over the years at county/state fairs. Funny that so many different cultures all managed to arrive at the same basic recipe for fried dough topped with sugar. Great minds think alike, I guess! Yum😄


About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
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2 Responses to The French Quarter

  1. Sally Cissna says:

    A wonderful post. I can really see how the study of chocolate could be used by different disciplines. An excellent choice of topic for a paper. I also could picture your trip to the French Quarter…I’ve been there a couple of times and look forward to the next time. Only thing you missed was a Hurricane!


    • I did get a hurricane a couple days later. Not at Pat O’ Brien’s, which is where Cindy said is THE place to get one, but still at a bar in New Orleans. And it was really good! (I actually got two hurricanes; that’s how good it was😄)


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