In a historically black neighborhood tucked beneath two highways far from Miami Beach, students donned aprons Friday and cooked up a meal of collard greens, parmesan chicken and bread pudding.
Their menu: The tastes of the South and Caribbean. Their guest: Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, in town for the South Beach Wine and Food Festival. The twist: Classic recipes with a few healthy alterations.
"They are good!" Oliver proclaimed after settling into his greens.
Students at Booker T. Washington Senior High in Miami's Overtown neighborhood _ a once-vibrant community where Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole and other stars performed _ have for several years been spending hours after school, reinventing family classics and discovering a bit about themselves in the process. Haitian and Jamaican students learned about foods from the American South. Hispanic students got their first taste of collard greens. Others who didn't know their family history learned it through food.
"I'm here because I'm fascinated they had the guts to get together all the recipes the families loved, but were killing them," said Oliver, who was clad in blue jeans and a baseball cap. "Whatever country I go to, I'm dropping in on schools to see bad practice, and to see good practice. And today was a celebration of a little class that made a massive difference."
The idea began about five years ago, and picked up steam after a 2008 study on health conditions in the Overtown community. The neighborhood has a rich history; it is one of the oldest in Miami-Dade county, and was a hub for Caribbean immigrants and later black railroad workers. In its prime, stars like Ella Fitzgerald and black intellectual leaders performed and vacationed there. Barbecued ribs, hot peanuts and seafood platters were served on the street and in upscale restaurants.
Then came an exodus after the end of segregation and the construction of two highways that displaced thousands of residents. Poverty settled in and residents' health suffered.
Researchers investigating the community three years ago found high mortality rates from cardiovascular disease, and that many residents weren't getting needed preventive and primary care.
"We knew that Overtown had high rates of disease that are affected by poverty and marginalized status," David Brown, chief of family medicine and an assistant professor at Florida International University's College of Medicine. In addition to cardiovascular disease, many also suffered from diabetes. "We knew that these were diet-related."
Wanting to go beyond a scholarly report, Brown and others collaborated with the Booker T. Washington Senior High to find a way to introduce healthier recipes into the community. The result was an after-school club, where students of all backgrounds gathered in a room filled with stoves and refrigerators. They cooked, learned and, of course, ate.
The final product, the Overtown Cookbook, is now available through Amazon.com.
Anthony Jennings, a teacher at the school of co-founder of the program, said that the program also pushed cultural boundaries. Many Hispanic students, for example, he said, had never tasted collard greens.
"Can I have more of that?" Jennings quoted them as saying. "That green stuff."
In many instances, slight changes made recipes healthier, without compromising taste. With the collard greens, for example, they simmered the vegetable with smoked turkey instead of pork. Pasta was made with whole grain noodles.
Chevon Williams, 16, who often cooks for his family, substituted ground turkey for beef in making spaghetti and meatballs at home. His younger siblings first drew an anxious eye at the new twist.
"Aw, man," he remembered them saying. "But it's good."
Williams, who was born in Jamaica, said his family frequently ate fried foods before he became part of the cooking group.
"The food tastes good, but we didn't know what it was doing to our bodies," Williams said.
Jeff Hyppolite joined the Overtown Cookbook club shortly after immigrating from Haiti. He didn't know any English, or about many of the foods that his fellow students ate. Cooking taught him both.
"This has been a big part of my life," he said.
Now he's in his second year of college and help leading a new group of students _ and working on finding a way to make Haitian griot, a traditional pork recipe, more healthful.