Some recipes are sacrosanct, passed down on stained and creased index cards from one generation to the next. If you grew up on soul food, like Dejenaba Gordon did, collard greens is among them.
"I've only known one way to cook collard greens: Boil it for hours with turkey or pork," she said.
But last week, she stood up in front of a capacity crowd at the Free Library's Culinary Literacy Center and proposed something radical: Quickly saute the greens with caramelized onions, olive oil, and Dijon mustard, a compromise that preserves the nutrition and cuts out the saturated fat.
The point wasn't to break with tradition, but to embrace it - while rethinking familiar flavors and ingredients in the context of 21st-century nutrition concerns.
The demonstration was part of "A Taste of African Heritage," a six-week course developed by the Boston nonprofit Oldways to teach healthy cooking aligned with a plant-based African Heritage Diet Pyramid.
Unlike the food pyramid most of us grew up with - back when building your diet on a foundation of carbs was thought to be a good idea - this alternative model starts with a base of leafy greens, piling on tubers, whole grains, beans, peanuts, vegetables, herbs, and spices.
Oldways has engaged volunteers around the country to run more than 100 such classes over a two-year pilot phase that began in 2012, with striking results. Based on interviews, weigh-ins, and blood-pressure readings taken before and after the six-week sessions at 50 of the classes, more than half the participants lost weight (an average of four pounds) and inches from their waist, and saw decreased blood pressure. A third began cooking and exercising more often.
Now, through a Walmart Foundation grant, they are launching their largest effort to date: a two-year citywide campaign to run the courses through five nonprofits in 2015 and 10 in 2016, with the aim of transforming how Philadelphians think about food.
Sara Baer-Sinnott, president of Oldways, has been pushing throwback foods for a couple of decades.
The nonprofit worked with the World Health Organization and Harvard School of Public Health to develop a Mediterranean food pyramid in 1993, and collaborated with nutrition scientists and food historians to add variations based on Asian and Latin American food traditions.
"Science shows that leaving traditional diets and eating processed foods is a straightforward way to gain weight and have other health problems," she said. "A lot of, for instance, Latinos, are leaving their traditional diets and the same thing is happening with the African American community. They have problems with diabetes and obesity."
Baer-Sinnott thinks invoking the comfort of familiar foods and pride in culinary heritage could be a powerful motivator to turn that tide. She's hoping to build courses around the Asian and Latin American food pyramids, as well.
Through the Philadelphia initiative, she's attempting to turn what has been an ad hoc, volunteer-based project into a stable, recurring program to which nutritionists and health-care providers can refer clients. The classes would still be volunteer-taught, but would run three times a year at each venue.
Sarah McMackin, the program manager, said the city was a natural fit because of its cultural diversity and the number of organizations working on urban farming, nutrition education, and antihunger initiatives. Collaborators receive training, curriculum, and food for the semester; and venues include two Free Library sites, as well as the University of Pennsylvania Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative, the Community Center at Visitation in Kensington, and Feast of Justice in Northeast Philadelphia.
But anyone can sign up to be a teacher and receive phone and online training and support. Classes have been run at churches, beauty parlors, senior centers, and other venues in the past.
Each of the six classes is focused on a different sector of the African Heritage Diet Pyramid. So a discussion of tubers is paired with the chance to cook mafe, a Senegalese sweet-potato stew with peanut butter and curry powder, and a lesson on beans and peas comes with a black-eyed pea salad.
Many ingredients will be familiar, but, as with the collards, the cooking techniques may be new.
Tricia Neale, pastor at St. John's Lutheran Church and director of Feast of Justice, a food pantry and community-service organization that distributes 11,000 pounds of food a week, had been looking for ways to wrap culturally sensitive nutrition education into her offerings. Regulars at the food pantry include immigrants from Eastern Europe, Haiti, and elsewhere - and no one has money for a cooking class.
The class, capped at 15 students, filled up quickly.
"Northeast Philly had the most significant poverty increase after the crash," Neale said. "We have a lot of people that are new to poverty and don't know what to do, and also people moving in from impoverished places elsewhere," she said. "One of our challenges in our community is no one cooks anymore, and we rely way too much on processed foods. So I'm very excited to bring this to our community."
Aleandra Elliott, an employee of the Mayor's Office of Reintegration Services, known as RISE, had brought six men from RISE's fatherhood enrichment program to take the class with their sons at the Free Library. (She was also enrolled with her own 11-year-old son, and had been inspired to buy quinoa for the first time because of it.)
David Clements of Germantown was in the class with his 6-year-old son, Demaire.
His wife, Aisha, said it was nice for them to get quality time, but even more important because it could help Clements get his blood pressure under control.
Even though Clements' next homework assignment was, perhaps, hypertension-inducing - to cook a dish from the curriculum at home with only Demaire as his sous chef - he seemed confident in his new skills.
"I can take over the cooking now," he said. Before, "I wouldn't be cooking like this at home. I wouldn't know where to begin."
Makes 4 servings
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 large sweet potato, chopped into medium-size cubes
2 large carrots, cut into thin rounds
2 green zucchini, cut into thin half-rounds
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes, no salt added
2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
1 tablespoon curry powder
4 tablespoons natural peanut butter
3 sprigs fresh thyme, minced or 1 teaspoon dried
1. Heat the oil in a pot over medium heat and saute onion and garlic until translucent, 3 to 4 minutes.
2. Add sweet potato and vegetables to the pot, saute 3 to 4 minutes.
3. Add the tomatoes, broth, and curry powder, bring to a boil and simmer 10 minutes.
5. Add the peanut butter and thyme, cook three to five minutes.
- African Heritage and Health, an Oldways Program
Per serving: 127 calories, 5 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 168 milligrams sodium, 20 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams fiber, 8 grams sugar, 4 grams protein.EndText
1/2 medium yellow onion, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
2 15-ounce cans of black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt to taste
Pinch of paprika
1. Combine onion, celery, pepper, and peas into a mixing bowl.
2. Mix vinegar, olive oil, and salt in a small bowl.
3. Refrigerate for an hour before serving, and top with paprika.
- African Heritage and Health, an Oldways Program
Per serving: 140 calories, 4 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 183 milligrams sodium, 21 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams fiber, 1 gram sugar, 7 grams protein.EndText
Makes 4 servings
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon mustard
2 bunches collard greens, cut into long, thin strips
Salt to taste
1. Heat olive oil over medium heat in a large pan with a lid. Add onions and garlic and cook 2 to 3 minutes, or until onions are golden.
2. Stir in mustard and lemon juice.
3. Add collards and toss to coat.
4. Add a pinch of salt and a splash of water. Cover and cook 10 to 12 minutes, until collards are bright green. - African Heritage and Health, an Oldways Program
Per serving: 60 calories, 4 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 100 milligrams sodium, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 6 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 1 gram sugar, 2 grams protein.EndText