Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated her hometown, a SparkPeople member reflects on the cuisine that defines New Orleans and how she clings to her gastronomic heritage while maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
By SparkPeople member Amani Jabbar
In New Orleans, it all starts with a roux. It might take nearly an hour to get the roux just right. That’s OK, though. There’s never a rush in New Orleans. You have to keep your eye on it. In a moment the flour and butter will turn from the perfect peanut butter brown to scorched black. Once it’s burned, that’s it. There’s no salvaging it. You have to start over again, and that’s all right, too, just a part of the process. As the butter melts slowly, the flour is gently stirred in, and you stir and watch and stir some more. Be patient. That’s the secret to a great roux: patience. In New Orleans, people take things slowly. We drive a little slower, speak a little slower. So, you have to be patient.
After you have the perfect roux, it’s time to add the Holy Trinity. That’s what we call the mixture of onion, celery, and bell peppers. It seems like everything in New Orleans is based on food and Catholicism. During Lent many New Orleanians observe meatless Fridays, and that means seafood gumbo and fried catfish specials. As a Southern-raised Muslim woman, I looked forward to the meatless Fridays. Those days I could order the gumbo without worrying about pork sausage being added to the pot.
Sunday is the Sabbath, which means people do their laundry on Mondays. While the washing and drying and folding is being done in the back of the house, red beans are slowly simmering on the stove in the kitchen. The beans have been soaked overnight, and they will simmer the majority of the day. The Holy Trinity and plenty of black and white pepper, tomatoes, cayenne, and other seasonings are added. After all that time and attention, they are no longer the simple red kidney beans that most people consider part of a meal. After that much time and care, they’re transformed. They are the meal.
When you visit someone’s home in New Orleans, be prepared to leave full. It doesn’t matter how well we know you, we will serve you something to eat. It’s how we show our love. But you won’t just leave full of food, you’ll also leave full of stories, laughter and pleasant memories.
The people of New Orleans know about good food. I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad-tasting meal in New Orleans. People there take food seriously. I have seen people get into shouting matches over Gumbo. “This tastes like dishwater,” the woman shouted, as she stormed out of the restaurant, her refund grasped firmly in hand, vowing to never return again. Good food is life in New Orleans. I remember a jingle for a now-defunct grocery store. It stated, “Food is what we care about! In New Orleans, we live to eat!”
All that good eating is fine in moderation. Sure, there is nothing wrong with indulging in Crawfish Étouffée on a special occasion, but in New Orleans many people eat as though everyday is a celebration. Unfortunately, some people in New Orleans, just like in the rest of the country, overeat and do not exercise. New Orleans is definitely playing its part in contributing to the United State’s obesity epidemic.
So, this is the city that I grew up in. This is the place I will always call home.
I was overweight for much of my life. To be honest, I never really paid much attention to that fact. So many people in New Orleans are large that I just had blinders on. I left New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and I now live in Atlanta. New Orleans will always have a piece of my heart. It wasn’t until I was a mother of two children that I began to really pay close attention to what I was putting into my body.
In May 2008, I started to watch my portions, read nutrition labels and exercise. I found ways to make the foods I loved growing up healthier by making substitutions. In a year, I lost nearly 50 pounds. People often ask me how I lost the weight, and I always feel like I am letting them down when I simply state, "I watched what I ate, controlled my portions and exercised." That really is the truth of it, though.
This past summer, my husband and I planned a trip back to our hometown. While I was looking forward to reconnecting with the people and places that shaped so much of who I am, I was nervous. I was scared that I would over-indulge in all of that good eating. I was scared of undoing all of the good I had done over the past year. A part of me felt that I might as well submit to the temptation, but I was also scared that if I did that, it would be too hard to get back on track once I returned home.
The great thing about New Orleans is that you can find a good meal in the most unlikely places. Even certain gas stations have been known to serve fantastic over-stuffed shrimp po’boys. So, on our first day back in the city, we decided to go to what some might call a “hole in the wall.” This place may not be Emeril’s, but they serve some of the best seafood I have ever had.
As we prepared to order, I realized that the menu board did list all of the fried selections that I remembered, but they also had grilled shrimp and fish. I was shocked. I thought this might have been a new addition to their menu, but the grilled selections had been there all along. I had just never bothered to look for them. I had a plate of some of the best grilled shrimp I had ever had, coupled with a salad.
Throughout my trip there, I found healthy options in the most unexpected places. While going to get beignets, those light, airy and deep fried French-style donuts, I discovered the café also served a vegetable omelet filled with tomatoes, mushrooms, and bell peppers. Once I realized that I could find healthy options, the focus turned away from the food, and onto friends, family and places that I hadn’t seen in over a year.
Don’t get me wrong, I did indulge in some of my favorites, but I didn’t overindulge. When I was served a plate of fried shrimp at my mother-in-law’s home, I ate them along with the mixed vegetables she had prepared for my benefit, and when I was full I pushed my plate away.
On my last morning there, I enjoyed plate of those iconic beignets, coated in powdered sugar, alongside a café-au-lait. I found myself full after just two of these confections, and I stopped eating. I didn’t feel the least bit guilty, nor did I feel deprived. I also enjoyed showing my children the sights and listening to the jazz musician performing near the café. The food was just a part of the experience. It was no longer the entire experience for me.
It was during this trip that I realized that part of me had changed for the better. This was a lifestyle change. The people of New Orleans may never stop serving up plates of fried seafood, but I could choose to indulge occasionally or choose a healthier option. I had started just hoping to normalize my weight, but along the way, I had normalized my feelings about food. I had discovered that food could be nourishing to my body and my soul in equal measure.
Amani Jabbar, who is a graduate student in an English literature and language program, regularly blogs at http://abayaandsneakers.wordpress.com.
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Is food a big part of your culture? Do family events and vacations tend to revolve around food? How have you learned to balance healthy eating with your family traditions?