Preaching the virtues of a healthy diet

Denise Hairston says fatty foods, too much salt and sugar are killing black Americans. Her message: A healthy, meat-free diet can be tasty, too

For most black Americans, the idea of “meatless soul food” would seem the height of contradiction.

Not so for Denise Hairston.

The St. Louis native has preached the virtues of a meat-free diet for more than 20 years. Now she is quietly making Charlotte the epicenter of her campaign.

Known to friends as “Chef Denise,” she has been giving meatless cooking demonstrations around town, touting dishes such as vegetarian greens, tofu banana pudding and chicken-less dumplings.

If all goes well, she said, she hopes to open a Meatless Soul Food Cafe within the next year or so.

When it comes to healthy cooking, Hairston combines the energy of a campaigning politician with the zeal of a televangelist. But she is not, she says, a woman who shuns good-tasting food.

For Hairston, it’s all about promoting healthy eating, especially in the African American community, where heart disease, strokes and high blood pressure stalk millions each year.

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“I’m not trying to convert people, saying you have to go from eating meat to eating tofu,” she said. “I’m just trying to get people to understand that what we are putting into our bodies is killing us. And if you could change your diet and still have good food, why wouldn’t you try something different?

“If you like chicken, have it,” she said. “If you still love steak, have it. But don’t put it in your greens or your green beans or your squash.”

Aside from reducing (or eliminating) animal products, Hairston preaches three principles: use vegetable seasonings instead of salt; cook with olive oil, which has no transfats; and stir-fry vegetables, using as little water as possible, rather than boiling them.

At a recent demonstration at Northlake Mall, she whipped up a quick dish of stir-fried succotash with soy bacon. She also brought a vegan carrot cake and sweet potato pie, both containing no dairy products.

Some who attended the event, sponsored by Living Well Carolinas, said they would not have guessed the meal was prepared using nontraditional methods.

“Anything you can do, I can do meatless, and I’m talking to any chef,” Hairston told Qcitymetro.com in a later interview. “Most people think of health food as synonymous with food that has a terrible taste or tastes like cardboard. The concept with meatless soul food is we are going to make it good to you, but also good for you.”

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Like most black women of her day, Hairston said she learned to cook at the feet of her mother and a grandmother she calls “the original soul food cook.” That meant lots of salt, fat and sugar.

She later saw the ill effects of poor diet, she said, when she lost four female family members to chronic illnesses in rapid succession, including her mother, grandmother and a 46-year-old aunt who, she said, drank a case of cola each week.

“Physical exercise was not something we did,” Hairston said. “We talked about it.”

In 2001 Hairston co-founded the Black Women’s Health Network, a nonprofit devoted to helping black women pursue healthy lifestyles. In 2005 she opened the Lifestyle Cafe, a St. Louis restaurant that served a range of meatless dishes but was not strictly vegetarian. She self-published two cook books and produced a DVD.

Hairston said she stopped eating red meat 23 years go. She gave up poultry in 2002 and dairy products four years later.

“That was the hard thing,” she said of that final step. “No macaroni and cheese.”

(Hairston confides that she does have a recipe for dairy-free mac-n-cheese, but it doesn’t have the taste her grandmother’s had.)

Hairston moved to Charlotte in 2006. She came to visit and fell in love with the city.

“I love the weather. I love the country and city feel. You can get both here,” she said.

What she often can’t find in Charlotte, she said, is “good food to eat if you are not a meat eater. That’s got to change.”

Hairston said she believes Charlotte, a fast-growing town with a fast-paced lifestyle, is a great place to try her Meatless Soul Food Cafe concept. Although plans are evolving, she said, she envisions more of a take-out menu than a full-service restaurant.

She recently launched a six-week fitness program in Charlotte that began in St. Louis under the Women’s Health Network. Called Lifestyle Change, the program goes into poor communities with experts in diet, nutrition and physical fitness. The program targets children as well as adults.

Hairston said she’s often surprised by the number of overweight people she sees in the Charlotte area, especially children, and especially in the African American community.

Asked if she ever grows discouraged, she gives an emphatic “No.”

“It’s like a pastor at a church,” she said. “If you go to a church where everybody’s saved, everybody’s angelic, the pastor doesn’t really have much to do. I need some sinners in here, so I can convert them.”

To visit her website, go to www.meatlesssoulfood.org.

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