The three businessmen were eating lunch the way people eat lunch in New Orleans, with no apologies, no regrets and no sport coats--the latter being left in the car, they explained, to keep the scent of grease from permeating their threads.
Huddled at Uglesich's, a 1920s-era joint that mixes smart Creole cooking with a crackling deep fry, they dove into a round of beers and a dozen raw oysters.
David Schulingkamp had fried trout.
Angus Cooper II had fried oysters.
His son, Angus Cooper III, had fried soft-shell crab.
More beers arrived, followed by two bowls of chocolate-brown crawfish bisque and a basket of French bread, buttered. Finally, they were confronted by a steaming plate of golden fried grits, slathered with a thick gravy of shrimp and cream.
"Now that's dangerous," said Schulingkamp, who had eaten here the day before.
"No question about it," said Cooper the elder.
The waiter returned again. "Any room left for your side of fries?" he asked.
He meant on the table, not in their bellies.
What other American city could possibly be fatter? As if it were any great news to the people of New Orleans, a recent study by a coalition of calorie-counting health experts in Washington, D.C., concluded that 37.5% of adults here qualify as obese, putting the Big Easy--or should that be the Big Greasy?--at the top of the nation's gut-busting cities.
The survey, based on data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, defined obesity as at least 20% over the weight recommended for a person's height. That propelled Norfolk, Va., San Antonio, Kansas City, Mo., and Cleveland into the top five. Los Angeles, with 25.2% of adults in the overweight range, ranked near the bottom of the list, which was anchored by the svelte folks of San Diego, Minneapolis and Denver. But on what sort of self-flagellating diet must they be subsisting?
"Eating in New Orleans is an art form," proclaimed Schulingkamp, 48, a ruddy-faced shipping executive who, unlike some New Orleanians, exercises and nibbles more leanly at home to balance his indulgences. "We have a style of cooking here, of flavor, of atmosphere--the totality of this place--that speaks not only to your stomach, but to your mind and to your soul."
In most of America, obesity is linked to poverty, a function of poor nutrition, bad eating habits and few recreational outlets. New Orleans also struggles with those factors--along with a soupy landscape and paralyzing humidity--but it's hard to imagine another place where the culture of food (and drink) is so embracing or where the sheer act of shoveling it in can be so divine.
New Orleanians, after all, aren't getting fat on Twinkies and Big Macs. They're wallowing in pools of bearnaise sauce and tubs of pork-spiced red beans, wolfing down Presto Log-size po'boys and Frisbee-shaped muffulettas. Their restaurants are institutions (breakfast at Brennan's, lunch at Galatoire's, dinner at Antoine's) that dish up time-honored comforts never tainted by the nouvelle: coffee and beignets at Cafe du Monde, oysters at the Acme, barbecue shrimp at Pascal's Manale, bread pudding souffle at Commander's Palace.
"Every time I get outside of a 100-mile perimeter of New Orleans, I'm astonished by how bad the food starts to get," said Andrei Codrescu, the Romanian-born poet and National Public Radio commentator, who compares the licentiousness of his adopted hometown to a blend of Hong Kong and pre-Castro Cuba. "I would certainly rather die for 1,000 great meals here than from meanness and self-denial and sadness in one of the over-clean, antiseptic suburbs of America."
Yet it is not mere gluttony that multiplies chins and inflates spare tires in New Orleans. There is something more profound, even spiritual, about a people who await the arrival of crawfish season as if it were a visit from the pope himself. During Lent, when Catholics are asked to sacrifice a carnal pleasure dear to their hearts, some devout souls actually give up fried foods for 40 days.
Eating here is about family and history and geography and community, about turning a pot of piquant jambalaya into an all-day celebration and filling it with any critter that doesn't bite you first. At some restaurants, waiters and customers spend lifetimes together, then bequeath their jobs and tables to the next generation of descendants. Every Sunday in New Orleans, grown-ups still go home to have dinner at their mom's.
"We're not too fat; we're just too short," said Joe Cahn, a wild and crazy gourmand, who last year traveled to every NFL stadium in the country, hosting a Louisiana tailgate party at each stop in his Holiday Rambler motor home.
In a culture shaped by the Mississippi River and steeped in French, Spanish, Italian, Caribbean, Indian, Irish and African heritage, "food is our common language," added Cahn, the 49-year-old founder of the New Orleans School of Cooking. While Northern cities, with their stern Puritan roots, viewed "food merely as fuel for getting back to work," the Latin pulse of New Orleans ensured that eating would never be just a pit stop, but the main event.
"New Orleans food," Cahn said, "makes you want to hug somebody."
He was lunching this March day at Mother's, along with his friend Jerry Amato, the burly, bearded, cigar-chomping owner. As if to prove the point, Amato kept summoning his cooks to bring out more down-home favorites, filling the table with a fete of crawfish etouffee, seafood gumbo, red beans and rice, fresh-baked ham, fried oysters, jambalaya spiked with andouille and a rib-sticking bread pudding.
"Fat is what makes food comfortable--it's what fills you with a sense of well-being and happiness," Amato, 46, explained. On a nearby wall, he'd posted a local newspaper clipping that showed a crowd of doctors, in town for a cardiology convention, chowing down at his lunch counter. "If I lightened up all my food," he said, "I'd be out of business."
Still, the national obsession with good health--generally regarded here as an alarming trend best ignored--hasn't entirely bypassed New Orleans.
Go into the gift shop at Aunt Sally's (where the legendary pralines have "more calories than the law allows," said general manager Patricia McDonald) and you'll actually find a display of diet cookbooks, including "Louisiana Lite" and "Low-Calorie Cajun Cooking."
Paul Prudhomme, the rotund chef who helped put contemporary Cajun cuisine on the map, now boasts of losing more than 100 pounds with his low-fat recipes. Ella Brennan, matriarch of the great restaurant clan, also jumped on the bandwagon after she, her brother and his wife all underwent bypass surgery--within three months of each other. "I gave my body to the hospitality industry," she has often said.
To dramatize the seriousness of coronary disease in New Orleans--a place he calls "the grease capital of the universe"--former city health director Brobson Lutz once staged a news conference amid the crumbling tombs of Lafayette Cemetery. Noting that many of their occupants were victims of yellow fever, he insisted that "the present epidemic, while it doesn't move as fast, is just as deadly."
Then he took reporters across the street for a little something to eat at Commander's Palace.
"It's sort of, 'Do what I say, not what I do,' " conceded Lutz, who considers himself fairly trim and healthy. "I figure that if I went on some kind of cholesterol lowering exercise-diet routine, I would probably get an extra .4 years of life. But I'd rather eat like I want."
It's a strain of gastronomic schizophrenia that runs deep in New Orleans. This is the city that spawned the original Ruth's Chris Steak House and the Popeye's fried chicken chain, the latter boasting 48 franchises in the local phone directory alone. At the same time, two of America's most famous diet gurus emerged from this town: Jenny Craig (raised in a Cajun home as Genevieve Guidroz) and Richard Simmons (who hawked pralines on a street corner as a child).
"I know what this food is and I know what it can do, but I let my stomach outrun my thinking," said C.J. Charbonnet Jr., a 42-year-old wholesale meat vendor, as he plowed through a mound of smothered-onion hamburger steak and baked macaroni at Rocky and Carlo's, the quintessential blue-collar feed bag in nearby Chalmette.
He explained that his mother, Glenda Vaucresson Charbonnet, raised him on the grand Creole cooking of their forbearers. Then, after her parents died, she went on a health kick, serving only "bland, steamed stuff . . . like hospital food." He admits that she looks even younger than he does now, but he remains firmly in the clutches of his lifelong cravings.
"She created a monster," he said, patting his belly.
A few tables away, 56-year-old Robert "Red" Crowe seconded that motion. "In other parts of the country, they eat to live," the barrel-shaped fisherman said. "Here, we live to eat."
Then he returned to the business of his butter beans and pork.