A couple of months ago, while listening to NPR on my way home from work, I found myself caught in the throes of a “driveway moment.” At issue was a discussion of David Kessler’s new book, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. Kessler, a former commissioner of the FDA, offered up a deeply unsettling look at some of the more unsavory elements of the American food industry, including concerted efforts to render certain foods more or less addictive and to expand the waistlines of average American consumers.
The driveway moment got to me; recently I bought a copy of Kessler’s book. My husband and I were heading out of town for a vacation, and I needed something to read. The book is filled with incredible tales of the food industry’s underhanded tactics of layering foods with sugar and fat and salt, of combining ingredients systematically to program our brains to overeat and overindulge.
By the end of the first chapter, I was motivated to assess my own eating habits. Twenty minutes into my flight, 20 minutes into my vacation, I decided I’d take some rather drastic steps toward a healthier culinary lifestyle. I decided I don’t really need fried shrimp poor boys every weekend. I don’t really need bread pudding every day. I could probably skip a few beignets. And I definitely don’t need sugary pralines at snack-time or Honey Bunches of Oats and café au lait to jump-start my mornings.
Turns out it was much easier to eat healthy while we were away on vacation. Drew and I ate out quite a bit, but nothing was fried; nothing was soaked in butter and cream; and, well, nothing was Cajun or Creole. And I felt great! But how could I possibly keep this up upon returning to the Big Easy? The food in New Orleans is addictive by nature. It always has been. How does one cope? How does one moderate?
Fortunately an impromptu dinner at Broussard’s last Friday laid some of these questions to rest. Located in the heart the French Quarter, about a half-block north of Bourbon, Broussard’s is something of a hidden gem. My husband and I wanted to find a nice little courtyard in the Quarter, a place where we could just relax after a long week. And though we don’t spend much time on the “lake side” of Bourbon, we decided on Broussard’s.
A private party was just finishing up in the courtyard, so we settled for a table in the Magnolia Room, which has large arched windows that open out onto the outdoor space. The room was beautiful — a former horse stable, so we were told, with large wooden beams, an enormous hearth, gorgeous chandeliers, alternating mirrored walls and of course unobstructed views of the courtyard.
After a glass of wine, I was prepared to take a brief hiatus from my health binge. I chose their Table D’hôte menu and Drew ordered the Redfish Broussards. After another glass of wine, I was absolutely prepared to let myself relapse, ready to forget Kessler’s book for the time being and sink my teeth into heavy, robust Creole cuisine.
But to Drew and my surprise the food left us entirely satisfied and without the familiar bloated feeling of overindulgence. Don’t get me wrong: We indulged. Big time. But the food was surprisingly light, suitable summertime fare. As appetizers we shared the Corn, Shrimp and Sweet Potato Bisque and Broussards Shrimp & Crabmeat Bayou Teche. Both dishes were incredible. I also managed to imbibe an entire bowl of Shrimp & Crabmeat Curry Soup (topped with sourdough croutons). It was one of the best soups I’ve ever tasted — creamy but not too rich, full of subtle notes and entirely refreshing. After that I literally forced myself to eat the entrée, Honey Lavender Salmon with Cous Cous and Arugula Salad, and dessert, Strawberry Shortcake. But it was well worth it.
By the time we finished our meal, the private party had moved into the main dining room. In no time we seized a table in the courtyard and put a nightcap on a splendid evening.
Our experience at Broussard’s is another example — as if we needed another — of the enduring charm and mysticism that is New Orleans. Just when I thought I needed to temper my captivation with the city and its rich cuisine, I stumbled upon yet another reason to mute the doubts and simply enjoy it all.
Which brings me back to Kessler’s book.
Kessler might be correct in his assessment that our neural circuitry has become overwhelmed by irresistible ingredients like sugar, fat and salt. If that’s the case, then I guess I’m doomed because I can’t fathom giving up meals like the one I had at Broussard’s last week, much less any of the other amazing meals I’ve had since moving here. Of course I’ll try to be conscious of grave excess. I’ll try to err on the side of moderation. But we all know it’s a bittersweet battle.
At least I’m armed with another lesson learned thanks to Broussard’s and David Kessler, whose book, by the way, now sits on a bookshelf wedged between Creole- and Cajun-style cookbooks.