By Chef Hamlet Garcia
Five years ago I became a national volunteer spokesperson for the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women campaign. To this day, many people ask me why I support this cause and not others. The answer is that I carry this cause in my heart.
I was raised under the guidance and care of two great women. They both had simple, strong personalities with a tempered focus in their actions. They were heads of families, paternal and maternal, and for me they became much more than that: They were teachers, friends and even confidantes.
My "Nona" (grandmother) Alcira, the mother of my mother, certainly was my first teacher. From her I learned everything from my ABCs to the rules of three. She taught me that the key to success in life is to study: "Learn a craft or profession," she would always say. She was so bright and a hard worker par excellence; she always offered a few words of wisdom to keep me and my brother motivated to stay in school and achieve our professional dreams. As those encouraging words were her most frequent to me, that's the road I ultimately decided to travel.
My Nona suffered from a heart condition known as Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, which is a heart-rhythm disorder that, over the years, produced several episodes of angina. Fortunately for her, she never suffered from a full-on heart attack, but over time her condition became complicated, and she was ultimately diagnosed with hypertension.
Nona always asked me for tips and healthful recipes, even though she really didn't like cooking at all. Her cravings were rather common: white bread, Venezuelan arepas, pizza or sweets. In recent years, I convinced her to try eating whole-wheat bran cereal. I believe this small dietary change really helped her improve her overall health, and I remember her telling me once, "You have that special something to influence people. You should be on TV helping others."
On my father's side I had my "Abuela" (grandmother) Brizeida, a true matriarch in her ways and very serious with everyone, saving her soft side and affections for me. I grew up with her while my mother finished her postgraduate in internal medicine. My family always said I was her favorite grandson, and perhaps rightly so, because through her I developed my true passions, learning to work with my hands, my first recipes and cooking a sign of love for my beloved ones.
Abuela and I shared many evening chats, games and family trips. She suffered from hypertension and diabetes and had a stroke four years before her death. She constantly fought against the salt and sugar, because she knew the risk factors, so she always asked about healthful cooking recipes. She loved my food and one day said, "This is something that everyone has to do at home, because it is very healthy."
Throughout the years those treasured moments and shared experiences have stayed in my heart until life and my profession provided me with the unique opportunity to mix my two passions: the art of cooking and hosting, together on my own cooking show. This is where I unleashed my imagination, making delicious original recipes and many traditional ones, but with a little twist. I made them more healthful without losing their particular "sazón" and flavor.
Only 44 percent of Hispanic women know that heart disease is their greatest health risk. Only one in three Hispanic women knows that heart disease is their number-one killer.
Both my Abuela and Nona learned that very simple changes in diet can have immediate and long-term benefits. Reducing the use of salt, sugar and fats in foods, limiting the consumption of processed meats and canned foods, and substituting whole grains for white flour can help improve the quality of an individual's later years despite preexisting medical conditions.
One day my Abuela asked me, "How do poor people manage cooking or eating health, because doing so is expensive?"
I replied, "Abuela, the secret is not money. It is education. Most of the housewives make chicken stew with chicken skin. This is pure fat. Cooking healthy is to cook without the chicken skin. We're used to frying foods, but we also can grill or griddle them. And you can also save money by not buying vegetable oil, butter or margarine. Forget about the breaded foods. If you cook soups or sauces for the entire week, when you freeze them for storage, the fat solidifies and is easier to remove. If you want to reduce salt, we can do this by adding spices or seasoning meals with lemon. These are some of the many options out there for healthy cooking, and as you see, we have not spent more; rather we have saved money."
It is for my Nona and Abuela and the thousands of other Hispanic women who watch my show and motivate me that I offer my cooking as a platform to educate them in different ways. I strive to share with my viewing audience what I've learned -- the pros and cons of the ingredients, how to replace unhealthful foods and prepare healthful recipes, and the risk factors for heart health and other diseases -- and in an entertaining way, because, after all, our women are who give us that first breath of life and then encourage us to move forward. They are the heart of our families.
Cook healthfully. Do it for yourself, your family and your life.
Chef Hamlet Garcia is a volunteer national spokesperson for the American Heart Association's Go Red Por Tu Corazón movement.
Chef Hamlet García | Instagram and Twitter: @chefhamletg