THE TRANSPLANT TWENTY-FIVE
Last weekend I attended The All Chewbachus Spring Croquet Invitational and B-B Chew, a Chewbacchus ‘related’ (though not ‘officially sanctioned’ as even sci-fi walking parades in the Marigny have gone legit with insurance disclaimers) ‘Gathering of the Nerds.’ Held on the banks of the Mississippi River at a park below Audubon Zoo called ‘The Fly’ (for reasons unknown to me), this picnic and croquet free-for-all included many of the same attendees that were at the St. Patrick’s Day party I attended two months ago just as I was starting My Low Carb Lent. Happily, fifteen to twenty pounds less of me showed up this past Sunday, for that party two months ago had been the first major test I would face.
Now that Jazz Fest is over, the event this weekend provided a nice gateway through which to return to the early days of my quest to correct the dietary sins of My Year of Mardi Gras. Eschewing New Orleans living may seem an odd direction for this blog, but most transplants I talk to have had a similar experience; it’s like gaining your ‘freshmen fifteen’ in college, only your ‘transplant twenty-five’ tends to come at a time in your life when your metabolism has slowed and you can’t simply lose weight by exercising a bit and skipping the desert line for a few weeks!
PUTTING THE ‘S’ IN HOLI-DAY
Observing Lent in New Orleans is no easy matter, despite the heavily ritualistic Catholic culture. After the mass consumption of Mardi Gras the city may aspire to forty-seven days of fasting (if you count the Sundays, which is apparently a debatable point), but there are just too many good reasons to party here. Forty-seven days quickly gives way to four-to-seven days, and broken Lents come especially quickly in a year like this when a late Easter drags Ash Wednesday deep into March, meaning St. Patrick’s Day (season) falls within two weeks of Lent’s onset.
Although it doesn’t stretch out as long as Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day still fills nearly a week on the local calendar. Though not as influential on local culture as those of French, Spanish, African, Native-American, Sicilian, or perhaps even German ancestry, there was a significant influx of Irish during the Potato Famine, and when they requested a day to celebrate their ancestry the city responded, “Hey, invite the rest of us and we’ll give you the whole week!” Thus, this year the celebration began on Thursday the 13th with parades in every part of town, pub crawls, costumed gatherings, and block parties that raged daily until the actual holiday that Monday. As alcohol soaked as Mardi Gras is, St. Patrick’s Day may be worse. So considering I’d given up alcohol along with carbs for Lent, I knew if I could survive that five day gauntlet it would be downhill from there.
REVIVED, NOT DEPRIVED
I certainly didn’t want to hide away during Lent. I was trying to get healthier so I could live better, not live smaller (though I wanted to get smaller!) Besides, I wasn’t trying to embark on a trendy temporary diet but rather establish better habits long-term after a radical readjustment in the initial weeks, and I can’t remain the adventurous blogging extrovert that I am while staying locked away in my bedroom.
On the bright side, I’d learned fairly quickly that going cold turkey—which I feared would trip me up—actually made things easier. When you taste the refined carbs and sugars that have become the bane of the modern diet, your taste buds fire like crazy and set the slot machine in your brain to spinning. It feels likes you’re hitting the jackpot and coming up three lemons, but instead your body is just becoming a lemon, used car style. Giving carb up completely nips this compulsion in the bud. It also reduces mental fatigue and inner wrestling. “Should I have just a few beers? Can I stop at a couple of potato chips? How often should I cheat with dessert?” Once I was committed to my course of action, I could walk in a room, see a table full of sandwiches, chips and cakes, and immediately dismiss it all. There was no wrangling. The simplicity was refreshing.
Therefore, as I attended some of the smaller walking parades in the French Quarter that Thursday and Friday by myself it was a little awkward being the lone guy without a beer in hand, but it quickly passed. I ate before leaving home and brought some iced green tea to sip on. Once I got past that initial fear that I was missing out and reminded myself it’s not like I don’t know what beer or mashed potatoes taste like or have always wondered what being buzzed feels like I was fine. I just framed it as a new adventure—a fresh experience to revive my adventure, not deprive it. I’d still get an occasional urge for a beer or a po-boy, but it would pass quickly.
Spending all Saturday amongst hard-partying friends was a different story, though.
A PEACE PIPE AND A TOOL
Last year I missed the Irish Channel Parade so didn’t realize how massive it was. Not only is it the biggest St. Patrick’s parade, but it eclipses any Mardi Gras Super Krewe in length and participation. The Irish Channel is the traditional Irish neighborhood stretching from Magazine Street below the Garden District to the river. Pre-Katrina the area had devolved into a rough part of town, but has recently experienced a resurgence, having entered that transitional phase (I shan’t use the ‘g’ word here) of being attractive to students and professionals of modest means who haven’t been priced out of the neighborhood yet.
A friend I made through Chewbacchus, Zennie, lives there with her boyfriend and leader of the Browncoat Brass Band who apparently took exception to my comment while blogging about my first meeting that a brass band was in the corner ‘struggling’ to learn the Star Wars theme (apparently they weren’t even working on that song!) When I arrived that Saturday and locked my bike up said boyfriend did a double-take but extended his hand and offered a beer. Deep down I knew that accepting would be a NOLA version of smoking a peace pipe, but I politely declined. I didn’t explain that I’d brought a thermos of hot green tea instead. Sounding like a total tool certainly wouldn’t help (though at least the tea was green!)
After declining a few more drinks without explanation, I quietly poured some tea and took a seat. Fortunately, it was a friendly and engaging crowd and I had the opportunity to chat with several people I only knew through the krewe on Facebook such as Greg and Margie Cartwright who organized the croquet tournament. Both of them are attorneys by training and had great observations on New Orleans and life in general. In fact, Margie gave me a great quote which I’m keeping in my back pocket. Upon complaining how my former company had too many middle-mangers and program developers in distant offices who thought up ‘grand’ ideas in their vacuum that we were tasked to implement no matter how ineffective or absurd, she responded: “It’s easy to achieve the outcomes you desire when you control all the variables in your head.”
I’d been searching for years to word that sentiment so succinctly. Guess that makes me a pretty crappy writer!
On the other hand, I was pleased to learn that Greg had read a bit of the blog, and it provided a great springboard to talk about our experiences moving to the city as outsiders.
A NERD-TASTIC MEAT ORGY
Although abstaining from drink was a challenge, food was not an issue. One of the grand ironies I’ve encountered in this year is that in a city where life revolves around food and culinary skills are a particular point of pride, most of the people I’ve fallen in with don’t cook. My cooking obsession has led me to hosting gumbo parties and red beans on Monday, but most of the people who attend seem to have anywhere from a moderate interest in cooking to downright disdain. Conversely, in Jacksonville most of my friends were excellent cooks and every gathering was an excuse for a culinary throw-down. True to the trend, cooking doesn’t seem to rank amongst the Chewbacchus fandom obsessions.
Oh but grilling…that’s another story. These nerds love them some meat!
At the croquet picnic there were piles of delicious chicken and a smattering of pork (plus plenty of hot dogs, a sin I will only commit within the sacred confines of Wrigley Field!), but it was nothing compared to that St. Patrick’s Day party which was a downright orgy of meat!
When I arrived I’d tossed a couple of bags of Zapps from Mardi Gras that I now never intended to eat amongst the plates spilling over with ribs and chicken and sausage. Then someone brought venison. Soon lamb stew materialized. It had taken some stealth to be discrete with my green tea but I feasted upon meat with open abandon.
THE DANGERS OF FLYING CABBAGE #47
Some time after noon, having gorged on animal flesh like a caveman, I wandered over the parade route to meet some K.R.A.P.y friends I’d marched with in Chewbacchus who hadn’t attended the party. We wove our way to the front of the crowd and watched for two hours as men in kilts marched by and traded handmade paper flowers for kisses from ladies. And they just kept coming, marching in numbers that rivaled the German army marching into Belgium! The parade was huge!
Fortunately, my friends were having a sloppy good time and were too drunk to notice I was stone cold sober. At one point Caron, a K.R.A.P.er with kind things to say about the blog, slapped me on the shoulder and held up his drink. “Man, this is the drunkenest event in New Orleans. Everyone is too busy during Mardi Gras to get that wasted, but today is an excuse to stand in the streets and drink all day!” I tapped his plastic beer cup with my travel mug of green tea.
Standing amongst that crowd watching everyone get silly was the closest I came to cracking. I mean, it was St. Patrick’s Day(ish) for blarney’s sake! But deep down I knew that the first excuse would simply be a crack in a door for other excuses to push wide open.
Once I fought through the urge, I settled in and enjoyed the debauchery of my friends. Sometimes it’s nice being the sober person chuckling at everyone’s drunken silliness. After two hours, though, I was getting tired of standing and I was tired at watching men in kilts hand out flowers. This parade is famous for throwing cabbages by the ton off of floats, yet I hadn’t seen a single vegetable fly from the smattering of truck floats that had passed.
This was disappointing after hearing epic tales of people catching sacks full of cabbages or perching on a friend’s balcony to protect their windows and succeeding for the first 46 cabbages..but not necessarily #47! Thus, I took a break at a nearby picnic table. Upon returning I commented on the lack of flying vegetables. About that time a proper float designated ‘A’ finally passed and cabbages began raining into the crowd. We’d been there over two hours and the parade was just beginning in earnest!!!
CATCHING A RESPECTABLE QUANTITY OF HEAD
On Sunday I was having friends over for corned beef and cabbage (no potatoes) before Super Sunday (which was cancelled due to weather); therefor I was on a mission to catch dinner and soon forgot all temptation to imbibe. The hour and a half passed quicky as I zoned in, walking away with a respectable if not impressive two heads and a bag of carrots. The parade had arrived on our corner of Magazine around noon and it was after four by the time it wound down.
Afterwards I headed to the house for a little while and later I biked over to the block party stretching from Tracey’s and Parasol’s that I covered last year. I bumped into my K.R.A.P.y friends again. A sober street party, though, was definitely lame so hopped back on my bike and made it halfway home before I blew both tires on broken beads littering the streets!
A Sober Street Party Just Ain’t The Same
LENT ENDS, BUT NOT MY RESOLVE
After that wild weekend, St. Patrick’s Day itself was a tame affair. I me a friend who for some reason wanted Mexican, so I sat and watched him eat chips and salsa as we waited for yet another walking parade to arrive. I’d already passed through the worse of it, and, as predicted, it was easy from there on out. (It’s nice to have your biggest test out of the way early!)
During Wanee Fest the second weekend in April I snuck in sliced vegetables, sardines, shelled peanuts, and iced green tea. I was enjoying the Allman Brothers Band’s last stand so much I hardly felt a pang for a drink…or carb-laden carnival food. The closest I came to cracking was the weekend before during Springing the Blues in Jacksonville (I drove back to Florida four weekends in a row in March and April, which was much tougher than my diet!) where I met up with friends Kyle and Aimee from Mardi Gras. That first night on Friday was absolutely sublime as we sat in lawn chairs by the beach beneath a setting sun listening to a blues band tear it up. All the relaxing sights, sounds, smells, and other associations with enjoying a cold one converged, and when Kyle returned with a draft I almost cracked.
I did take a single sip, my only in all of Lent. Yet, if I’ve mention beer more than bread it’s because once I got the sugar out of my system I found it easy to munch on raw vegetables and nuts throughout the day and double my veggies with meat at dinner rather than have a starch. I learned to enjoy cottage cheese and celery and began tasting sweet where I never did before—a handful of peanuts would satiate my desire for dessert!—as my taste buds recalibrated from four decades of being overwhelmed by the intensity of processed sugar.
When Easter finally arrived, I felt so good that I decided to continue even though Lent had passed. That Sunday indulged in my first desert in nearly two months and had a couple of glasses of wine, but even made mashed cauliflower to go with my Easter ham and cabbage (akin to the corned beef and cauliflower hash I’d made with St. Patrick’s Day leftovers). The next day, it was back to business.
ONE DAY AT A TIME: FOOD SOBRIETY
I didn’t weigh myself at the start of this experiment, having left my scale in Florida out of disgust, but had easily topped 260 lbs. As of this writing I’ve dropped as low as 237, though I seem to be hovering around 239. An ideal weight for me is around 230, so I’ve continued to remain strict, though eventually I’ll add back potatoes, brown rice, and all fruits. (I’m going to try to mostly avoid corn, wheat, and sugar going forward…or as long as my will holds!) I have added back in some of the lower carb fruits such as melons and berries and have enjoyed a few glasses of wine the past month as well as two martinis, each on separate days (liquor had calories but no carbs.) Still, even my ‘cheat’ days, which most diets build in, have remained very modest and I haven’t had a beer since Mardi Gras, which amazes no one more than me.
I feel good and people keep telling me I look good. I’m too old and wise, though, to say this is the New Me. I’ve boasted about self-improvement too many times only to slide back into bad habits for me to declare myself permanently cured. I still don’t feel tremendous temptation to backslide, but I know I’ll be tested somewhere down the line. For now I feel like a recovered alcoholic trying not to fall off the wagon. All I can do is take my food sobriety one day at a time! Time will only tell where I land when the sense of adventure fades….