Vicky Ott rifles through a storage cage stuffed with coconut milk, stone-ground grits, red lentils, couscous, Himalayan Pink Salt and other food items she hopes will improve her students' health.
Her "students" are a group of adult African-American women who are seeking to blend nutrition, cultural history and simple cooking techniques into a new way of eating.
"We're looking at making our food tasty, but not necessarily using the (streak-o'-lean), fatback and smoked turkey wings. We're looking for something that's going to be healthy, and my vision is for people to pick this up and continue it," said Ott, a clinical dietician at the Regional Medical Center's Healthy Living Center.
Eleanor Vause and Sandy Harris shared their thoughts during the second class held on March 9.
"My husband and I have tried to change our eating habits over the past half a year or so. I love to cook so I thought it would be neat to get some new recipes and kind of delve into the heritage piece. I love the tastings," Harris said.
Vause said, “I’ve always wanted to learn how to cook better and actually wanted to go to culinary school. The class has been very interesting because we forget that food can be tasty and healthy.”
Ott is a also a volunteer instructor who is teaching "A Taste of African Heritage," a free six-week cooking class series that emphasizes the major foods and cooking techniques of African heritage
The class is being offered through a partnership between the RMC, the 1890 Research & Extension Program at South Carolina State University and African Heritage & Health, a program of Old Ways - Health Through Heritage.
Old Ways is a Boston, Massachusetts-based nonprofit good and nutrition organization that promotes healthy eating by using regional diet pyramids which are based on cultural eating patterns and lifestyles.
“It sort of began with the Mediterranean diet, but over the years, we’ve looked at different cultural models for diet and lifestyle,” said Rachel Greenstein, communications manager at Old Ways.
Greenstein said Old Ways introduced its African Heritage Diet Pyramid in 2011 and went on to develop a six-week cooking curriculum with a grant from the Walmart Foundation.
The curriculum indicates that the traditional African diet was plant-based, high in flavor and naturally low in cholesterol, saturated fat, sugars and excess sodium.
"We’ve taught in almost 100 different locations already. People are becoming more empowered in the kitchen, adopting healthier lifestyles and putting what they’ve learned into action,” Greenstein said.
She added, “The beauty of these classes is that they are really helping people make that cultural connection, and participants are really getting inspiration and finding motivation to improve one’s diet and health through that.”
The classes range from 90 minutes to two hours and are held in the RMC Community Outreach Building at 1324 Hutto St. Ott held her first class on March 2, during which she prepared some asparagus and a dish of spicy chickpeas.
She also emphasized the use of fresh herbs and spices and less salt in cooking.
“A lot of spices are just a combination of other spices so I have coriander, fenugreek and some turmeric. Most of these have good medicinal purposes to it, too,” Ott said.
She focused on greens during the March 9 class. She said while collard greens, mustard greens and cabbage are among the most popular greens, there were other “super foods” such as kale, spinach and watercress.
Participants whipped up their own fresh spinach salad with cucumbers and avocado. Ott cooked up a pot of tangy collard greens, along with a spinach smoothie packed with ingredients including blueberries, banana and natural peanut butter.
“I have so many people that don’t eat vegetables. They’re pretty good, but when you open up a (canned) vegetable and serve it to somebody that way, that’s not too appetizing. You’ve gotta be able to do something to it,” Ott, said, adding she looks for easy recipes that her students can prepare at home.
She said while a serving of greens is usually approximately 25 calories, the calorie count can rise to as much as 80 or 90 when greens are cooked with fat.
She encouraged her students not to overcook their greens and risk stripping them of all of their nutrients. She also talked about “pot liquor,” or the brothy water that’s left after cooking up a big pot of greens. It is often the most nutritious part that can be used in a soup, etc., Ott said.
The African Heritage Diet Pyramid begins with being physically active and enjoying meals with others as part of a healthy lifestyle. The consumption of green, leafy vegetables comes afterward.
“What we’re emphasizing is to eat from the bottom all the way up. You start with the greens and then go up with a lot of the fruits and vegetables and tubers. We want to emphasize using herbs and spices and then trying to include fish at least twice a week in the diet,” Ott said.
“We’re then working up (to) eggs and poultry, pork and ham and using dairy and sweets at the very top. By the end, we’re going to advocate that they do one meatless meal a week. We’re going to look at the legumes and talk about how we’re combining legumes to become complete proteins,” she said.
The goal is mindful eating, Ott said.
“And that is not a diet. There are no menus or recipes. It is being more aware of your eating habits, the sensations you experience when you eat and the thoughts and emotions you have about food. It is more about how you eat than what you eat,” Ott said.
There is currently a waiting list for the six-week class, which is limited to 20 participants.
For more information about “A Taste of African Heritage,” call Ott at 803-395-2596.