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The Greens Queens

Who's the Frogtown/Rondo Queen of Greens? That question got settled in early December in the Pilgrim Baptist Church basement, when 13 contestants went head-to-head for the cooking title.

The community meal and cook-off was part of an Art of Food in Frogtown and Rondo initiative, intended to explore neighborhood food access issues.

In the church basement, the big picture got obscured by a more immediate concern -- which of the many vats of greens really delivered? The gang of church ladies and neighbors brought in crock pots of greens. Greens smoldering with jalapenos. Greens with andouille sausage. Greens with smoked hocks. Greens with neck bones. Not to mention the ingredients that contestants referred to vaguely as "spices" -- obviously not interested in giving too much away.

The crowd -- roughly 70 people packed around folding tables -- loaded up plates with small paper containers that held a tablespoon or so of each entry. The judges filled up their own plates and retired with their rating sheets. The contest was on.

The larger idea behind the project is to create a neighborhood food plan that builds health and wealth with an eye toward the cultural traditions already in place. Locally, the effort is organized by Asian Economic Development Association (AEDA), Frogtown Farm, the Urban Farm and Garden Alliance, the Twin Cities Agricultural Land Trust, and Public Art Saint Paul.

At the meals held so far -- the greens cook-off, a kick-off event at Frogtown Farm and a home-style cooking Asian meal follow-up at AEDA's University Ave. offices -- neighbors were asked to talk about familiar meals from their childhood, how they eat now, where they shop and whether they can easily get the foods they want.

The answers have pointed to the strong link between food, family, and community, says Valentine Cadieux, a Hamline University professor who's working on the project. At the meals, residents talked about their desire to have more community garden space to work together, along with a community kitchen where they can prepare and eat meals together. Another common point concerns the memory of childhood meals -- who cooked what and how, and how that knowledge was passed along.

But another frequent observation, says AEDA organizer Aki Shibata, is the gap between the desire to serve healthful meals and the difficulty in doing so. People are running to their jobs and dashing back home. "They know they're not always preparing the most healthy food, but at the end of the day they're struggling to get any food on the table.

Back in the Pilgrim Church basement, the crowd had moved on from the green sampler to a full meal of chicken wings, mac and cheese, corn bread, peach cobbler, and more. Music and dancing filled the time while the judges deliberated. Teacher/drummer Jesse Buckner offered the crowd a testimonial, saying that he snapped to after his doctor noted his high blood pressure and told him to start eating more greens. The result? "Five years later, my blood pressure is 117 over 75," he said -- exemplary numbers for an older adult.

The judges returned with their verdicts. They made the usual declarations: it was a tough choice, everybody was a winner. But when it came right down to it, they gave the title to Keya Tabor, praising the texture, the light dash of salt and the hint of sugar that she brought to the dish. Hoping to get the details of her recipe, we cornered her as she loaded up her crock pot.

RECIPE: Keya Tabor's Greens

- 5-6 bunches of greens, washed, stems removed, rolled and cut into 1 inch strips

- smoked hocks, ham shanks or pork belly, simmered in about 6 cups of water for 45 minutes (remove bones)

- add greens to remaining water in pot, a handful at a time

- cook down for several minutes, add more greens in small batches, stir from bottom

- season with a tablespoon of minced onion, garlic or garlic salt, crushed red pepper, salt and pepper to taste

- simmer, covered, for about 2 hours, stirring occasionally and checking water level

- secret ingredient: bacon drippings!

PICTURED: Cook-off winner Keya Tabor, left, with runners-up Beverly Long and Vivian Mims

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