Everyone loves to hear a great story and the children in Washington, D.C. are no different with tales of culinary adventures from African storyteller Vera Oye Yaa-Anna who is affectionately known as “Auntie Oye.” Since 1998, she has worked with children, mainly in underserved communities, to teach them as well as their parents about the importance of cooking and eating healthy meals, stressing that when families do it together, you have just written a story that will last in the child’s memory forever. Just ask any chef what he/she remembers about their first culinary memories and they have stories for days.
“I don’t do anything without parents because it doesn’t make sense,” says Yaa-Anna who moved to D.C. from Los Angeles after being “invited” to do a presentation from her African dinner theater during President Bill Clinton’s second inauguration in 1997. The person who invited her lied and she was now on the opposite side of the country but decided to stay and make things work.
Teaching the Next Generation
Originally from Liberia, a country founded by freed African-American slaves in 1821, one would think D.C., with all of its international ties and embassies would be a great place to pick up the pieces and start all over, but not so. Making the adjustment to a new city and its culture proved to be difficult as well as meeting new people.
Yaa-Anna is the founder of The Palaver Hut, a West African culinary theater that transforms an entire space into Africa, all the way from the décor to the food and ambiance. Hosting her culinary theater in D.C. was not as well-received as it was in Los Angeles. In fact, Yaa-Anna observed that people had very negative views of Africa. She currently only hosts the theaters on special occasions.
Looking to change the narrative and the audience, she found another passion; teaching the next generation how to grow up healthy and strong. Memories of her childhood in Liberia going to the market with her mom and coming home to prepare and enjoy the food with family and friends was a tradition that she wants to pass down.
“I decided I would have to grow my own audience. And the way to do that is to start early because to get an appreciation for any culture of anything, you have to be taught early. Even good cooking, good eating habits. You have to be taught early,” says Yaa-Anna. “All of what I learned, I am doing it now for the children. I started here as a professional storyteller. In the African tradition, when we are telling a story invariably we are talking about food. Food is a huge activity.”
Teaching culture through food is the best way to introduce children to other parts of the world. The students may seem hesitant at first when Yaa-Anna arrives always dressed in traditional African attire. They also may surprisingly have less than favorable perceptions about Africa. But give Yaa-Anna six weeks and they will be asking her when they can go with her to the continent. During her classes, the young future chefs are dressed in full gear from head to toe and ready to learn about fresh ingredients and dishes that are exciting and new. With many being exposed to a farmer’s market for the first time, a trip with Yaa-Anna will always be memorable as she teaches them (as well as parents) how to shop economically and show them how to prepare the food before they all sit around and enjoy it together telling stories and dancing.
The kids taste buds just light up with dishes such as spinach and cilantro (recipe below), roasted chicken and jollof rice.
Encouraging Family Time
In addition, to teaching about eating healthy, Yaa-Anna infuses social and dining etiquette that will help the kids navigate through the world as they get older. This includes dining on white tablecloths with dishes and flatware; nothing plastic or paper.
Saturdays are for working with parents and their children, creating an environment where families can cook and eat healthy food together. “When you can cook with the kids, you remember that. It stays with them forever,” says Yaa-Anna. You remember passing the flour, tossing the salad and tasting the gravy.
Yaa-Anna is also producing her own show geared toward getting more families cooking together in the kitchen and hosts cooking classes out of her home or a parents' homes for 12 people or more. During the classes, parents learn how to take their cooking skills up a notch by creating fresh, seasonal meals from scratch.
Since arriving on Capitol Hill, Yaa-Anna has definitely seen better days over the years and has truly found her passion reaching and teaching generations so that they can create their own stories that they one day tell others as well.
For more information about Yaa-Anna and The Palaver Hut, visit www.oyepalaverhut.org. If you are interested in bringing her program to your school or organization, you can call 202.547.4899. Be sure to try her spinach and cilantro recipe below.
SPINACH & CILANTRO
2 cups chopped fresh spinach (about 2 bunches and cut 3-4 inch of the stem and discard)
2 cups (3 bunches) chopped cilantro, chopped
1 medium red or yellow onion, coarsely chopped
¾ cup olive or canola oil
salt substitute (Bragg liquid amino), to taste
black pepper, to taste
pieces of grilled chicken breast
2 cups couscous (Israeli or Pearl Couscous)
2 carrots, chopped
1. In a large skillet over medium-high heat oil until it begins to shimmer. Stir in onion and cook, stirring frequently 3-5 minutes or until softened.
2. Stir in spinach and cilantro and seasoned to taste. Continue cooking 10 to 20 minutes simmering, reducing the liquid.
3. In a pot, bring 4 cups of water to boil add couscous, fluff with a fork and cover. When all the water is absorbed the couscous is ready to serve.
4. Serve spinach and cilantro over couscous.