Meeting one recent evening at their children's day care center, a group of young West Tampa moms was asked what they like to cook and eat at home.
Their answers conjured up visions of Sunday dinner throughout the South: crispy pork chops, fried chicken, baked fish, collard greens, pork and beans, green beans seasoned with ham, white rice and gravy, macaroni and cheese, broccoli and cheese, mashed potatoes, pasta, potato salad and corn bread.
Delicious food, imbued with warm memories of family for this group of African-American moms.
But not, Cassandra Hector told her students, the health-giving foods that their ancestors enjoyed.
"These are the foods that our forefathers ate," she said of the whole grains, greens, beans, plantains, pumpkin and sweet potatoes that populate the recipes she was there to demonstrate.
"Foods can hinder health and foods can heal, too," said the tall, slender woman in the distinctive tones of her English upbringing. "These classes will be about reclaiming your health."
Armed with her nutrition know-how, culinary skills, and a warm, energetic style, Hector delivered a different message of how food can convey culture, flavor and love.
Her lessons have meaning for all Americans interested in good health and good food, especially as obesity, diabetes and heart disease continue to be among the nation's top health problems. But African-Americans are particularly prone to these health conditions, and all are aggravated by the high-fat, high-salt foods her students love.
Hector, whose family hails from St. Lucia in the Caribbean, is the nutrition coordinator for Cornerstone Family Ministries, a Christian nonprofit helping disadvantaged children and families around Tampa Bay. On a recent rainy night, Hector began a series of six classes at the Rosa Valdez Early Childhood Learning Center in West Tampa aimed at helping parents make meals at home using the same healthy principles that govern meals children get at the center.
"We can't stop with just teaching our children these lessons at the centers," said Hector, "we want to link it also to home and connect with parents."
The classes, supported by the Florida Blue Foundation, follow a program called A Taste of African American Heritage. Developed by the nonprofit group Oldways, its mission is to improve health while preserving culinary traditions from the southern United States, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean.
Dressed in a white chef's coat and jeans, Hector brought along her son, Yimika, 9, who helped his mom show that kids really can enjoy preparing and eating healthy food.
She told her students she would emphasize traditional spices, herbs and healthful oils instead of salt and animal fat to flavor foods. "They have phenomenal benefits and we'll show how to use them in your cooking."
Nine moms, crowded round the center's toddler-size tables, were offered warm plates of West African Jollof rice, a dish none had ever heard of, with a key ingredient most had never tried.
AeQunia Diggs, 23, said she probably never would have tried brown rice outside this class. Hector asked her why. "Because it's brown," said the mother of two young children. "Rice is supposed to be white."
But the addition of chopped tomatoes and tomato paste made it more familiar. "It smells like spaghetti," said Diggs, who also liked the cabbage in the dish and gave it a thumbs-up.
Then the class moved into a tiny kitchen where everyone was put to work chopping, sauteing, measuring and stirring a spicy chickpea dish. Though it can be made with canned chickpeas, Hector told the class she soaked dry chickpeas overnight — yielding lower-sodium, less-expensive beans.
The aromas in the kitchen were enticing, but not what most were accustomed to. Flavored with cilantro, curry powder, fresh ginger and allspice, this dish, too, won the crowd's approval. Still, the moms and Times journalists all agreed it could have used just a touch of salt and a bit less heat from the red pepper flakes that Hector favors.
But as Hector noted, changing tastes and habits is a gradual process of incorporating small steps.
Everyone went home with a handbook of African cuisine history, recipes and nutrition information, as well as small packets of spices they will be asked to cook with, including harissa, cumin, coriander, caraway and Ethiopian berbere, a fragrant mixture that includes allspice, paprika, ginger, cardamom and garlic.
Each participant was weighed, measured, and had blood pressure taken so organizers will be able to see whether the classes will have a positive impact on their health. As women everywhere do, all of the moms remarked about their weight, especially their pre-pregnancy numbers, though none appeared heavy.
While the crowd was generally receptive, one idea — meatless meals — didn't go over well.
"No way!'' several women groaned when Hector suggested that the chickpeas and brown rice could be a complete meal.
But health educators like Hector are the optimistic sort. And in just one class, she had her students thinking they could spring brown rice on their families and give the salt shaker a rest. Maybe a meatless meal is just the next step.
Irene Maher can be reached at [email protected]