By Tracie McMillan
City Limits Weekly • Jan. 28, 2008
Flushing— The Go Green East Harlem Cookbook, edited by Scott Stringer, Jones Books, $17.95 in stores, free at community events.
It’s difficult to take critical aim at a community cookbook. Rarely intended as just a repository of cooking advice, the recipe collections of neighborhood associations, houses of worship, immigrant clubs and tenants’ groups are often aimed more at raising funds and morale than actually generating whole, good meals. Any true culinary skill gleaned from them is a result of luck as much as intention.
Still, even as home cooking – or at least the notion of it – has skyrocketed in appeal along with the popularity of television cooks like Rachael Ray, there’s been a yawning gap between what our cookbooks suggest and what people actually have the time, skill and money to cook. It is with that in mind that I set out to prepare a meal from the pages of “The Go Green East Harlem Cookbook,” released last week under the auspices of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.
Published in both English and Spanish, the book is part of Stringer’s office’s “Go Green” initiative to improve the health of East Harlemites in a variety of ways, including erecting a new asthma treatment center and planting hundreds of new trees. As community cookbooks go, it’s a beauty: large, professional-quality photos of contributors are interspersed throughout the pages, all of which are bound into a softcover book—no plastic ring binding here. The bulk of the 68 health-focused recipes cover the smaller pieces of the meal—the appetizers, sides, soups and salads—with comparably few entrees and just a handful of desserts.
This unusual distribution of recipes (in cookbooks, desserts rarely get short shrift) likely stems from the book’s raison de etre: promoting healthful eating and home cooking among East Harlem’s residents. It’s a worthy goal. Though it is only hinted at in the book’s four essays, the neighborhood posts some of the city’s most dispiriting health and welfare statistics. More than one-third of residents live below the federal poverty level, and combined with Central Harlem, it boasts one of the city’s highest rates of diabetes and obesity.
It is also a part of the city where the odds are stacked against someone trying to pick up ingredients to cook at home. Bodegas outnumber supermarkets by nearly nine to one in East Harlem, according to a 2007 study from the city’s health department. Few of those little markets carry fresh produce to cook for dinner; just 4 percent of East Harlem’s bodegas carried greens, according to the study. The imbalance can matter: For every additional supermarket in a census tract, fruit and vegetable consumption can increase by as much as 32 percent, according to an American Journal of Public Health study.
Still, access isn’t the only barrier. Even if fresh produce is readily available, one has to be able and willing to prepare it on her own, which is precisely where “Go Green” seeks to make a dent. Unfortunately, this is where the book falters most.
I set out to make a meal for some young parents I know and their 3-year-old son, using only recipes from the book. I chose recipes that would suit a relatively inexperienced cook trying to cook dinner on a budget and satisfy a young child. After nixing unusual ingredients (fresh fennel in the Sicilian Orange Salad), a lengthy cooking process (Sancocho Spanish Stew Soup) and fussy preparation (julienned lettuce and fish in Zesty Smoked Salmon Salad), I settled on a basic spread for a work night’s supper.
I’d make Collard Greens from MoBay Uptown Restaurant and BBQ and Lemon Chicken from the renowned Italian eatery Rao’s. To keep things sweet – and easy – I’d end with Gingerbread and Apricot Sauce from the John S. Roberts Middle School 45 Environmental Club. I’d shop at the Harlem Pathmark, since it seemed like a place I might stop if I lived nearby and needed to cook a meal after work. Supermarkets also tend to be cheaper, and I wanted to watch my budget; to that end, I also resolved to take the cheapest option for an ingredient, though I could make an exception if quality seemed a substantial issue.
The first problem I ran into was, sadly, the ingredients. I’d somehow missed the fact that the collards required something called “smoke sauce.” This may be sheer ignorance on my part, but I don’t know what smoke sauce is. The Pathmark staffer I sought advice from was no help, so I grabbed a bottle of Wright’s All Natural Mesquite Flavored Liquid Smoke, on sale for just $1.89 (instead of $6.99!) and hoped for the best. Then there was the chicken. Rao wanted me to cook two chickens of 2 ½ to 3 pounds each. I could not find a chicken that was under 3 ¾ pounds, leaving me to ponder whether a five-pound bird would work just as well. And when the sauce for the cake called for sugar-free apricot preserves, I found myself facing down three options: Splenda, NutraSweet or fruit-juice sweetened. These are finicky concerns, to be sure, but they are precisely the kind of quandaries that make early attempts at cooking a nerve-wracking affair.
My bill was $30.04 to buy the primary ingredients, all of them relatively cheap. That meant industrially raised, hormone-injected chickens, similarly treated eggs, and lemon juice from a bottle of concentrate. In growing season, I could have gone to one of East Harlem’s two farmer’s markets, but my bill likely would have been higher. Knoll Crest Farms, which sells at markets around the city, charges around $3 per pound for its chickens – and can’t see lowering prices. “We’re losing money on chicken… but we don’t want to charge $5 to $6 a pound,” says Elizabeth Ryan, a partner in Knoll Crest. Collards would have cost about $1 a pound, says Ken Migliorelli, who sells vegetables at the East Harlem markets – but Pathmark was charging $.79 for the same.
And it’s important to remember that I have a fully stocked kitchen in terms of spices and staples like butter and flour. Buying staples would have added another $15.55, and spices another $12.17, bringing the grand total for a pure newbie to $58.12. That’s not exactly a bargain meal for four. Indeed, with one in four East Harlemites on food stamps, it’s worth noting that the low-end estimate would eat up more than one-quarter of $112, the average weekly food stamp benefit for a family of four.
I started cooking around 6:30, but was flummoxed when I remembered that none of the recipes had time estimates for their preparation. This is one of modern cookbooks’ godsends for anyone trying to cook meals in addition to working. Its omission in a cookbook designated as an easy entry into meal preparation is a serious flaw. For me, cooking everything took about an hour; I’d add another 20 minutes for someone who doesn’t know the shortcuts for cutting a heap of collard leaves into one-inch pieces, and the like.
The biggest question, of course, is a simple one: How was the food?
I wish I could say everything was delicious, but the collards were watery and lacked flavor aside from the liquid smoke. The instructions were confusing—after boiling chopped greens for 30 minutes, I was to sauté them until tender, a state they had already attained—and the result was not particularly good.
The lemon chicken was far more successful, save for the problem of fitting the too-large chickens into my shallow, rental-apartment broiler. The easiest recipe of the bunch, it marked a nice pairing of sharp citrus with the moist and savory chicken meat.
Most disappointing was the gingerbread. It had barely any flavor, despite a nice texture. The sauce was a disaster, owing in part to my best guess: the fruit-sweetened spread. Mixed cold with lemon zest and juice, the sauce was overly tart and resembled Jell-O pureed with water; only by melting it and adding some orange juice did it become palatable.
There are many cookbooks that fail to offer preparation times, budget or a sense of the skill level required for each recipe—and community cookbooks, the likes of which line my grandmother’s kitchen shelves, have typically been among them. But most aren’t charged with the task of making cooking at home an easy, rewarding enterprise for inexperienced, health-conscious cooks of limited means.
Meeting that ambitious goal takes very careful recipe testing and stringent criteria about the ingredients and techniques that will be used. That, in turn, takes money, so it’s perhaps unfair to be too critical of a modest effort like “The Go Green East Harlem Cookbook” for failing to incorporate these extensively. Stringer himself, after all, admits to not being a cook (and contributed tips about ordering healthy takeout.) At the same time, since the authors wanted the book actually to be useful in addition to celebrating the community, it’s hard to understand why the recipes – as well-intentioned, thoughtfully collected, and beautifully displayed as they are – weren’t taken more seriously.