Twelve-year-old Maccus Vilain is on a diet. That means a couple of things have changed in his world - for starters, rice. Born of a Trinidadian mother and a Haitian father, Maccus has enjoyed rice as a culinary staple his whole life. His mom used to fry rice in oil before coating it in bouillon and then simmering it to finish. She would sometimes serve it with her stewed chicken, which she cooked in a shallow bath of caramelized sugar. These days, his grilled chicken comes plain and is usually accompanied by a leafy salad.
Something else has changed, too. As a member of a physical fitness and health regimen for overweight children, Maccus is learning how to cook, something for which he's showing a remarkable aptitude. In class, he's rapt, watching chef and teacher Didi Emmons demonstrate cutting and chopping techniques. He's surprisingly fluent in the language of food for someone so young (he is, for example, the only one of a dozen kids able to identify an acorn squash in a recent class).
The woman behind this regimen is Brandy Cruthird. Her Fit Kidz classes in Roxbury are filled with youth ages 7 to 15 whose doctors have prescribed her program, which just brought in Emmons, a restaurateur and author who made her name after opening Veggie Planet in Cambridge. After a couple of hours sweating through their weekly exercises, the children march next door to the Haley House Bakery Cafe, where Emmons and a stack of oversize kitchen aprons await them.
Most of the children in the class are minorities, and, like Maccus, many of them come from immigrant communities. The New England produce - squashes, raspberries still on the briar, and edible sage blossoms, for example - that fill Emmons's cornucopia are often a mystery, but she occasionally includes something that might be familiar, like mangoes. This day's menu features roasted acorn squash filled with maple syrup and butter, and homemade tortilla chips with mango and red-pepper salsa.
Emmons knows she is not simply handing these children a set of skills, she's also working with and against their familial and cultural relationships with food. But Cruthird's class is bound for success, she adds, because the children are already open to the idea of self-improvement.
She sets about teaching the children how to cook: They each crack open a sturdy acorn squash and peel a mango, slicing the flesh from the pit and tossing the bright orange pieces into a bowl at the center of the table. The mango salsa calls for red peppers, fresh lime juice, apple cider vinegar, olive oil, and cilantro. Maccus is singled out with one other classmate to chop the cilantro.
The choice of Maccus is a nod to his knife skills as well as a recognition of the powerful association of food. One of the students gets a whiff of the herb as Maccus works. "It's good," he says. It smells like Haitian beans.
"He'll eat that now," says Cruthird. "Because it smells familiar. It smells culturally familiar."