SAVING SOUL FOOD; Health-Conscious African-Americans Are Reinventing Classic Recipes. So Long, Pork Fat; Hello, Baked Chicken

Newsweek, January 30, 2006 | Go to article overview
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SAVING SOUL FOOD; Health-Conscious African-Americans Are Reinventing Classic Recipes. So Long, Pork Fat; Hello, Baked Chicken


Byline: Claudia Kalb and Anna Kuchment

Sylvia Woods knows her soul food. For the past 40-plus years, she's been dishing out the best of it at her famed restaurant Sylvia's, in Harlem--the fried chicken, the macaroni and cheese, the sweet candied yams. But one recent winter day, the queen of soul food wandered by a table occupied by her grandson Lindsey Williams, and witnessed a culinary revolution. There, on a plate elegantly dusted with flecks of parsley, sat a delicate sweet-potato puree. Next to it, two round lentil cakes with a swirl of tofu sour cream on top and Thai sesame dressing on the side. "What's that?" Woods asked. "Veggie croquettes," said Williams. Woods popped a piece into her mouth. "Mmm," she said, "that's good."

And good for you, too, especially when compared with the chitlins and ham hocks that have nourished the bodies and souls of African-Americans for decades. Such down-home cooking, with its heavy doses of salt, sugar and fat, can contribute to toxic effects like high blood pressure and diabetes, both of which strike black Americans at significantly higher rates than whites. Now entrepreneurs like Williams, nutritionists and even pastors are on a mission to improve African-American diets, not by condemning their rich culinary heritage, but by reinventing time-honored recipes. Williams's new cookbook, "Neo Soul," is now hitting bookstores. Dietitians are teaching family chefs how to flavor collard greens with smoked turkey instead of pork fat. And around the country, black churches are serving up healthy homilies ("Your body is the temple of God") along with nutritious Sunday dinners: baked chicken and fruit, not fried chicken and biscuits. "There are many great qualities in soul food," says Roniece Weaver, of Hebni Nutrition Consultants in Orlando, Fla. "The problem is the way we prepare it."

Aunt Obie's Restaurant, in Waukegan, Ill., is signing on. Last year chef Charlie Black teamed up with the Lake County Health Department to improve nutrition in the county's African-American population. Black, whose parents both died of heart attacks, eagerly agreed to modify a handful of items on his menu for a special "heart healthy" day. The numbers say it all: less than one gram of fat in his revamped carrots (seasoned with honey and cilantro) compared with five grams in Aunt Obie's original recipe (margarine and sugar); 141 calories in the garlic mashed potatoes compared with 219, and 64 milligrams of sodium in the baked chicken compared with a whopping 5,581 in the fried. Most important for Black, his customers liked the taste; next month he's introducing the dishes as permanent options.

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