Learning How to Cook and Eat Well Through Storytelling

Student chefs get ready to eat their hand-made pizzas.

Twenty Hill children and parents spent a week this summer learning how to prepare simple healthful meals using whole fresh foods. They created ethnic dishes, cooked with foods from different countries and learned about the countries where the foods came from. 

They were part of the Family Cooking Summer Camp Workshop designed to teach parents and children the value of healthful nutrition, to develop healthful eating habits, to provide basic training in food safety and preparation and to stimulate the children to learn more about diet and nutrition. 

Vera Oye Yaa-Anna, a culinary storyteller and nutrition educator from Liberia in West Africa, teamed up with the Polite Piggy Day Camp organization that runs the Maury and Tyler after-school programs, to give participants a unique perspective on preparing a meal. “I teach the African tradition of culinary storytelling, not just cooking. Most dishes we prepared were international ethnic dishes from places such a Jamaica, Mexico, Africa and Caribbean countries.”

Vera designed her program with parents as participants because, she said, “Both parents and children will reap many benefits of cooking together.” Not only do they learn how to cook but they also develop reading and math skills, experiment with ingredients, try new foods, learn cause and effect and develop proper dining etiquette.” Vera teaches the difference between whole foods and processed foods. She drinks water and discourages soda consumption. She said she believes that making time to eat dinner as a family is a natural outcome of cooking together.

Camp participants cooked with yucca and plantain and cooked jerk chicken and fufu (looks like dumplings). Vera said a particular favorite dish was egusi which is made from dried melon seeds (cantaloupe, watermelon, honeydew) that are pounded into a flour base. They also made coconut candy, rice bread and corn bread.

Vera said she gives an in-depth explanation of the foods they use. It is a “hands-on” experience for all. They feel, taste and smell the food. “I share the many ways one food can be used.” For example, she used coconut. It can be used to make bread, candy, chicken, water, sugar and milk. “Once they see how it can be used they have a better appreciation and understanding for that food. They take a culinary journey to other countries, which truly intrigues them.” 

The last day of camp culminated with a feast. Parents attended and children performed an African dance.

Vera’s company, Oye’ Palaver Hut, Inc. is a non profit West African culinary theatre that is fashioned after the cultural hub of West African villages. “Palaver is a place that every village has where we go to entertain guests, settle disputes and come together with people to tell stories. It is like a town center.” 

Vera has been in DC since 1997. She started teaching children to cook in 1998 at the former Friendship House where she began her program telling stories. “In Africa, food is a huge part of storytelling.”

This is the third grant Vera has received from Capitol Hill Community Foundation for her summer camp. Last year she said, when talking about how some Africans hunt for their food, one child thought Washingtonians hunted for theirs in Rock Creek Park. “I laughed until I cried,” she said. In past camps Vera took kids to volunteer one day at Martha’s Table. “I wanted them to include outreach to other children in the community.” She also brought them to shop at Eastern Market. 

This fall Vera will have her own TV show on a DC cable TV station. “Many years ago Americans ate as a family. I want to help create our own rituals, even if it’s just one day a week.” She also wants to demonstrate how families can be more thoughtful about meals and and make dining special with just a little effort. “Stop eating on paper plates and use table clothes. I want to show how you don’t have to use expensive things. You can buy dishes at a thrift store. I also want the audience to learn an appreciation for the food they are eating.” 

Vera will also be holding her after school culinary storytelling workshops as part of the after school programs this fall at Tyler and Maury Elementary schools. She welcomes visitors to these programs. Interested observers can contact Vera at: oyepalaver11@verizon.net.

To learn more about Vera’s programs or to contact her, log onto her website at: www.oyepalaverhut.org

Children preparing a green salad
Parent cooking with the tiny chefs
The most attentive chef

Pattie Cinelli is a fitness professional who offers clients a way to incorporate health, fitness and fun through her mind/body/balance programs. She has been writing her health/fitness column for more than 25 years. To contact Pattie email her at: fitness@pattiecinelli.com.


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