A New Me in Old New Orleans


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
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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.

Do you have an inspirational story you think we should include on the dailySpark? Do you have any funny stories about weight loss? Send them to editor@dailyspark.com. Include the subject line: From the Mouths of Members

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?

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  • 54
    My husband is Brazilian, and therefore loves rice and beans. I used to make them every night. And not healthy brown rice. No, white rice. I don't make rice too often anymore, so he'll go out and get Brazilian food for lunch. When we go together, I get salad, veggies, vinaigrette, and chicken with bacon. I find that I am very satisfied when I'm done. Occasionally I will steal a bite of his rice and beans, but that's it. Just a bite. I don't need an entire serving. - 9/10/2011   7:36:18 PM
  • 53
    Thank you for this blog entry! We moved from New Orleans to Nebraska last summer and we just found out a couple weeks ago that we're moving back! We do miss some of our favs and we're working on changing some recipes my husband makes. He's from a long line of true Cajuns, so he knows how to cook most of that stuff. Where as my family are all transplants, with my grandparents moving to New Orleans 50 years ago. My mom always made red beans, but I always thought I didn't like red beans until I had my husbands. Shhhh... Don't tell my mom!

    I just joined sparkpeople about a month ago and I'm hoping I don't undo all my hard work the first week I'm there! - 5/17/2010   1:18:45 PM
    Hey there, local! I'm over in Lafayette. I tell my friends when you come to Louisiana, your stomach becomes the bottomless pit, and there's nothing but good food here. ;) That's great you found some balance and there's ways to enjoy New Orleans and other local favorites without going overboard. - 9/30/2009   12:47:42 PM
  • 51
    I loved your blog. Such a great story. We went to NOLA in April as a birthday trip. I had always wanted to go. I fell head over heels for the city. Of course I loved all the food but it was so much more than that, that touched my soul. The beauty of the people, stories, history, and architecture. I look forward to my next trip there and dream of it all the time. My next trip I will have to make a point to take advantage of the hotel's gym room though! Thanks for sharing! - 9/7/2009   11:05:36 AM
  • 50
    I know your story well. I live in Houma. Everything we cook starts with grease and ends with grease. Its difficult here to eat right when every food catagory here is full of fat and carbs. We struggle and sometimes I win but often I loose. I've learned to tweak our cajun favorites in a way that gives me the taste without sacrificing too much. Lord knows I could not live without crabs and crawfish...lol. - 8/29/2009   11:12:06 PM
  • 49
    What a great blog! As a lifelong New Orleanian, I can relate to almost everything you write. You are apparently more successful than I when it comes to eating out in the Crescent City. I'm great as long as I'm home, but I tend to stray when I walk into one of the incredible "N'Awlins" restaurants. I hope everyone will come and visit us and enjoy (moderately) our city. - 8/28/2009   12:52:33 PM
  • 48
    I am from New Orleans born on Burgundy& Iberville in the Quarters but grew up in the Lower 9th Ward. I will be moving back home Spet 26th but will be living Uptown/Carrolton. I promised myself my first meal will be a oyster po-boy.

    It can be done to eat healthy in n'Awlins. In fact, my weight came while living away from the city. Seasoned iv right & it does not have to be fried. I love your emphasis you can indeed indulge but with moderation.

    I love your writings.

    Ya Ya! - 8/27/2009   9:01:24 PM
  • KC7285
    I live on the Westbank of New Orleans and I agree the food here is better than anywhere else. You just have to choose wisely and control portions. The people are so alive here and lots of things revolve around food but, when at a gathering catching up with friends or family is a better focus than how much you can eat. - 8/27/2009   3:41:43 PM
  • 46
    Interesting. I hate to cook, so no, food isn't the center of my life. We do have Christmas and Thanksgiving, of course, but not a big family gathering weekly like some Cultures do. My SIL is Filipino and she has huge gatherings with all of them and lots of food, so I know what the article is about. - 8/27/2009   2:40:20 PM
  • 45
    Thank you so much for sharing your culture and your view point! I could not help but to feel your self worth, your confidence in making good changes in your life style. You are an excellent role model for us and your family! - 8/27/2009   11:58:44 AM
    I love this blog!!! - 8/27/2009   11:43:21 AM
  • 43
    Love it and I love NOLA!!! The best sea food is in Lousiana! - 8/27/2009   11:19:02 AM
  • 42
    Great thanks !!!! - 8/27/2009   11:16:51 AM
  • 41
    Great blog! I can relate to everything you say about the food. My weight got to it's highest point ever about two years after moving south from NY. Before that I never had crawfish, okra or beans but once I tried it, oh it was so good there was no stopping me!

    Now I make pinto beans like I've been here my whole life, minus the bacon grease much to my MIL's disdain. Beans have become one of my favorite low fat, high protein, veggie packed options!

    And everything else, the fried foods, the gravies, I've learned to eat in little bitty portions with healthy options making up the rest of the meal.

    Congratulations on your weight loss and lifestyle change, and for teaching your children how to enjoy the full experience! - 8/27/2009   10:45:37 AM
  • BEBBY01
    Did you ever get my attention. So well written and truthful. I am from the midwest and always dreamed of going back to see NOLA. I was there as a kid. Took my daughter there for her high school graduation present and we went back every year after up until last year. She took her husband and I watched their baby. I miss it, think about it all of the time. The food, the music, the whole vibe of the city. I have been trying to plan a trip in Oct. for my 50th birthday but she can't go. Who knows, if I do good on this diet, maybe this will just have to be my present to myself. Thanks for making my night better! - 8/27/2009   3:08:26 AM
  • 39
    I am not from New Orleans
    I am not Muslim
    Yet every single word spoke to me!
    Thank you for your wonderful insight and perspective! - 8/27/2009   12:28:22 AM
  • 38
    I SO thoroughly enjoyed your descriptive writing! Thank you and congratulations on incorporating moderation into your daily life AND on the weight loss. Not a simple task, I imagine living in New Orleans.
    My mind went back to Muriel's. :~) - 8/26/2009   9:39:27 PM
    I loved this blog. It is so apropos, even though I don't live in New Orleans. I have always celebrated family functions by the type and amount of food. Now, I see I can focus more on the fun and family, and less on the food. Thanks for the inspiration. - 8/26/2009   3:32:11 PM
  • 36
    Yes,indeed ! I enjoyed reading your blog .I was born in New Orleans and moved north with my parents, who were also born in The Big Easy ,when I was a small child.Luckily,I spent my summers in New Orleans and Houma .Gratefully,whether north or south I was blessed to pull up to a table laden with "good' food that someone in my family had "put their foot in" .I started learning to cook when I was 9 years old .I developed in interest in cooking after having spent a summer in Houma watching my adult cousin Terry preparing every meal as if he were serving royalty.I guess the same cupid that struck Terry with his love for cooking managed to graze me with the same bow.
    I learned how to cook all the traditional dishes and still prepare gumbo and red beans and rice (which I stretch my bean cooking out anywhere from 5 to 8 hours ),but I don't cook these dishes as frequently as I did when I lived in New Orleans as a young adult.Now,if I cook red beans I consider it a treat and file gumbo is a rare treat usually reserved for family holidays..
    Hurricane Katrina caused a lot of pain,but out of the pain I've learned not to discount the importance of family, fond memories (watching the live chickens being delivered to the Circle Food Market in the 7th Ward),and a plate of sho' nuff, stick to your ribs ,made with love good eating. - 8/26/2009   3:29:09 PM
  • 35
    This was a great blog. Congrats on your weight loss. I live in Florida, but we're Saints fans and travel to New Orleans often. It is true, there is so much good food (and drinks) to temp a person. I try to just eat small portions when I do eat the things I know I probably shouldn't. GO SAINTS!!!! - 8/26/2009   12:52:48 PM
  • 34
    I was in New Orleans in 2004 visiting my brother. OMG I fell in love the place, and people and of course the food. They have wonderful food there. I am so excited that you found all the right things to eat and was also able to indulge in some of your favorites.

    I plan a trip back there some day soon and hope I too will be able to do as you did and realize that although the food is outstanding I can make choices for the better.

    Thanks for sharing your blog I really enjoyed it - 8/26/2009   12:51:21 PM
  • 33
    Great post. I just went to New Orleans for the first time and gained 5 lbs in a few days sampling everything fried and yummy and just letting go for a while - so I can see where you're coming from. Next time, I'll be more reasonable with my eating, but I just wanted to try everything! Though... you know I will be getting a shrimp po boy and some red beans and rice too. Can't be an angel all the time! It's all about moderation! - 8/26/2009   12:44:48 PM
  • 32
    Thank you for sharing and for posting this. You are a very eloquent writer! - 8/26/2009   12:43:35 PM
  • NONNI060809
    I was enchanted by your language describing this amazing city. What a vivid writer you are! Thank you for this post!

    I have been to New Orleans a few times for conferences, and, of course, made sure I saw all that I could during my trips. The city has a beating heart, I think. It is so alive!

    I remember the fat little sparrows outside of Cafe du Monde....too much of a good thing for them, I'm afraid, hanging out there and eating beignet crumbs all day from the outside patio. There is an analogy right there for me! - 8/26/2009   12:39:45 PM
  • 30
    You have a wonderful way with words. I really got the sense of your city. Thanks for sharing!

    Terry - 8/26/2009   12:22:57 PM
  • 29
    Thanks so much for sharing your story Amani. Your story was uplifting, motivational and encouraging.
    Hilary - 8/26/2009   11:45:55 AM
    This was a fantastic blog. Really enjoyed hearing about life in New Orleans and the ability to keep on the healthy side of a beautiful culture. - 8/26/2009   11:37:05 AM
  • 27
    interesting article! I believe it to be acurate! Loud music always geets me moving - 8/26/2009   11:34:48 AM
    thanks for sharing.. i feel like i'm on the opposite right now- going from a healthy lifestyle and surrounding to an unhealthy (california to texas..lol) but your story has motivated me to stay strong and disciplined :) - 8/26/2009   11:28:21 AM
  • 25
    Thank you for sharing this blog. Thank you, SparkPeople, for featuring it. Otherwise I might have missed it. I was born in Hotel Dieu on Canal Street in New Orleans and graduated from what was long ago called Sacred Heart on the cemetary end of Canal Street. It is my home and I cherish this very special city. How right you are that food, and love, and stories (oh, the stories!!) are the way of life here. There is no place on earth like it. Whether your roots grow generations deep here or you are a sightseeing visitor, she wraps her arms around you and calls you her own, and you always feel connected to her. I often tell people my beloved city is enchanted... and I believe it. Thank you again for speaking the heart of so many of us who are, as Frank Davis puts it, naturally N'awlins. You have lifted my heart this day. - 8/26/2009   11:23:39 AM
  • 24
    Both sides of my family are huge into food. One side is from Italy, where every visit turns into giant pans of lasagna and lots of leftovers. My great grandmother on my father's side makes the fried chicken they serve in heaven. - 8/26/2009   11:19:55 AM
  • 23
    This is so beautifully written. Thank you for sharing - I savored every word like I would a good meal. And welcome to Atlanta (a few years late...) - 8/26/2009   11:16:49 AM
    great post - 8/26/2009   11:08:49 AM
  • 21
    Amani, thank you for your wonderful reflections on New Orleans. In June, I had the very good fortune to travel to the city. What a remarkable place. You're right. There really is no way to have a bad meal. Everywhere I ate, the food was amazing. I had the beignets and cafe au lait at the Cafe Du Monde. That's all they sell there folks ! Beignets and coffee with chickory. Plus they are open 24/7.

    I also had cheese cake at Copelands and a fabulous seafood gumbo. Ask my co-workers how many times I raved about the spinach dip. And to be honest, I ate ALL my beignets and as much powered sugar as I could gather short of tipping the plate into my mouth. ;) I was on vacation, I most certainly was going to indulge in as many local specialties as possible.

    Good food. Good music and residents who couldn't have been nicer. I had a marvelous time. My only regret was that I didn't have a chance to spend more time. I enjoyed those beignets soooo much, I took a picture of them. The photo is in my blog if you'd like to see them. yummers....

    Okay, so back to the question, is food part of my family culture ? You betcha ! Being from a decent sized Italian family, food has always been important. Good food not only nourishes the body, it nourishes the soul. Sunday meals, holidays, birthdays, any time we could get together to celebrate keeps us close.

    How do I balance all the food ? I've learned to eat all the goodies in moderation. If I overindulge, I don't worry about it. I just try to eat a little better for the rest of the week. I don't normally eat all the foods we have during feasts. I do eat very healthfully. but I do like to enjoy myself too.

    All things in moderation.

    - 8/26/2009   10:53:06 AM
    We just returned from a week in New Orleans. It was a great place to visit. Our hotel was in the Old French Quarter, so it was within walking distance of all that we had planned to see. Yes, the food was great and yes, there were food other than fried available. So I too indulged, but it was controlled indulgence. I was able to eat a variety of salads and steamed or grilled fish. I also had my beignets on our last day in New Orleans, which was shared with my husband. I was completely satisfied with having
    1 1/2 beignets. I did shake off the excess powdered sugar, but they were still great to eat.

    After 27 years of promising to take me to New Orleans, we finally got there. We both enjoyed the trip so much that it will be sooner than 27 years when we visit again. - 8/26/2009   10:39:43 AM
    Wonderul blog! Made me feel like I was back in New Orleans myself. Please write more....I throughly enjoyed this blog! - 8/26/2009   10:31:40 AM
  • 18
    Being from Louisiana, I can totally relate to this blog. It is definitely a culture that revolves around food. When I go home to visit, I have to coach myself through family functions, celebrations, and even just a night on the town. Congrats on your great success...it wasn't until I moved away from Lafayette, LA that I was able to get control of my health and lose 50 lbs. I can say now that my life doesn't revolve around food...but when I go home...food if definitely still "part of the experience." Thanks for sharing! - 8/26/2009   10:25:03 AM
  • 17
    Terrific Blog! So descriptive and well written. I felt like I was right there with you on your life journey. Congratulations. - 8/26/2009   10:11:18 AM
    I am also a New Orleans transplant but living in Philadelphia! Thank you for sharing your experience because I hear you! It's amazing how much food is life down there. Thank God you can't get real French bread up here! It's hard when you are back with your family or back in town to not get swept away in the cuisine where every meal is an adventure. My uncle's will catch a ton of fish and just fry it up or we'll have a crawfish boil which in theory isn't bad until you consider the one or two cans of salt poured into the pot never mind the beer you drink with it... I love NOLA eating but it's definitely filled with hard habits to break! I like things spicy, salty, creamy, and rich... which is not the way to slim down! Anyway! Thanks again and great job on the 50lbs! - 8/26/2009   10:09:42 AM
    Now you got me home sick, I live in New Orleans more than 30 years until Katrina, I'm now in Beaumont; I miss not just the food, I miss the freedom of move around, the easy access of from point A to B, I miss the people, I miss my friends from work, the bar that I go to after work to drink cranberry juice and listen to the music, play a little video game on the machine;wait for my friend close up the place at 4 am, than get a cab to go home. I miss the river walk, the sandwiches from Gino's, Cafe Du Monde,Dooky Chase,Michael's Mid City Grill ----the list goes on and on! - 8/26/2009   10:08:22 AM
  • 14
    Congrats on your weight loss, and transition to a healthy lifestyle! Woo! :D I'm also glad you got to return to your home, and see it being reborn right along with your life changes. :D - 8/26/2009   9:59:44 AM
  • 13
    What a great post, and so well-written - now I'm craving some Louisiana flavor! I think I'll be making jambalaya this weekend :-). - 8/26/2009   9:42:17 AM
  • 12
    I'm from the northern midwest and have never been to New Orleans, but I remember as a kid my mom telling me the only way to get good gravy or white sauce is to start with a good roux... And we make our roux just like you do in New Orleans. I recently showed my boyfriend how to do it also and he has commented that is the best start for his white sauce. I'll have to find out from my mom where she learned the roux trick as we are all from here in the midwest. :-) - 8/26/2009   9:31:40 AM
  • 11
    I am a fellow Louisianaian! I know exactly what you mean
    about the traditional tastes of food, and yes people do
    take cooking cajun food pretty personal! All the cookouts
    at festivals throughout Louisiana, New Orleans is just one
    place in Louisiana, the Bigger Place in Louisiana, but
    cooking throughout Louisiana measures about the same! - 8/26/2009   9:22:53 AM
  • 10
    I can see how you would gain weight living in New Orleans. After Katrina, I came out to help with the clean up, I fell in love with the food there, it was a real experience I will never forget. I think the month I was out there I gained about 10lbs. - 8/26/2009   9:17:10 AM
    A lovely blog entry. You write extremely well, loved the loving depth to which you described the food and the way that same love for the bounty of this beautiful place seems not to have died but shifted.

    Congratulations on your weight loss. Yea, just watching what we eat and exercise ... so many people want you to give them a magic formula but that is what works.

    You look great! - 8/26/2009   9:14:42 AM
  • 8
    Great blog--and great mix of traditions in your life. I only met 'roux' a few years ago when a small restaurant in the city I was living started cooking New Orleans. They didn't last (it was too different for the hide-bound city) but, oh, I did enjoy the flavors--they are a symphony: very complex and very harmonious. - 8/26/2009   8:54:21 AM
  • 7
    You've got me thinking about crawfish boils and shrimp poboys and king cakes. I'm not N'Awlins born but my husband and son were... and I spent 12 years enjoying all the great food and culture there. Miss it very much. - 8/26/2009   8:44:58 AM
  • 6
    This is a great blog... I've never been to New Orleans (I'm from Northern Ontario Canada), and none of these "traditional" foods are familiar to me. Now, I would LOVE to visit!! - 8/26/2009   8:40:37 AM
  • 5
    I have always wanted to go and visit New Orleans. Always have been intrigued by the various groups living there and their love of life including their food. My husband is a Creole (Krio) from Sierra Leone and apparently, their tasty food is very similar to that of New Orleans. I would love to visit BUT not to put on weight. - 8/26/2009   8:40:16 AM

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