Saving Soul food

Sylvia Woods knows her soul food. For the past 40-plus years, she's been dishing out the best of it at her famed restaurant Sylvia's, in Harlem--the fried chicken, the macaroni and cheese, the sweet candied yams. But one recent winter day, the queen of soul food wandered by a table occupied by her grandson Lindsey Williams, and witnessed a culinary revolution. There, on a plate elegantly dusted with flecks of parsley, sat a delicate sweet-potato puree. Next to it, two round lentil cakes with a swirl of tofu sour cream on top and Thai sesame dressing on the side. "What's that?" Woods asked. "Veggie croquettes," said Williams. Woods popped a piece into her mouth. "Mmm," she said, "that's good."

And good for you, too, especially when compared with the chitlins and ham hocks that have nourished the bodies and souls of African-Americans for decades. Such down-home cooking, with its heavy doses of salt, sugar and fat, can contribute to toxic effects like high blood pressure and diabetes, both of which strike black Americans at significantly higher rates than whites. Now entrepreneurs like Williams, nutritionists and even pastors are on a mission to improve African-American diets, not by condemning their rich culinary heritage, but by reinventing time-honored recipes. Williams's new cookbook, "Neo Soul," is now hitting bookstores. Dietitians are teaching family chefs how to flavor collard greens with smoked turkey instead of pork fat. And around the country, black churches are serving up healthy homilies ("Your body is the temple of God") along with nutritious Sunday dinners: baked chicken and fruit, not fried chicken and biscuits. "There are many great qualities in soul food," says Roniece Weaver, of Hebni Nutrition Consultants in Orlando, Fla. "The problem is the way we prepare it."

Aunt Obie's Restaurant, in Waukegan, Ill., is signing on. Last year chef Charlie Black teamed up with the Lake County Health Department to improve nutrition in the county's African-American population. Black, whose parents both died of heart attacks, eagerly agreed to modify a handful of items on his menu for a special "heart healthy" day. The numbers say it all: less than one gram of fat in his revamped carrots (seasoned with honey and cilantro) compared with five grams in Aunt Obie's original recipe (margarine and sugar); 141 calories in the garlic mashed potatoes compared with 219, and 64 milligrams of sodium in the baked chicken compared with a whopping 5,581 in the fried. Most important for Black, his customers liked the taste; next month he's introducing the dishes as permanent options.

Lindsey Williams is going even farther, raising soul food to a "whole 'nutha level," as his book jacket proclaims. A caterer and chef-in-training, Williams wants to make the cuisine as refined as sushi. An overweight kid who grew up in his grandmother's restaurant, Williams knows the perils of pork fat. At his heaviest, in 1997, he weighed 400 pounds. Today, lean and muscular at about 180, he's ditched sugar and grease; his veggie croquettes combine lentils with scallions and thyme--and they're cooked in olive oil. Williams, whose goal is to broaden soul food's appeal and inspire African-Americans to reclaim their culinary heritage in a healthy way, is thinking big. In the works: a takeout restaurant and Neo Soul products, including frozen (instead of canned) collard and mustard greens. "Soul food is great," says Williams. "I want to keep it alive."

Good eating can mean good business, too. After watching relatives die young of heart disease and diabetes, Wiley Mullins, an Alabama native, launched a line of soul-food seasonings in the early 1990s. Today Wiley's Healthy Southern Classics are sold in Wal-Mart nationwide. Mullins travels to churches and bookstores, where he gives cooking demos and sells his spice mixes. Worried about the health of African-Americans--more than one third take hypertension drugs or have high blood pressure, and 14.8 percent have diabetes--Mullins sees disease prevention as his mission. "You can still eat ethnic and eat healthy," he says.

The key to success is understanding culinary tradition and making incremental rather than drastic changes. "You gotta meet people where they are," says nutritionist Weaver, who helped create a Soul Food Pyramid--an ethnic twist on the USDA version. Religious institutions are reaching out, too. More than 2,000 churches have signed on to the Body & Soul program, led by the National Cancer Institute. Church leaders pledge to include more fruits and veggies in their meals and to preach healthy eating. California's Pasadena Church of God ditched the sodas and started a walking club. "At our funerals, we used to serve fried chicken, greasy macaroni and cheese, and greens with ham hocks," says assistant pastor Glovioell Rowland. "Then we realized, 'These are the same things that are killing our people'." Salvation, one fresh veggie at a time.

Saving Soul food | News