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: Jumbo Food International in Oxon Hill, then maybe a Caribbean market in Langley Park to buy canola oil, sugar cane and pumpkin. Eventually, they make their way to Giant.
“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.
My father’s birthday is this week. I might take another stab at getting my family to rethink some of our dishes for his celebration. Right now, the one-meal-at-a-time approach seems best.
Smith-Barrow is Web editor of The RootDC.