In a Sept. 7 Food article, a nutritionist misstated the calorie content of olive oil. Olive oil contains about 120 calories per tablespoon, not per teaspoon. (Published 9/8/2005)
When my first cookbook, "The Church Ladies' Divine Desserts and Sweet Recollections," was published in 2001, I dismissed grumblings I heard at book signings about "healthier" dessert recipes. After all, everyone knew that African American church ladies' desserts rested firmly upon that culinary trinity of butter, sugar and eggs.
As far as I was concerned back then, anyone with reservations about fat, salt and sugar should either eat sparingly of the sweets, opt for fruit and angel food cake or abandon them altogether.
But times do change. An unexpected visit to a cardiologist just after the release of my second "Church Ladies" cookbook gave me pause. After consulting with Washington nutritionist Rebecca M. Mohning, I reworked some of the recipes. And when I served both versions at my daughter's bridal shower, the revised, heart-healthy recipes got surprisingly positive results.
There is no shortage of good reasons for African American women to reevaluate their time-honored recipes. Susan Bennett, clinical director for the women's heart program at George Washington University Hospital, offered these statistics:
* Cardiovascular disease accounts for nearly 40 percent of all deaths of African American women.
* Risk factors for African American women and cardiovascular disease loom large: inactivity, 55 percent; overweight (with a body mass index of more than 25), 77 percent; obesity (a body mass index of more than 30), 49 percent; high blood pressure, 45 percent.
* The prevalence rate (percentage of women living with cardiovascular disease) is 48 percent for black women versus 32 percent for white women.
After my visit with the cardiologist, I decided I was honor-bound to investigate the feasibility of adapting some of the comfort food recipes from my cookbooks into "heart-healthy" versions.
Church ladies are legendary for their good food. They're the ones who provide delicious, filling and usually homemade delicacies for congregations all over the country. Without church ladies' cooking, there would probably be no covered-dish suppers, repasts following funerals, breakfasts after sunrise service, harvest teas, church picnics, box lunches when churches "fellowship" with or visit other churches, summer fish fries or a host of other meals.
Invariably, church ladies will cheerfully insist that you "have a little taste of this" or "try a bit of that" -- until you've eaten your way through a long line of dishes. Food and hospitality ministries guarantee that no one ever leaves hungry.
Yet such irresistible meals are double trouble for people predisposed to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other diet-related ailments. The current health status of many African American families cries out for intentional, consistent and well-informed attention to preparing food that is good for us while still tasting good.
Mohning gave me valuable advice about how to reduce the fat in traditional recipes without forfeiting flavor. She reminded me there are alternatives to frying, the big bad boy of cooking: Broiling, baking, poaching, braising and grilling meats can keep calories lower and might encourage cooks to experiment with many seasonings other than salt.
"Frying really adds a lot of calories," Mohning said. "For example, per ounce, fried fish has four times as many calories as fish prepared by other methods. When chicken or turkey is fried, multiply the calories by three compared to other methods of preparation, and even lean red meat when fried has twice as many calories per ounce."
When it comes to heart disease, sodium is a major culprit.
The salt content in canned soups and vegetables, store-bought ice creams and pastries, most convenience foods and sodas is frightening. Always read labels and avoid foods with high levels of sodium. That puts chips, dips and many frozen entrees beyond the pale for those who care about health.
"An easy way to cut salt is to experiment with seasonings and spices that can add flavor to food," Mohning said. "What salt does is reduce the blandness of food." Replacing the salt with seasonings and spices will give you "pretty much the same effect."
She suggested a couple of reliable techniques to reduce salt and fat:
* Salt most dishes right before serving, using sea salt, which has a more potent flavor than regular salt. Or try adding vinegar, lemon juice, garlic or onions to your recipes.
* Pay attention to the fats you use. "Don't be afraid to try fats that do not contain saturated fat or trans fats. Olive oil doesn't, so feel free to use it in cooking. Just remember that the calories in olive oil can add up fast. One teaspoon has 120 calories," Mohning said.
Armed with expert advice, I recently conscripted the guests at a bridal shower for my daughter, Lauren Cooper, for a blind taste test.
The night before the shower, I prepared two versions of macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, mashed potatoes and cream cheese poundcake -- dishes that show up on the tables of African American cooks for just about every special occasion. The healthier alternatives were made with adaptations recommended by Mohning (see "Win-Win on 3 of the 4 Revisions").
One thing I learned from this test was that even with traditional recipes or old favorites, African American women are willing to make compromises if it will improve overall health.
Lower-fat and lower-salt versions of comfort food will pass muster as long as the finished product tastes good, looks the expected way, has the right mouth feel and is generally satisfying. Texture might be a stumbling block, but even that can be overcome with additional flavor.
For home cooks, the secret is to make sure that while you're reducing the fat and salt in your recipes to safeguard your family's health, you're also paying attention to the fact that food is one of life's great pleasures.
If you can't adapt your favorite recipes to make them more heart-healthy, perhaps it's time to consider putting them aside. But even if you do, please don't abandon the church ladies' wonderful stories and their preservation of culture.
Author Brenda Rhodes Miller is executive director of the D.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.