New nutrition course examines the African diaspora through food

New class is a celebration of soul food but also a study of the health impacts of slavery

Looking down at the whole fish on a cutting board before her, a student in the new African Diaspora Foodways & Health course at the University of Cincinnati asks, “Will we have to cut off its head?”

It’s a Tuesday, around dinner time. Groups of three to four students huddle around cooking stations in the culinary laboratory inside UC’s new Health Sciences Building, opened in 2019. Undergraduates of various levels and colleges turn their attention to Rose Che, chef and owner of a local, globally inspired catering and events company Che’s. Originally from the African country of Cameroon, Che is teaching the students an old-world recipe: grilled whole tilapia, rubbed in a paste of African spices, and served with sautéed vegetables and greens, fried plantains and a spicy habanero sauce.

Chef Rose Che demonstrating how to cut fish

Chef Rose Che demonstrates how to clip off the fins of a tilapia with a pair of kitchen sheers in the University of Cincinnati’s new African Diaspora Foodways & Health course. The nutrition course is offered through the College of Allied Health Sciences in partnership with the Department of Africana Studies in the College of Arts & Sciences.

The students watch as Che demonstrates how to cut off the fish’s fins and tail with kitchen scissors. The head is staying on. In Cameroon, the tilapia would be cooked over a fire, Che explains, but the oven’s broiler will provide a similar effect.

Franciose Knox-Kazimierczuk and Cassandra Jones walk from station to station, helping the students where they can. The class has been an idea, separately, in both of their heads for years—even before they joined UC’s faculty, Knox-Kazimierczuk at the College of Allied Health Science and Jones at the College of Arts & Sciences.

“We want the students to understand the importance of food and how it moves through society. How it translates to disease prevention, disease management and the disparities between black African American populations.”

Assistant Professor Franciose Knox-Kazimierczuk

Franciose Knox-Kazimierczuk and Cassandra Jones

Headshots of Franciose Knox-Kazimierczuk (left) and Cassandra Jones (right)

“We really want to try to connect culture, the food experience and history,” says Knox-Kazimierczuk, an assistant professor in the Department of Rehabilitation, Exercise and Nutrition Sciences with a doctorate in Educational Leadership and Health Promotion. “We want the students to understand the importance of food and how it moves through society. How it translates to disease prevention, disease management and the disparities between black African American populations. Maybe even dispel the myth around unhealthy soul food.”

Course co-creator Jones is an assistant professor in Africana Studies, with a doctorate in American Culture Studies and a particular academic interest in Afrofuturism—the intersection of race, gender, technology and speculative fiction and, now, cookbooks and the way food weaves into the narrative.

“I find myself asking similar questions about cookbooks as mechanisms for building racial and gendered identity and the ways that authors of those books, both formally published and unpublished collections from church or women’s groups, use them to build connections to the past for present and future readers,” Jones says.

Students in the course will study cookbooks of authors like Vertamae Grosvenor, whose “Vibration Cooking” functions as a genre-bending collection of travel diary and memoir alongside Gullah Geechee recipes and folk medicine.  

Part of the University of Cincinnati’s mission is a commitment to excellence and diversity; providing an inclusive environment with culturally competent courses. This course fulfills a Breadth of Knowledge course requirement for undergraduates.

Chef's demonstrating how to prepare and cut vegetables

Chef Madeline Ndambakuwa (left) prepares bunches of kale to hand out to the students working in four of the six stations in the new Health Sciences Building’s largest cooking lab. Ndambakuwa and Chef Rose Che (right) are instructors for cooking portions of the class.

In the kitchen lab, the students are handed bunches of greens by Madeline Ndambakuwa, the second African chef tapped to help with the cooking portions of the course. If Chef Che was cooking the dish in Africa, she would use greens and vegetables that she can’t find here in Cincinnati. But experimentation taught her that a mixture of collard, kale and turnip greens—blanched in hot water and then cooled in ice bath separately—is pretty close.

student preparing tilapia fish in class

Tyler Reilly rubs the green, spicy paste onto the full tilapia, which will be broiled later. In the background, Jan Rotich, and Nan Yebuah to the same at another cooking station in the new food laboratory inside UC’s Health Sciences Building.

A lot of people don’t think of African soul food as “plant-forward,” Knox-Kazimierczuk says, but it incorporates many nutritious dark vegetables and leafy greens. “It’s not all fried food,” she continues. “Of course, there is a difference between that and celebration food—which often gets held up as the only soul food.”

This course will enable students to explore and better understand the rich culinary history of the African diaspora, but also the impacts of slavery, colonization, voluntary migration, social movements and protest on dietary patterns and health. 

students working together to prepare vegetables in class lab

Nan Yebuah and Laura Gomes cut up the four types of onion in the recipe; scallions, leeks, white onion and red onion.

Laura Gomes, a third-year journalism student, chose the class because it fulfills an honors requirement, and she likes how hands-on it is. In an earlier class, they participated in a Senegalese tea ceremony. One of her cooking partners, Nan Yebuah, is earning her liberal arts degree with a concentration in health medicine in society. She chose the course because her family is from Ghana. “Seeing how the course incorporates the study of African cultures into African American soul food is so cool to me,” Yehuah says. 

Part of the course takes place in a community garden in Camp Washington, where the students are learning some basics about growing food. This piqued the interest of another student, Michael Giannuzzi, who is in his fourth year studying biology and environmental science. “I love growing food and seeing it go from the garden to the table—that connection and its cultural importance is important and really great to see.”

There’s a service-learning component, too. The students will work with some of Knox-Kazimierczuk’s graduate students to create heart healthy, culturally responsive recipes that the graduate students will later use in a nutrition program out in the Greater Cincinnati community.

Almost three hours into the lab, the family-style meal is coming together. Along the way, Chef Che gives them pointers on how to hold a knife and use the microwave to cook the sourness out of tomatoes in a time crunch. Baking soda added to boiling water keeps the colors of the vegetables and greens vibrant.

chef Rose Che demonstrating cooking vegetables on stove

Chef Rose mixes the sweet peppers and greens prepared by the students together to accompany the fish.

Finally, it is time to set the table and taste their hard work.

“It looks perfect,” one student said, pulling the fish from the oven. “Oh my gosh, it smells so good,” another says. In the end, it’s a hit, with students taking home leftovers.

finished, cooked tilapia with vegetable garnishes

The tilapia, crispy on the outside and succulent on the inside, presented by Chef Rose Che.

Featured image at top: James Sanford, Favour Edesiri Okotie,Michael Giannuzzi, Lucas Peiro Aguilera and Tre Montgomery (left to right). All photos by Carrie Smith

African Diaspora Foodways & Health will be offered through the College of Allied Health Sciences each fall. To learn more about the course, visit Catalyst and search for the NUTR 3040C or contact Knox-Kazimierczuk at or Jones at

Headshot of By: Carrie Smith

By: Carrie Smith

Freelance Journalist

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