Come to the kitchen, to nourish body and soul

February 10, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

Thelma Williams, cook, caterer, educator and "Home Show" television program contributor, knows all about formulas. Here's one of her favorite:

"Take the most troubled child, and get him in the kitchen, working and chopping up things, and the trouble just falls away."

When Mrs. Williams and her husband Wesley owned a catering business in a low-income section of Los Angeles, her kitchen was a magnet for neighborhood kids. "You know what children face in the inner city," she says. But the kitchen was a haven, a place where they could be safe and learn valuable skills -- communication, mathematics, measuring and cooking.

The kitchen has always been an important connection for Mrs. Williams. "I come from a large family and every time we get together, we end up talking about things that happened around that kitchen table -- the happy things, the sad things."

From her own experience and because she had seen it work with the children who came to her catering kitchen, she knew that food could make connections that would last a lifetime. "So I thought of asking people to remember their favorite foods and all that happened to them" and bringing those stories together in a cookbook for children and parents.

The book is "Our Family Table" (Tradery House, 1993, $14.93). The people Mrs. Williams asked for food reminiscences are African-Americans from all realms, from education to science to sports to entertainment. Some are famous -- Quincy Jones, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Ed Bradley, the late Arthur Ashe, David Dinkins -- and some are unsung heroes outside their communities. Two are from Baltimore: pediatric neurosurgeon Benjamin Carson and Sister Mary Alice Chineworth, administrator of the Oblate Sisters of Providence. One, photographer Calvin Stewart Jr., once lived in a Washington homeless shelter.

"I knew before I started I wanted a diverse group," Mrs. Williams says. "I wanted old people and young people . . ."

But as she collected the stories, she discovered there was "a theme, a commonality" that wove through each of these people's lives: "Somebody touched them."

"I wanted people to know that these were not extraordinary lives, they became extraordinary. We didn't call them role models, because sometimes if you tell a child this person is a role model, that role seems unattainable. We called them life models." It's important for children to realize, she said, that although the people in the book are doing well now, none of them came from privileged beginnings. "I want to say, this person's life started out just like your life. You have some choices here."

There are 28 people in the book, one for every day of Black History Month -- "a full month of success stories," Mrs. Williams says. She hopes teachers and parents and children will use the book -- the stories and the recipes -- to gain a deeper understanding of the role of African-Americans in society. And she hopes the people in the book will touch the children.

Mrs. Williams and her husband have recently moved from California to Atlanta where they are opening "Our daily Bread and Cobbler Shop," a retail bakery and youth intervention center where "at-risk" young people can learn life skills and job skills. "The biggest thing is to start with the youth," she says.


Another book celebrating African-American food traditions, out just in time for Black History Month, is "The Black Family Dinner Quilt Cookbook," from Dr. Dorothy Height and the National Council of Negro Women in Washington (Tradery House, 1993, $14.95).

The book features "healthy" recipes for favorites old and new, along with food memories, chapters on the history of soul food, menus and nutrition information. The cookbook, a sequel to last year's popular "Black Family Reunion Cookbook," grew out of a discussion with Dr. Height, a legendary civil rights leader and president of the council, as she reminisced about meals and other experiences she shared with the founder of the council, Mary McLeod Bethune. The introduction, by Brenda Rhodes Cooper, says, "Dr. Height told us how she learned from Mrs. Bethune that more business could be done and more decisions could be made over a dinner table than over a dozen conference tables."

The book weaves together such memories, shared meals with the metaphor of quilting "as a metaphor for communication, fellowship, and the richness of sharing between women of all races," Ms. Cooper writes.

As with Mrs. Williams' book, the recipes have been updated to reflect today's concerns for lower calories and better nutrition.

Here are samples of recipes from both books. The first is from "Our Family Table." The recipe comes from Sister Mary Alice Chineworth, who recalls growing up as a shy child and receiving her call to religious life when she was just 4 years old. "I believe if one has a goal to work toward, there will be meaning in life," she says in the book. Since all the recipes are designed to be shared by parents and children, the recipe suggests using "a grownup baker's helper."

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