Food is a powerful thing for me. I’m not sure if I’m different from others in that respect, or if it tends to go hand in hand with having IBD for such a long time. Let me clarify here, I’m not talking about being a “foodie” (a word which I happen to loathe for reasons unknown to even myself). I’m talking about an intense relationship, one similar to that with a lover, a family member, or religion. I experience things through food. Places, events, cultures – even emotions.
I would venture to guess that this intensity goes way back to the time frame about a year before I was finally diagnosed; I would have been about 20 years old and was beginning to restrict my diet more and more to try and alleviate the unbearable symptoms I was having at the time. First raw vegetables were cut out, then fruit, followed by dairy. Cooked vegetables didn’t work either, so those were nixed, as were beans and most carbohydrates, including plain white pasta. After about three months, I was subsisting on Ensure shakes and water alone, and even that wasn’t keeping the symptoms at bay.
A good friend of mine recently reminded me of a trip we had taken to Ireland together during that time, mentioning that she remembered having to help me carry my luggage through the airport since I had so much. I hadn’t packed tons of clothes or shoes. No, I had an entire suitcase devoted to my Ensure shakes, as anything else left me crippled with pain and praying for death. The entire ten days we were there, I carted them around with us so I’d have some sort of sustenance. I can’t believe I had forgotten that memory until she brought it up.
Shortly after that trip, I was fortunate enough to go on a cruise as a guest of someone who worked on the ship, and as I was going to be staying with him in his cabin, there wasn’t going to be room to store my Ensure shakes. For that week, I allowed nothing except water to pass my lips all day long until dinner, at which point I allowed myself a dinner roll or two, pushing the rest of the food around on my plate in an attempt to distract my dining companions from my strange behavior. I think I dropped about six pounds that week, weight that I really couldn’t afford to lose.
Once I was diagnosed and started on medications, the symptoms improved only slightly, so it was roughly about five years of this complete breakdown of my relationship to food. Five years is a long time. Food scared the shit out of me (quite literally), and I came to associate almost all of it with pain, bleeding, endless days and sleepless nights. It was such an odd concept for me, someone who comes from a family that has always enjoyed eating and drinking together as one of the cornerstones of our belief system. I don’t think I even walked down most aisles of the grocery store during that entire time. I’d simply walk in, head to the dietary section, pick up my Ensure and head to the checkout counter. That was it.
All that changed with the first surgery in November of 2006. I’ve written about that before, and the complete 180 degree turn I did afterward, wandering up and down each of the aisles at Whole Foods, clutching the gift card my aunt had sent me to celebrate the fact that I was able to eat real food again. Food felt foreign in my hands as I picked it up, and the smells in the produce section were almost overwhelming. Tasting the food for the first time (after I inhaled the infamous roasted vegetable panini, of course) again was so strange. The texture, the different areas it hit on the tongue. It was all a revelation. We’re all subject to that first experience with real food as babies, of course, but I’d venture to guess that none of us remember those first encounters. I was tasting things for the first time again, essentially a born-again virgin to the food world.
There were many more surgeries that followed, of course, and due to the number of them and the severity of the issues, I spent about six months with a feeding tube over the course of the next several years, my only nourishment getting pushed into my body via either TPN or the gastric tube in my stomach. Coming back from those stretches was even more difficult, as the mere sight or smell of any kind of food would immediately make me nauseous. The dieticians at the hospital described the experience as similar to those recovering from anorexia. Once I was finally discharged, my mother spent weeks trying to make me my favorite things to get me to eat, and none of it worked. Sometimes it took up to six weeks for something to finally smell good to me and gave me enough of a push to try it. Usually it was something totally random like guacamole or pumpkin soup. No rhyme or reason to it at all.
Given all that, you can probably understand then, why food is such a powerful force for me. When we travel, instead of looking up tourist attractions to visit, I’m scanning the restaurant scene, planning out where I’d like to eat – after such a long time spent being deprived of food, it is my opinion that I simply do not have the time or patience for a bad meal.
Which brings me to New Orleans.
For my birthday, typically my husband tries to plan a getaway for us, as he knows my love of travel and food, not to mention any excuse to play with my camera and get some pictures, as photography is something I enjoy as a hobby. Last year, we spent a week in Santa Fe, and this year when we were discussing options, I told him it had to be New Orleans. Believe it or not, at 35 years old I had never been before, likely a product of the whole “I spent my 20’s either in surgery or in the hospital” thing. Plus, drinking until I puked and running around half-naked collecting strands of beads to wear had never really been my thing. That was the extent of my perception of New Orleans, though I knew they had an amazing food scene and I was anxious to try it. There’s something to the principle of eating things where they’re done best (at least, that has always been my thought process), so I had never bothered to try gumbo, bananas foster or anything Creole because I hadn’t been to the right place to experience it.
I think my insistence to finally do New Orleans and do it right came about because of all the recent hospital stays for bowel obstructions. Given the last year or so, it’s pretty clear that we’re building up to another crescendo of activity, which I’m guessing will result in some form of surgery by the end of the year. I don’t like to be pessimistic; I’m simply looking at the evidence and where we’re at now, and it ain’t good. I know that because of all the surgeries and scar tissue, the amout of small intestine I have left is basically the minimum amount one can work with, so if anything else has to be cut out or removed, I’ll likely need at least supplemental TPN for the rest of my life. Not a fun possibility to consider. So, if I’m going to be deprived of food again for an extended period of time, I wanted some memories to savor, damnit.
In preparing for the trip, a former colleague of my husband’s who was born and raised in New Orleans and now works for The Brennan Family restaurants, reached out to us and asked us to be his guests for dinner one evening at The Palace Café, and lunch another day at Tableau. Um, okay. Then on my own, I listed about a dozen other places that looked really good, and figured we’d get to as many of them as we could. As we prepared to leave, friends were telling me about voodoo tours and other attractions, and I listened to them, smiling to myself. No, that was not to be the purpose of this trip. I was going to eat and take some pictures. End of story.
Upon arriving into the city, after checking in to our hotel, we walked around the French Quarter for a couple of hours, grabbed a café au lait at Café du Monde, and then headed back to get changed for dinner. I had picked a place fairly close for the first night called Herbsaint, and the meal there did not disappoint. There was an arugula salad with grilled leek vinaigrette and shaved parmesan for an appetizer, followed by baked asiago cheese. My entrée, which was baked drum in a Provencal broth with mussels, tasted incredible, light but incredibly full of flavor at the same time. Having stopped my Flagyl for a few days before the trip so I could enjoy a little wine, I had a glass of Sauvignon Blanc to pair it with. Dessert was a banana brown butter tart with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. It was all amazing. I was stuffed, being accustomed to eating smaller portions more regularly throughout the day than three large square meals, but that was a small price to pay. We walked slowly back to the hotel afterward and slept like the dead.
The following day, we woke early and threw on jeans to head down to Mother’s for breakfast, a place my husband had been waxing poetic about for months. He had fond memories of many breakfasts there in his youth; he warned me that it was a dive, so I was prepared. Good soul food cooking is what they served up; eggs, a biscuit, fruit and grits were plenty for me, though he reveled in something called “debris”, which is essentially all the little bits of meat left over after cooking sausage, bacon, beef, etc. all thrown together in a nice jus. We had planned to do some more walking around after breakfast, but torrential rains forced us inside, so we spent about four hours at the WWII museum, which was much more interactive and extensive than I had thought it would be.
Hungry after a morning of educational pursuits, we headed back to the hotel, passing The Ruby Slipper café on the way and ducking inside for some lunch, which was perfectly timed as the downpours became heavier again. Given the weather outside, it was a perfect day for some shrimp and cheddar grits, after which a nap was most certainly in order. As we got ready for dinner that evening, I knew I’d need a good strategy, as I wasn’t nearly hungry enough for a large meal. We headed to The Palace Café and met up with my husband’s friend and his wife, and I enjoyed a lighter dinner of a cup of seafood gumbo and an appetizer (as my entrée) of grilled oysters, which luckily left me room for dessert, the fabled bananas foster I had heard so much about. Well worth the hype, in my humble opinion.
The next morning I cried uncle, telling my husband that I couldn’t handle another big breakfast when we had lunch reservations with his friend at Tableau at noon, so we decided to head over to Café du Monde for café au lait and beignets, which at least felt a lot lighter in the stomach than I’m sure they actually were. From there, we walked all over the town and back with my camera at the ready, taking pictures of windows and doors, which is sort of my photographic obsession. I love old doors, the more deteriorated and weather beaten, the better. Four hours later, our feet ready for a break, we met our friend at Tableau and got a tour of the entire building, which had been renovated a couple of years ago. The history alone to the place is amazing, but the way in which it was decorated is simply perfect. It sits right on Jackson Square, and there is a wraparound terrace overlooking the square, a courtyard with more seating, a wine room and several dining areas. Seated by a large window overlooking the courtyard, I ordered an appetizer of oysters wrapped in bacon skewered on a rosemary sprig (amazing) and then a half portion of the roasted gulf fish in a praline sauce, which was served over a bed of haricots vert. It was awesome. Again, the half portion of the entrée was intentionally done to allow for maximum dessert consumption, and for the table we split an order of vanilla bean crème brulee and the monkey bread (made of biscuits) with a brown sugar glaze and vanilla ice cream. Thank god we ended up walking about six miles that morning all over town.
After lunch it was back to the hotel for a little rest before our final dinner of the trip with another one of my husband’s colleagues, this time at Domenica, inside the Roosevelt Hotel. I figured this would be a good ending for the trip, as we had been stuffed to the gills with good southern home cooking, and an Italian meal sounded like a nice way to balance out the day. The three of us shared a nice cheese plate (a robiola, a parmesan, two blue cheeses and some prosciutto) along with wine before pizzas; margherita for me, prosciutto and arugula for my husband and a third one we all split that had roasted carrot, hazelnuts and shaved brussel sprouts. Sounds really weird, but it was very good. Never one to pass up dessert, I went on the lighter side with fresh strawberries topped with cream and a few crushed meringues and a cappuccino.
The next morning, we packed up our things early and had breakfast in the restaurant at the hotel; since we would be in the car for a long stretch I ate a more “normal” meal for me of a couple of poached eggs, some wheat toast and a side of fresh berries. I popped a couple of lomotil before we left and we hit the road, wanting to get past Houston before rush hour. I was fine for the first hour or two, but by the third hour, I started getting nauseous. That’s not uncommon for me during long car trips, so when we pulled into a gas station, I got some dry crackers to snack on and we continued along.
Another hour later, and I began having mild cramping in my stomach, so I started drinking more water and asked my husband to stop at a rest area so I could walk around and stretch my legs a little bit. I must have looked uncomfortable, because at that point he asked me if everything was okay. I confessed that I was showing early signs of a bowel obstruction, and told him that I wanted to get home and take a nice long walk and drink one of my Roto-Rooter sodas. I thought that would do the trick, but we were still about three hours from home at that point. Another hour passed and I was certain it was an obstruction. The pain was sharp and intense coming in waves every five minutes or so. Tired an exasperated with my body, I told my husband that we should just stop at the ER downtown on the way home and hope that I would pass it that night without having to be admitted. As we drove, the skies opened up and torrential rains continued for the next hour or so of the drive. My husband was torn between trying to drive carefully and just wanting to get me comfortable as soon as possible.
As we neared downtown, he told me that we should try to go home first and see if walking would do the trick; as we had been cooped up in the car for so long I hadn’t gotten any real activity so far that day and both of us thought that was likely part of the problem. He told me if that didn’t help, we would get back into the car and head right over to the hospital. I think the poor thing just didn’t want the vacation to end on such a sour note and didn’t want to be cooped up in the ER for another six hours, not that I blamed him in the least.
We got home and unpacked, and the two of us walked the mile and a half loop around our neighborhood that we usually do with the dogs each morning. Once back, I sipped some hot tea and used my heating pad on my stomach, and slowly but surely, the obstruction began to pass. Lesson learned; before any lengthy car trip now, we’ve discussed that I need to walk a couple of miles as well as stop every two hours to walk around for ten minutes or so. I really think that was the main problem, and I’m glad we didn’t have to end the trip lying in the ER.
So that was New Orleans. You can keep the voodoo, the beads and the open containers of alcohol on the streets. Just give me a frozen café au lait, a beignet and point me in the direction of the next great meal.