By Michelle Lawrence
If music is the language of the soul, then cooking is the language of the heart. Incidentally, it is the heart which is most affected by the type of food we eat.
Yvette Salter, 42, of Winston-Salem, NC is one of many African American women who have begun looking for alternative ways to prepare food that is tasteful and heart healthy: foods such as her crab-stuffed tilapia.
“I love fish, especially fried fish, but when my blood pressure began to go up, I had to start looking for different ways to make it. That’s when I started researching different recipes and found one for crab-stuffed tilapia. Now it’s one of my favorite things to eat. It’s made in the oven, and it’s low in salt,” she said.
African American people are known for foods associated with Southern hospitality and comfort — foods rich in calories that over time result in high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease — such as macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, fried pork chops, mashed potatoes and gravy, and potato salad, to name a few.
“My mother can get down on some Southern cooking now, don’t get me wrong! Even my brother took after her like that,” Salter says. “And I can cook, but trying new things was something I had to do on my own. I stopped eating pork in 1992, and started looking for ways to make food taste good without it.”
Making food taste good is one thing, but trying new foods, or using different spices and cooking methods, can seem like an act of cultural disloyalty and treason. After all, suggests anthropologists like Doris Witt, food is one of the most significant symbols of culture and represents cultural identity.
However, when the culture has changed, aren’t the eating habits and food staples supposed to change as well?
According to data from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), heart disease is the number-one cause of death nationally, and African Americans die from heart disease at a 31 percent higher rate than Whites. High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is a major risk factor for heart disease. About 69 percent of people who have a first heart attack have high blood pressure, and African Americans are 1.5 times as likely as Whites to have high blood pressure.
With the increased rates of high blood pressure and heart disease, health experts such as Leandris Liburd think it’s alarming that although African American culture has changed to adapt to current social conditions, African Americans remain largely tied to a daily diet of foods that were created while in bondage, when there was an overall lack of freedom to choose otherwise.
She asks: “How might the eating ritual be reconstructed for future generations of African Americans in a way that perpetuates sociality and a collective sense of community but still reduces the risks for developing chronic diseases?” In other words, how might African Americans hold onto identity while changing their diets?
The answer might be as simple as recognizing that food is more than ingredients and spices; it is the language of the heart.
Crab-stuffed tilapia with sautéed spinach in honey vinaigrette
4 oz. of tilapia
14 oz. of crab meat (imitation is fine)
1 habanera pepper
2-3 cups of cornbread stuffing
1 beaten egg
1 stalk of celery
1 peeled carrot
½ Vidalia onion
2 cloves of garlic
½ red bell pepper (optional)
¼ stick of salted butter
1 cup of chicken stock
Salt and lemon pepper to taste
1 bunch of baby spinach, cleaned and stemmed
A pinch of chopped Italian parsley for garnish
Season the fish with salt and lemon pepper seasoning, cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
In a blender, chop the habanera, celery, carrot, Vidalia onion, garlic and bell pepper and set aside.
Heat butter in a frying pan, add the crab meat and the chopped vegetables along with 2-3 cups of the cornbread stuffing and fry until soft. Add chicken stock and cook until the crabmeat and vegetable stuffing has absorbed the stock. Set aside for cooling.
Preheat the oven at 400 degrees.
Remove the fish from the refrigerator and spread the stuffing mixture over the tilapia fillets, rolling them up. Hold them seam side down and dip into egg, molding them tightly. Then place in a lightly oiled small baking dish.
After each piece of fish is placed into the baking dish, arrange the remaining crabmeat stuffing around the fish and bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes or until golden brown.
In a skillet, heat a tablespoon of butter, and add a ½ cup of dry white wine. Cook on high and boil for five minutes, then reduce heat to let sauce thicken.
Spoon sauce over fish and garnish with chopped Italian parsley.
Michelle Lawrence, MA, MPH, specializes in cooking African-based dishes and relationship-enhancing dining experiences for families and couples. She can be reached at 612-251-9516.