Link the words African, heritage, and health and you’re bound to think that in the conversation, delectable “soul foods” will be discussed: ham, barbecued ribs, fried chicken, and fish — cat fish, of course — plus mac ‘n cheese, mashed potatoes, cornbread, collard greens, and black eye peas with ham hock or “fat back.” And don’t forget the icing on the cake — literally: the peach cobbler, pound cake, and bread pudding.
Indeed, that list elicits a mouth-watering “hmmm, yummy” because they are delicious. But black Americans who regularly eat those foods could become victims of preventable diseases and deaths, as the foods’ high content of fat, sugar, and salt has been linked to the frequency of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, stroke, and obesity in blacks.
As more people become concerned that the standard American diet — even enhanced with various twists by various ethnic groups — is making Americans sick, a grass-roots movement called Oldways Health Through Heritage is afoot to initiate dietary changes. And with Black History month almost here, the organization urges black Americans to adopt African dietary habits, but between Feb. 1 and 7, it’s challenging everyone to enjoy an African-inspired dish at home or at a restaurant.
However, Oldways doesn’t want this to only be a one-week cause, as it hopes ethnic groups will begin eating more of the foods that their ancestors did in their native lands. Doing so, the group maintains, will ultimately improve people’s health and reduce the diseases and deaths that are believed to be linked to the Western diet.
The nonprofit group was founded in 1990 by K. Dun Gifford, whose name more mature pols may recall was an aide to both Sens. Robert F. and Edward M. Kennedy. Mr. Gifford, who died in 2010, wanted to turn the world from its love affair for fast food to embracing a whole-grain, plant-based diet. In fact, Oldways had a role in spreading the good news of the Mediterranean diet, known to benefit its consumers’ health.
Emphasizing those “old ways” of eating, the African Heritage Diet Pyramid emphasizes leafy green vegetables first, then fruit, peanuts and nuts, whole grains, and legumes. Seafood and fish, eggs, poultry, meats, and finally sweets are at the peak. The call for less meat and more plant foods is largely the opposite of what’s to eat in many U.S. homes.
“It’s a common thread throughout the traditions – from the Mediterranean to traditional Asian, and African diets – you see a real plant-based pattern,” Ms. McMackin said. “Meat traditionally – in everyone’s ancestry – was not as commonly widespread or available. So when you look at mass cultures, you see meat used as flavorings and used in trace amounts.”
Even research shows a rise in diseases when people abandon foods from their native countries.
“Scientific studies also show that many chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, now prevalent in African-American communities, appear in global populations as traditional diets are left behind,” said Sarah McMackin, program manager for the African Heritage and Health effort, which started three years ago under the Oldways Health Through Heritage program. The organization teaches people to prepare and cook plant-based foods in six weeks of classes.
“We like to say ‘go back to the old ways; let the old ways be your guide for good health and heritage.’ ” This whole curriculum is vegan; the plant-based message is at the core,” Ms. McMackin said from her office in Austin, Texas.
Two years ago, Oldways’ pilot classes held in various cities throughout the country people interested in learning how to eat and cook differently. Already, slightly more than 100 people have signed up to teach classes this year. An information video and telephone training prepare them to cover the comprehensive curriculum, Ms. McMackin said.
“The curriculum is designed for everyone to learn and glean from and hopefully we’ll have multicultural [participants], but this curriculum is for African-Americans,” she added.
Rachel Greenstein, Oldways communications manager, said that coinciding with Black History Month is an effort to commemorate foods and healthy cooking methods that are at the core of the well-being of blacks’ ancestors from Africa, South America, the Caribbean, and the American South.
Anyone interested in teaching a class does not need professional cooking experience, merely an interest in healthy cooking, nutrition, and cultural history. For insight into what teachers must commit to, visit here.
To sign up, contact Ms. McMackin at email@example.com.
Asian Shitake and Kale Bowl with Brown Rice
Cook the rice according to package directions.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet or wok. Add the onion and garlic and sauté for 3 minutes.
Add the soy sauce, sesame seeds, wasabi paste, red pepper flakes, mushrooms, and tofu and stir well. Sauté for an additional 5 minutes. Stir in 1/3 cup water and the kale and sauté until the kale is slightly wilted and crisp-tender, about 4 minutes. Spoon 1/2 cup cooked rice into each of four individual bowls and top with about 1½ cups of the shitake- kale mixture.
Yield: 4 servings
Source: Sharon Palmer, author of The Plant-Powered Diet.
Oldways Zesty Brussels Sprouts & Collard Greens Sauté
To soften the Brussels sprouts and greens, first steam them in 1 cup of water in a covered pan, until tender.
Drain water from pan, move Brussels and collards to the side, into a covered bowl.
Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil on medium heat in the pan
Add the onions and cook for 2-3 minutes, or until onions are translucent.
Add garlic, cook for 1 minute.
Stir in the mustard and oregano.
Add collards and Brussels to the pan and toss with your spoon, to coat.
Add a pinch of salt along with the pecans, and cook on medium heat for 5-7 minutes, roughly stirring once per minute so that the onions, garlic, mustard, and pecans cover all the vegetables.
Yield: 6 servings
Peel the waxy brown skin from the yuca roots and chop each one in half, widthwise at the middle, to make 4 pieces.
Place yuca in a medium sized pot or saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil with a pinch of sea salt. Cook the yuca until you can pierce it with a fork (about 20-25 minutes).
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
When cooked, drain water and lay the yuca on a paper towel.
When cool enough, pat the yuca dry and chop the pieces into “French fry” sticks.
Place the fries on a baking sheet. Lightly drizzle with olive oil, and season with sea salt, pepper, and thyme. Use as much thyme as needed to dust each fry.
Bake the fries in the oven for 20 minutes, until golden, turning once.
Yield: 8 servings
Mini Breakfast Pizzas
Arrange the muffin halves on a baking sheet and toast for about 3 minutes under the oven broiler or in a toaster oven. Remove and set aside. Heat the oven or toaster oven to 450°F. Coat a large skillet lightly with olive oil and place over medium heat. Pour in the beaten eggs. As they begin to set, gently pull them across the pan with an inverted turner, forming large soft curds. Continue cooking – pulling, lifting, and folding eggs – until thickened and no visible liquid egg remains. Do not stir constantly. Remove from the heat.
Spread the pizza sauce evenly on the toasted muffin halves. Top with the eggs and cheese, dividing evenly. Bake in the hot oven for about 5 minutes or in the toaster oven for 1 to 2 minutes, until the cheese is melted. Sprinkle with oregano and serve.
Yield: 4 servings
Source: Dave Ellis, American Egg Board, courtesy of the Egg Nutrition Center.