02/03/2008 03:15 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and a Meditation on Moderation

I've just come back from New Orleans, where I caught the very beginnings of Mardi Gras--actually the very end of Carnival, the period of time that begins with the Catholic Feast of the Epiphany, which is always on January 6th, and ends the day before Ash Wednesday, on Fat Tuesday.

I'm not Catholic, so before this trip, I'd never thought much about the religious significance of Mardi Gras, the fact that it is a time of indulgence before the privations of Lent, part of the cycle of feast and fast that is so interwoven in human religion, culture, history. But of course it's not surprising that New Orleans has the premier festival of the feast, dedicated as it is to the glories of excess. What can I really add to the long history of detailed cataloging of the glories of the food, the drink, the debauchery here, or--and I refer mostly now to visitors--how moderation is rarely observed or much noted? Just take the standard Mardi Gras accessory, the beads: There's nothing as sad and tinny and tacky as a single strand of Mardi Gras beads, but a whole pile of them, deep around the neck so you can almost use them as a pillow, gleaming green, gold and purple in the sunlight or the streetlight, now that is a thing of beauty to behold.

You want lots here, or nothing at all. And who can err on the side of nothing at all with the food? Within a few days time I had every manner of shellfish fried, creamed, buttered or hollandaised; an oyster po boy with pickles and a side of string beans in bacon sauce at Coop's Place; an amazing hamburger and fries at Camellia Grill; Eggs Sardou (poached egg on artichoke and creamed spinach) at Galatoire's; duck and andouille gumbo at Jacques-Imo's; beignet, bread pudding, banana's foster, sweet potato cheesecake...

One evening, I walked into the French Quarter to Central Grocery to have a Muffuletta from the "mother church" as John T. Edge puts it in The Southern Belly. A Muffuletta is a sandwich stuffed with ham, salami, mortadella, provolone, and garlicky olive salad, on a round seeded, flaky bread. I went to Jackson Square to eat (okay, tear into) it and a package of Zapp's Cajun Dill Gator-Tators. The air was warm and windy, the light was failing as it approached 5 o'clock, and there was a jazz band playing for the tourists eating beignets at Café du Monde.

The groomed garden square where I made my meal is of course named after Andrew Jackson, who secured Louisiana for the United states from the British in 1815. A big party followed, writes John Egerton in Southern Food, and Rachel, Jackson's wife, wrote to a friend, "To give you a description is beyond the power of my pen. Suffice it to say nothing could excel the ornaments and supper...I have seen more already than in all my past life." Egerton notes that "many a contemporary Mardi Gras reveler has sent home postcards filled with same sentiments...the disposition of New Orleanians to eat, drink and be merry was firmly established by 1815, and neither war, nor depression, nor natural disaster has extinguished the celebratory spirit. There is not a more food conscious and cuisine rich jurisdiction in the nation than Louisiana."

Rachel Jackson had another comment: "It is the finest country to the eye of a stranger, but a little while tires one of the dissipations of this place." The contemporary term for the "dissipations" would be an obesogenic environment, as I learned when I traveled about 80 miles due northwest to have a tour of Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge. If New Orleans as a city is dedicated to putting pounds on people--an environment that would encourage obesity--Pennington is the opposite. It's one of the premier obesity research institutions in the country.

Donna Ryan, associate executive director, gave me a tour around the 403,000 square foot research facility. She showed me the room in which they test the perception of how much food you are eating versus the actual amount you're taking in (a food scale is cleverly hidden under a table cloth), their metabolic kitchen, where every ounce of food is measured and tracked, their metabolic chambers, where they can measure the exact number of calories you're burning at any given moment. And we talked a bit about the particular challenge of obesity in Louisiana, where the food is tasty, culturally ingrained, and almost impossible to resist, where the weather is inhospitable to regular outdoor exercise, where the state contends with both urban and rural poverty, and where people talk about "Katrina pounds" added on in the months following the storm where there was little to do but sit around and eat.

Pennington is at the moment studying the effect of a calorie restricted diet on longevity--something that was already demonstrated in animal models--and the contrast of being in a place where calorie restriction was celebrated after being in New Orleans--with what I believe Dr. Ryan would call its "high-fat challenged" environment--set my head a-spinning.

It's made me wonder about the notion of moderation. Moderation, after all what is advised by most responsible doctors, it is better not to binge and purge, it is healthier not to feast and famine, it is better to learn to eat chocolate in reasonable portions than to foreswear it entirely and then suddenly wake up in a pile of smudged silvery wrappers. In fact, we've always put great stock in the ability to be moderate, or temperate, for which I can quote no one better than Plato: "Within the man himself, in his soul, there is a better part and a worse, and that he is his own master when the part which is better by nature has the worse under its control. It is certainly a term of praise; whereas, it is considered a disgrace...when the better part is overwhelmed by the worse, like a small force outnumbered by a multitude. A man in that condition is called a slave to himself and intemperate."

Plato and modern medicine would seem to agree: It would be better not to Fat Tuesday and repent Wednesday, it would be better to simply eat and drink reasonably at all times. And yet, as I muse on my time in New Orleans and up at Pennington, I wonder whether this is more an idea than it is an ideal? Mardi Gras, after all, is far from the only festival of feast and fast, every major religion and culture has one, and our bodies seem to be designed with this in mind too, prepared as they are to sustain us with fat stores to withstand a famine.

So maybe we need to set ourselves up with the expectation that moderation is actually more like an average than an ongoing state of affairs. It's not a decisive and ongoing victory of our better and more reasonable self over our inner hedonist, but an ongoing struggle, in which victory is defined as the reasonable self winning out over the hedonist more often than not.

It seems a more realistic way to think about things, doesn't it? It's also a good working theory for anyone celebrating Mardi Gras on Tuesday.