Culinary heritage can adapt to current health concerns

March 06, 1994|By Nancy E. Schaadt | Nancy E. Schaadt,(Sources: "Down Home Healthy" from the National Cancer Institute; Bettye Nowlin, R.D., spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.)Dallas Morning News

Soul food's got an image problem.

It's high in fat, contrary to current nutritional advice.

But the basic elements of soul food lend themselves to healthful cooking techniques and substitutions.

"We must, as a people, understand that what we call soul food is actually African cooking in America and, with modifications for .. health reasons, it is a food style we can be proud of," says Clarence Glover, director of intercultural education at Southern Methodist University.

The term "soul food" originated around 1960, writes "Food Lover's Companion" author Sharon Tyler Herbst. But the style of cooking it refers to -- boiled or fried ham hocks, grits, chitterlings, black-eyed peas, yams, greens -- has been around much longer.

The roots of soul food lie predominantly in West Africa. Southern staples such as black-eyed peas, peanuts, okra, rice and watermelons came to Colonial America with slaves.

"As a cooking style, 'soul food' is equated with 'Southern food' because Africans prepared food on plantations," says Mr. Glover. "Much of what we eat as Southern food, such as black-eyed peas, came from Africa."

Slaves were given high-fat meats such as pig intestines, ears and feet, and less-desirable cuts of beef and pork -- foods the slave owners wouldn't eat themselves.

Lacking ovens, the slaves relied on frying and boiling.

The resulting diet was high in fat.

"Soul food . . . is essentially sustaining," says dietitian Bettye Nowlin, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "Africans forced into slavery brought their traditional cooking styles and adapted their hearty meals of legumes and greens to crops found in America.

"As slaves, black Americans were nearly always hungry," Ms. Nowlin says. "But with increased affluence came larger portions of the same foods, without the same amount of strenuous exercise necessary to burn the added calories."

A well-stocked pantry and large portions became symbols of wealth. Unhealthful eating habits were perpetuated over time. This, compounded by high stress, contributes to African-American health problems.

Nearly half of all African-American women and a third of the men are overweight. Hypertension rates are nearly double that of Anglos. Nearly one-fifth of African-Americans are diabetic.

All of these ailments contribute to a higher incidence of heart disease and stroke in the African-American community. And all can be managed through proper diet and medical attention.

The biggest mistake people make in confronting the health problems of the African-American community is expecting total change. "Each ethnic group has its own favorite foods," Ms. Nowlin says. "Taking away favorite foods is a recipe for failure."

Simple changes can put soul food more in line with current nutrition recommendations. "The Black Family Dinner Quilt Cookbook," published by the National Council of Negro Women Inc., contains lightened versions of soul food recipes.

"The key to dietary change is simple: variety, balance and moderation," Ms. Nowlin says. "You want people to make changes that will last for a lifetime, so we teach people how to make healthy food choices," she says.

Ms. Nowlin recommends planning for indulgences and using cooking methods that retain the flavor of food while reducing health risks.

"Begin to substitute lower-fat milk for whole milk," recommends Ms. Nowlin. "Mix low-fat cheese with regular Cheddar cheese, trim fat from meat, and use the oven more than the frying pan."

Ms. Nowlin also recommends making red beans or pinto beans with smoked turkey instead of ham hocks or salt pork. When cooking a favorite food such as greens, Ms. Nowlin prepares them by first boiling water with salt pork or bacon to make a flavorful broth. She then chills the broth, skims the fat and uses the broth to cook the greens.

Other tips:

* Choose lean meats and serve smaller portions. Serve larger portions of vegetables and grains.

* Prepare corn bread without bacon drippings.

* Use whole-wheat bread instead of white to add fiber to your diet.

* Serve grits with either margarine or gravy -- not both -- or better yet, with nothing at all.

* Substitute evaporated skim milk for cream in puddings and lower-fat milk for cream in beverages.

Jackie's greens

Makes 12 servings

2 smoked turkey legs or about 1 pound chopped smoked turkey parts

1 tablespoon salt

5 bunches (mixed) mustard and turnip greens, washed thoroughly and coarsely chopped

1 small white onion, chopped

pinch cayenne or black pepper

Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot. Add smoked turkey parts and salt; cook for 15 minutes. Add greens. Water level should be roughly 1 inch below top of greens. Boil, covered, 1 hour. Add onion and boil 30 minutes more, adding water as needed. Greens are done when tender. Add cayenne or black pepper to taste. If using turkey legs, remove bones and chop meat; return to pot.

Per serving: calories: 37; fat: 1 gram; cholesterol: 9 milligrams; sodium: 578 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 19 percent.

Source: Jacquelyn Wells

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