Wardell Quezergue, left, with Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Meringue letters perched atop the sugar-free cupcakes spelled out "Mr. Big Stuff" and "Happy B-Day."
Nearby sat Wardelle Quezergue, the producer/arranger/band leader and composer behind that hit song and scads of others ranging from The Dixie Cups' "Chapel of Love" to "Groove Me" by King Floyd and "Barefootin'" by Robert Parker. The man Allen Toussaint dubbed "The Creole Beethoven" worked with Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Paul Simon, Aaron Neville, BB King, The Supremes, Willie Nelson, Robbie Robertson ... shall we go on?
Quezergue turned 80 on March 12. The next day, a Saturday, his friends and the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, the New Orleans Musicians Assistance Foundation and the Xavier Wellness Center threw him a big birthday luncheon that served as a primer for how a delicious celebration can balance New Orleans' love of food with a medically restricted diet.
Quezergue lost his sight to diabetes some years ago. His friends contributed party finger food that was both diabetes-friendly and tidy to eat. His friend Dr. John, Mac Rebennack, accompanied him to a pre-party lunch earlier in the week with foundation president Bethany Bultman and friends.
Drew Young cut the sodium in oyster patties, a favorite, by omitting Parmesan cheese and adding a bit more dried mustard and Creole seasoning.
"I love Wardell. He's such a sweet man," said Young, a devoted cook as well as Putumayo's World Music's strategic marketing manager. "I'm doing a new record and Wardell will be doing the arrangement for me. I do more roots music, and he's completely into it."
Quezergue still composes, dictating to his son, music teacher Brian Quezergue. He also attends mass every day.
Quezergue lists "good roast beef" among his favorite foods. His attorney and close friend, Ashlye Keaton, made roast beef finger sandwiches on thin slices of pumpernickle, with a light flavored cream cheese spread instead of mayonnaise.
The man she calls her "Creole grandfather" is learning how to eat healthy and actually enjoying it, Keaton said.
"He's found some foods he'd never eaten before," she said.
Trays of tidy-to-eat finger food included Surrey's house-made lox with herb salad rolled inside and their marinated cucumbers stuffed with house-smoked salmon, plus marinated grilled asparagus and Diane Ireland's deviled eggs made with no-sugar-added sweet relish.
"I just watch what I eat," Quezeregue said. "There are a lot of things I can eat. I can eat the vegetables, you know, things like that, as long as it's not leafy stuff" which may interfere with his medication. "I do take a spoonful of spinach, cabbage, and that kind of jazz, but never too much of it."
Dietician and diabetic educator Pam Lyons, who consults with the musicians' clinic, said most diabetic education is about portion control.
"The specific challenges for musicians are meal consistency, eating at about the same time and the same amount of food every day," she said. "With their schedules, it's difficult to do that, plus sleep deprivation, plus the food choices. They're usually in a bar, or eating on the go."
Bultman said the Musicians Clinic partners with the Xavier Wellness Center for lifestyle training and diabetic coaching for musician patients who have diabetes and/or hypertension. Diabetes is one of the three principle diagnoses seen in the clinic. Hypertension and depression are the other two; 87 percent of patients have multiple chronic conditions.
"Mental well-being is the number one priority," Bultman said. "If somebody's depressed, they're disinclined to even take their blood pressure.
"We are taking care of one of New Orleans' greatest natural resources."
For Quezergue's party, Bultman made an old family recipe for oyster file broth, served in demitasse cups for easy sipping.
Sweets included a fruit tart, a chocolate cake and mini cupcakes from KC's Babycakes, KC Dinhofer's six-month-old cupcake business in Mandeville. Some cupcakes were sweetened with a sugar replacement. "My mother's diabetic, and I've been baking sugar-free for years, since I was 17," Dinhofer said.
She bakes carrot, red velvet, vanilla and chocolate sugar-free babycakes by special order. When she does have them in the shop, "we cannot keep them in."
Quezergue said he had quite the sweet tooth back in the day.
"I was a doughnut man," he said. "When I was younger I worked in a doughnut bakery shop. I never baked, but worked around the shop. And I love those cream pies, strawberry pie. Oh God, thinking about it is already making my sugar go up."
These days, he gets along well with sugar-free yogurt, Quezergue said. "I love that. But every now and then I might steal a doughnut and limit myself to one."
As for reaching the big round-number birthday: "I feel like I'm 80!" Quezergue said, then laughed. "I'm glad I reached it. I have the usual aches and pains and all that kind of jazz but I still have the capacity. I'm still blind but I have the capacity of thinking what I have to do and someone I can dictate to. All in all, the age factor is not bothering me anymore. It never did."