Performance artist Robert Karimi, in character as chef Mero Cocinero Karimi, makes a claim as big as a half-pound bacon cheeseburger: He can teach people to improve their diets without ever uttering such unappetizing words as healthy or nutritious. During a cooking demonstration at Reading Terminal Market on Tuesday, he proved his point by persuading two 11-year-olds, waffle cones in hand, to put a dollop of his radish-greens, mint, onion, and lime dip on top of their ice cream.
Sometimes, success lasts only as long as ice cream on the tongue.
"I think junk food should be junk food and vegetables should be vegetables," says Keegan Cannon of Doylestown, who tried the dip with his mint chocolate chip ice cream.
Karimi is happy that Keegan's trip to the market included an unexpected bit of radish greens. It's a start.
The food sampling was just a taste of The Cooking Show, an interactive performance staged as a pop-up restaurant, which Karimi will present Thursday and Saturday, sponsored by the Asian Arts Initiative.
Like celebrity good-eating revolutionary Jamie Oliver, the 40-year-old Karimi has embraced the mission of helping Americans eat a healthier balanced diet while still enjoying delicious foods. Karimi's current target: reducing the rate of Type 2 diabetes, a disease that an increasing number of Americans get due in large part to poor diets and obesity. His father also has Type 2 diabetes. The 2011 National Diabetes Fact Sheet from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that nearly 26 million Americans — 8.3 percent of the population — suffer from all types of diabetes. The rate is higher among African Americans and Hispanics, and slightly higher for Asian Americans.
"Definitely, the incidence of diabetes in the broad Asian community is particularly high, so it's important to be able to support this project as a way to increase awareness in our community," says Gayle Isa, executive director of the Asian Art Arts Initiative, though the show is aimed at a general audience.
Karimi, who has performed before in Philadelphia, is armed not only with cooking utensils, but also with humor and storytelling that flow from his Guatemalan mother and Iranian father, who met while attending school in California.
Born in San Francisco, Karimi has fond memories of he and his mother watching PBS cooking shows such as The Frugal Gourmet and Yan Can Cook on television.
"It was my mom's way of accessing America," he says. "There's a lot of American culture in cooking shows."
She learned new recipes while still preparing Iranian foods for her husband and dishes from her native land, including that radish-greens dip. From his parents, Karimi learned the nutritional benefits of having not just different cuisines, but different foods on his plate: His father would cook steak on a little hibachi grill on the stoop of their apartment building and his mother would accompany the meat with the radish-greens dip.
As Karimi grew, so did his love for cooking and his desire to make people laugh. He combines both in his culinary performance art and his group, the People's Cook (http://thepeoplescook.org/).
At The Cooking Show, which can run from an hour to more than two hours depending on the interactions, audience members will sit at tables and listen to Karimi's chef Mero Cocinero patter as he cooks a meal.
"My shtick is not about accidents and it's not about knock-knock jokes," he says. "It's about getting people to laugh at real life."
Karimi might ask audience members to get up and dance; they definitely will get a chance help prepare and eat a meal. Food will be served on small dishes, encouraging people to eat slower and drink more water.
Since they have chosen to attend, those who do go to the show are more likely to be swayed to Karimi's way of thinking and cooking. It's some of the vendors at the Reading Terminal who pose a much greater challenge.
Restless with standing behind a table as he offers his radish-greens dip, which he calls picados unidos, and tortilla chips, Karimi and his assistant walk around the market with chips and dip to feed the vendors. Along the way, he is approached by Carmen DiGuglielmo, owner of Carmen's Famous Italian Hoagies & Cheesesteaks.
DiGuglielmo initially makes the case that his cheesesteaks are good for you because they make people happy. Then, he leaves an opening for a healthy-food intervention.
If asked to choose between a cheesesteak and radish-greens dip, he opts for the sandwich, then pauses before pointing to the dip.
"And then I'd put some of that on it."