Food Stuff 

DAILY PICK IS HEALTHY

A shopper at Whole Foods Market in West Bloomfield did a double take when she saw celebrity chef Curtis Aikens doing a cooking demonstration.

"I love you!" she exclaimed.

"I love you too," boomed the affable Aikens without losing his focus on the sizzling onions in his frying pan. (Aikens waits for silence before the onions hit the hot oil. "Listen to that!" he exclaims. "I love that sound.")

Aikens is well known to devotees of the cable Food Network for his daily program, "Pick of the Day," seen at 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. The author of two cookbooks, he’s become a popular figure in the culinary community.

Aikens grew up in Conyers, Ga., and his cooking style developed from his Southern childhood.

"I didn’t go to culinary school," he says. "I’m self-taught. No, I’m Mama-taught."

A personal quest for a healthy lifestyle has tempered his Southern-style cooking. Aikens’ first cookbook, Guide to the Harvest, came from his experiences in the produce business in southern California. The book discusses common and not-so-common vegetables and how to use them. Curtis Cooks with Heart and Soul was published in 1995.

Recently diagnosed with diabetes, Aikens now focuses on recipes lower in calories and carbohydrates, and they are collected in a third, as yet unpublished, cookbook.

Aikens objects to being called a vegetarian. "We use too many labels in America," he explains. "Good food is good food. Mine is just meat-free."

Besides cooking, literacy programs are a special interest of Aikens, who graduated from high school without being able to read. He says that he bluffed his way through.

"I went all the way through school without learning how to read because I was too embarrassed to admit it," he says. "That’s why I didn’t get help. Now I tell kids not to be ashamed or embarrassed." Aikens is proud of getting food corporations to contribute to literacy programs. "They didn’t think this has anything to do with our world, but it does. It’s about everybody’s world."

When asked if his cooking has an audience in the African-American community, Aikens says, "I try not to notice color. I don’t want to be thinking race first. I don’t want my sons to see me thinking that way."

But he admits that his message of more healthful eating needs to be heard in the black community.

"Our lifestyle has changed," he says. "We used to be a sweating-in-the-fields kind of people. Now we have a more sedentary lifestyle. Black people need to know how to live with less fat, less sugar, less salt."

Embroidered over the pocket of Aikens’ chef’s jacket are the words: "Give me a hug." A recent letter from a sick child in Iowa had him pondering his flight schedule. "How am I going to get to Iowa in the next month?"

One gets the feeling he gives out as many hugs as he receives.

Some of Aikens’ recipes can be found at www.curtisaikens.com.

TREATS

If you missed the annual paczki pig-out, get a somewhat lighter sugar fix at the new Krispy Kreme location at 27695 Grand River at Eight Mile in Livonia. ... Sign up for healthy eating, with vegetarian cooking classes at Lenore’s Natural Cuisine (22899 Inkster Rd., Farmington Hills, 248-478-4455). Classes cover a range of cooking techniques and ingredients, and the recipes you’ll learn are free of meat, fish, dairy, poultry and sugar.

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