African food, an American story

Auntie Oye has a message for children: Skip the fast food. Eat healthful, fresh things. Tell stories. Be proud of yourself. Laugh. Move.

Auntie Oye is the alter-ego of Vera Oye Yaa-Anna, a nutrition educator and culinary storyteller in Washington, D.C. Her own story starts in Liberia, where she describes an idyllic childhood, going to market with her mom and cooking her first jollof rice at age 12 as a rite of passage. “It was a disaster,” she says of her first solo attempt to make the dish – of rice, tomatoes, spices and meat – for a crowd. “My parents, unbeknownst to me, had prepared something else just in case.”

MAR-yuca

Yuca is a staple in Liberian cooking, where the starchy root serves the same function as potatoes in other cuisines. / AFR photo by Carol Guensburg

Other, bigger dramas followed. Yaa-Anna fled civil war in Liberia in 1990, landing in Los Angeles, where she started a West African dinner theater. She suffered a stroke in early 1996. Storytelling helped her heal, she says. Late that year, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to give a performance – and never left.

Yaa-Anna, now in her 60s, continues to stage her Oye Palaver Hut dinner-theater productions roughly once a month at various locations. But her most rewarding work, she says, comes from leading storytelling sessions and cooking lessons in hospital wards, homeless shelters and especially in elementary schools. “Every time I tell an African story, I talk about food,” Yaa-Anna says. “I’m taking people on a journey. They’re in a hospital bed or a classroom, but we’re using imagination to go someplace.”

One morning at Maury Elementary School in D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, Yaa-Anna leads several dozen kindergarteners into the lowly world of Peppy the Mouse. He’s terribly hungry, but a grouchy cat lurks between him and a block of cheese. Peppy frets. Then, inspired, he takes a deep breath and growls, impersonating a dog to scare off the cat. “That’s why he’s called a bilingual mouse,” Yaa-Anna tells the kids, inviting them to growl and bark, too. In her story, Peppy claims the cheese. Also in her story lies a message for the kids: “It’s teaching them to have courage and to be persistent, and to eat the best food.”

The youngsters, meanwhile, nibble on a spinach-feta dip that two classmates have helped Yaa-Anna prepare minutes earlier. They also sample traditional West African dishes that the storyteller has brought from her kitchen: black-eyed peas, jollof rice, and yuca cubes cooked with spinach and cilantro. She tells them that, as a child in Liberia, she seldom ate sweets. A little boy asks, “No candy?” “I grew up eating fruits,” she says. “It was so easy to go to the trees and pick mango.”

She turns on a recording of drum-heavy African music. “Now we need to exercise,” she says. As Auntie Oye, she grooves, swaying and swiveling her hips with childlike abandon. The kids follow her example, and the storyteller smiles.

“I’m teaching the children, passing on my values to the children of Washington, D.C.,” she explains, “so hopefully when they grow up, they (won’t) be eating fast food and they will be healthy.”

— Carol Guensburg

— AFR video by Daniel McCollum

Makes 10 servings

Spinach and Cilantro Yuca Cubes

Yuca, a starchy tuber native to South America, is a favorite root vegetable there, in West Africa and the Caribbean. Versatile as a potato, it can be boiled, mashed, fried or baked. Vera Oye Yaa-Anna, a culinary storyteller in Washington, D.C., shares a favorite preparation she learned in her native Liberia: boiled yuca cubes dressed with sauteed spinach and cilantro. Serve the mixture as a side dish or, over cooked rice or couscous, as a main dish. It’s best cooked the day before serving so flavors can fully blend.

Ingredients

  • 3 medium yuca roots
  • Salt, to taste
  • 3/4 cup olive or canola oil
  • 1 medium yellow or red onion, coarsely chopped
  • 8 cups coarsely chopped fresh spinach (stem ends trimmed and discarded)
  • 4 cups coarsely chopped fresh cilantro (stem ends trimmed and discarded)
  • Cooked rice or couscous, if desired

Instructions

With a sturdy knife, peel away and discard the yuca’s thick skin, revealing the tuber’s white flesh. Split the yuca lengthwise and cut into 1-inch cubes.

In large saucepan, bring salted water to boil. Add yuca cubes, reduce heat slightly and cook until yuca has softened enough to pierce easily with a fork, about 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and set yuca aside.

In large skillet over medium-high heat, warm the oil until it begins to shimmer. Stir in onion and cook, stirring frequently, until it has softened, about 3 or 4 minutes.

Stir in spinach and cilantro; reduce heat and continue cooking until mixture softens and vegetables’ juices have been released and cooked down, about 15 minutes. Just before serving, stir yuca into the mixture and reheat thoroughly. Serve yuca mixture by itself or over cooked rice or couscous.

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