Beignet dream comes true for TikTok creator Jessica Hiatt, a terminally ill Iowa woman
Jessica Hiatt's big brown eyes sparkled as she bit into a warm beignet Saturday morning. It was more than a delicious, powdered sugar-covered pastry. It was a bucket list wish come true.
"Mmmmmmm," Hiatt said as she closed her eyes and tipped her head back. The room full of friends and family reacted with laughter and applause.
“Today is so amazing,” Jessica said after eating her first beignet. “It’s extremely overwhelming. There’s such an outpouring of love here today. I don’t feel all that special of a person, but seeing the response from so many people – it makes me speechless.”
A hospice patient with terminal colon cancer, Jessica couldn't be in New Orleans for beignets and Mardi Gras. On Feb. 21, she took to TikTok, where she's a popular creator, now with 532,000 followers and 4.6 million likes.
"Hey friends and family," the 34-year-old said in the Feb. 21 video. "I'm kind of asking for a bucket list item. I've always wanted to try beignets from New Orleans."
It wasn't long before fellow TikTok creator Chris Bautista, owner of L.A.-based The Beignet Truck, heard about Jessica's wish as TikTokers tagged him with the post.
"I own The Beignet Truck!!!!!! Where are you?? I wanna help!!" Bautista commented on Jessica’s video.
He started a GoFundMe page to help him get to Iowa, and it exceeded his goal in less than two days. Iowa-based grocery store chain Hy-Vee joined in and offered to pay for all the ingredients, equipment, venue rental, party decorations and staff to throw a party for Jessica and her friends and family.
Jessica’s video reminded Bautista of the people he's lost to cancer, including his parents and best friend, who died from brain cancer at 27.
He said he couldn't let Jessica eat stale beignets because it wouldn't be the full experience.
"They have to be fresh," he said.
Beignets are fried squares of dough topped with an abundance of powdered sugar. They’re a popular item in New Orleans, and Jessica became interested in them while reading the Dark-Hunter series of books by Sherrilyn Kenyon.
“Beignets are crispy on the outside and light and fluffy in the middle, with a slight chew and they’re covered with a lot of powdered sugar,” Bautista said. “The dough itself isn’t too sweet – it’s actually pretty neutral. But all of the sweetness is on the outside, so when you eat it, the sweetness immediately hits your palate and then you enjoy the texture.”
Many people tagged Hy-Vee in Bautista’s video where he announced the GoFundMe. “People knew Hy-Vee is a good philanthropic business. … They’ve helped me so I can just come here and focus on making beignets.”
Fulfilling the beignet shows the positive power of social media
Jessica wasn't just treated to beignets.
Hy-Vee transformed The Parlor, an event venue in Ames, into a scene from Bourbon Street including colorful balloons and strewn tables with shiny strings of beads for guests to wear.
Jessica was greeted with a live performance of “When the Saints Go Marching In" by the Max Wellman Band of Des Moines.
“Getting a call for something like this is special,” said Max Wellman. “We want to make it a good experience for everyone who is involved, especially Jessica.”
Before he began to fry beignets, Bautista presented Hiatt with a check for nearly $7,000, the extra GoFundMe money.
The party for dozens of Jessica’s friends and family was organized in just a few days by Hy-Vee staff. It grew from an idea to make beignets at Jessica’s home.
“We decided to make it more of a party and have her friends and family here,” Dawn Buzynski, Hy-Vee’s director of strategic communications, said. “We wanted to give her the feeling of New Orleans."
What made Jessica Hiatt a popular TikTok creator?
Several of Jessica’s family members said they think it’s her openness and willingness to be vulnerable that makes her have such a large TikTok following.
“She really put herself out there as she chronicled her experience over the last three years,” Mark Hiatt, Jessica’s dad, said.
She’s raised awareness about cancer screenings and has shared even some of the most difficult moments, like the day she stopped treatment and entered into hospice care.
“She has a great spirit. She’s a warrior princess,” said Dee Kochel, Jessica’s great-aunt.