Photograph by Scott Suchman
Fusion of Taste and Place
Where some cooks see a root vegetable, Tambra Raye Stevenson sees a road map for discovering family roots. This nutritionist and culinary historian has turned her faith in the healing power of heritage foods into a tool for cultural exchange, placing the spiritual and nutritional values of traditional African cuisine on the front burner. “Food, like travel, helps me to gain a deeper compassion, understanding, and appreciation of people beyond borders,” says the mother of two. Her interest in travel was sparked by her fireman father’s explorations of Jamaica’s outback, fueled by an international nutrition class she took in college, and focused by stints teaching health education in the worker camps of the Dominican Republic and fixing homes wrecked by Hurricane Katrina.
It was an African ancestry DNA test that uncovered her family’s Fula lineage in Niger and Nigeria and inspired her to turn her passions into a profession. Stevenson founded NativSol Kitchen, a Washington, D.C.–based learning community through which she teaches her “Taste of African Heritage” cooking classes and challenges families to swap their standard American diet for a traditional African diet. In Nigeria, as around the world, locals are replacing heritage foods with hamburgers, with nutritional consequences. Stevenson’s mission is to persuade eaters on both sides of the Atlantic “to remember, value, and eat their heritage foods.”
—By George W. Stone
National Geographic Traveler: How did food inspire you to travel?
Tambra Raye Stevenson: My late father loved cooking healthy meals and traveling, from riding his Harley across America to exploring the outback of Jamaica. So I share his passion. Later, in college, an international nutrition class sparked my desire to travel. Like food, travel helps me to gain a deeper compassion, understanding, and appreciation of people beyond borders.
NGT: What motivated you to launch NativSol?
TRS: My tagline states my motivation: “Come back home,” which to me represents love, healing, and Africa. People in Nigeria are paying $22 for a burger at Johnny Rockets—a nutritionally and economically depleting meal. Reading about economic growth in Africa and the fast-food spots popping up gave me grave concern about how the consumption of Western food could result in higher prevalence of diet-related conditions like poor dentition, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and kidney disease. These are new epidemics sweeping Africa. Most African countries don’t have the health care infrastructure to handle the girth of this rising chronic disease burden related to preventable lifestyle factors.
NGT: What’s your solution?
TRS: Heritage foods. Research has shown traditional diets improve health outcomes. Because of my passion for food as a medicine, my travel adventures have a clear mission of exploring and promoting African foodways and healing traditions. I would like to encourage Africans, African Americans, and everyone to remember, value, preserve, and eat heritage foods.
NGT: How are you advancing your goals?
TRS: NativSol Kitchen’s mission is to educate, inspire, and empower people to value the spiritual and nutritional meaning of their heritage foods. In Washington, D.C., I’m teaching families the African heritage diet through NativSol Kitchen’s “Taste of African Heritage and Health” cooking classes. In these community classes, families take a 40-day health challenge to experience swapping their standard American diet with a traditional African diet to improve their health. I’m also working on a crowd-sourced funding campaign to assist with travel-related costs for my upcoming journey to my ancestral homeland in Nigeria, where I’ll experience Fulani culture, foodways, and community and work to reconnect to my roots through food.
NGT: This trip is very important to you.
TRS: Beyond furthering my life purpose in promoting healing benefits of African heritage foods from farm to fork, I will be the first in my family to make this pilgrimage back home. So it has a profound spiritual meaning to me in mending the divide caused by the transatlantic slave trade and in healing my past to enhance my future with my children, Ruby and Elliott.
NGT: Describe your travel style.
TRS: The central theme of all my travels is seeing the world through the lens of the local people. I like to be immersed completely when I travel by being in the local community, attending worship, going to the market, preparing the meals, and learning the language. I’ve taken this approach in my travels across America and the Caribbean, from teaching health education in bateyes [sugar worker towns] of the Dominican Republic to fixing homes during Hurricane Katrina.
NGT: What’s next for you?
TRS: NativSol Kitchen is both my journey and purpose. I’m planning to launch a NativSol Supper Club where people eat their way through the African continent by following recipes adapted from The Africa Cookbook: Taste of the Continent, a cookbook by Afroculinary historian Dr. Jessica Harris. And I’m working on NativSol Kitchen’s website to provide online resources, programs, information, and news on nourishing kitchen traditions that embody culture, community, and spirit to create healthy families—one meal at a time.
2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest
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