This month is a celebratory time for my family — my mother, father and brother all have birthdays. This year, between the cake and ice cream, I decided to give my parents a different kind of gift.
The gift of healthful food.
African food. Food that held a close resemblance to theirs, except with less salt, with no coconut milk and mixed with other healthful, naturally grown fare that they had moved further away from eating since coming to the States from Guyana in the late 1970s.
“Back home, everything is organic," my dad said as we sat in my parents’ Fort Washington, Md., kitchen. “Most of us back home have a garden."
Here, “everything is processed, packaged, with fertilizers and preservatives," Mom said. After more than 30 years as a U.S. citizen, she has had enough time to observe the food industry and change her eating habits to match it. That change was not always for the better.
Early on in my parents’ house, most foods were fresh. After years of living in America and with Americanized kids, they slowly started taking shortcuts. More frozen vegetables, white sugar and fast food started sharing space with the brown rice, cantaloupe and homemade bread that they regularly kept at home as well. What was convenient became more constant.
My motives while visiting them one Sunday evening recently weren’t purely to keep them aging well as empty nesters.
As part of a work assignment last fall, I spent weeks learning why it’s unhealthful to boil collard greens to death, how to make Africans’ jollof rice more colorful and nutritious, and why it’s important to eat the food from my ancestral land: because the base of the murky, somewhat confusing label of African American is African. We may come with different heritages, such as African American or Afro-Caribbean, but we have the same beginning and often the same dietary palate and needs, ones that aren’t always met through Western food culture.
Those lessons were taught by Tambra Raye Stevenson and brought to the District of Columbia by the nonprofit food and nutrition education company Oldways. My colleagues in The Post Food section urged me to take on another challenge: Would my parents eat, and possibly cook, the organic dishes Stevenson had taught me to prepare, opening their minds to a more African approach to food?
The endeavor would be complicated because I, African by way of a not-quite-Caribbean nation, was complicated.
I am the hyphen that sometimes appears between African and American.
Though my parents were born and raised in a South American country with a Caribbean culture, I was born on American soil; my linkage to the U.S. and its melting pot is embedded in the way I walk, talk and view the world, from music to art. My bond to Africa, though, is less tangible. It comes from the color of my skin, texture of my hair and knowledge absorbed through books and movies.
The middle ground that enables me to feel comfortable in both worlds, African and American, is often food.
After befriending many first-generation Africans at the University of Maryland in College Park, I quickly saw the similarities between their jollof rice, which includes a mixture of vegetables, tubers and sometimes meat, and my family’s “cook-up rice." I realized I had been eating the Africans’ dodo my whole life but calling it plantain.
Our dishes were kin. We were family.
And as family, we share ownership of the statistics crippling our community: astronomical rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. The Oldways classes were supposed to work against those health risks by teaching students to eat fresh, which my parents often do.
For their meal, I bought fresh carrots, greens, onions and garlic. The necessary chopping meant, for me, a grueling two hours in my kitchen and a cutting board that may be headed to the garbage. But the food smelled and looked delicious. The next day, I arrived at my parents’ house with several Tupperware containers. I was greeted by more fresh food: apples, pomegranate and avocado were on the kitchen table. In a bowl in the sink were plantains, eddoes (a member of the tuber family) and sweet potatoes.
“We making soup," said my father, his accent and dialect still strong after decades in the States.
My parents are always preparing something. Salted fish and bake (biscuit) for breakfast. Jerk chicken and cook-up rice for lunch. Dinner might be stew chicken and channa (also known as chickpeas), Caribbean chow mein or dry food, which is a kind of soup. Because the international aisle in most grocery stores is limited, Mom and Dad spend Saturdays jumping from store to store.
“We get milk, sugar. We buy rice from the American stores," Dad said.
Whether I liked it or not, they fed me those carb-heavy meals for lunch when I was a child. They did not dispense Lunchables or the like for us kids. I can’t remember anyone else in fourth grade who carried a Thermos with a hot meal daily, except on the few days when Mom gave me sandwiches made with homemade bread.
Cooking is a way of life in our family. To have their youngest cook for them is proof, in my parents’ eyes, that they raised me right. It’s right up there with going to college and owning a home. A life skill that demonstrates my successful transition into adulthood.
That Sunday, we sat down to dishes from two Oldways recipes: jollof rice with black-eyed peas and collard greens, plus my own baked tilapia. I explained how the rice, mixed with tomatoes and cabbage, was similar to the cook-up rice they’d grown up on, that I had used only a pinch of salt with the greens, and that most of the herbs and spices were fresh.
Their reactions were mixed.
“For a no-salt dish, the rice has a lot of flavor," said Mom, wearing a faded 1988 T-shirt with a map of Guyana printed on the front. “The onions and the cabbage add a lot of flavor."
But not enough for Dad.
“They don’t use coconut milk in their food," he said. “That would add a little to it."
Two cups of coconut milk, a staple ingredient for West Indian dishes such as peas and rice and cook-up rice, contains 96 grams of fat and 890 calories.
Could he and my mother move away from coconut milk, or at least to the lower-fat version? Probably not; they don’t think the latter tastes as good. They regularly buy it in bulk for me and them.
Could they exclusively use fresh greens and cut out the pre-packaged fare?
Mom: “Yeah, I’d buy more fresh ones if I could get it."
Dad: “I buy the frozen collard greens. It’s already cut and ready to use." Again, convenience wins.
Their favorite part of the meal was the tilapia, slathered in a store-bought, “100 percent natural" chipotle sauce. A serving size of 1 tablespoon of the sauce has 80 calories. I probably used five tablespoons on each piece of fish.
I guess transition takes time.
They both scoffed at the idea of taking a class to learn new ways to cook and improve their diet. (“We can cook!" Dad said.) But they were open to reading about it and then trying it out at home.
I might take another stab soon at getting my family to rethink some of our dishes. Right now, the one-meal-at-a-time approach seems best.