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Chelsie Manning, 10, of Edmondson Village takes part in The Black Girls Cook Kids Food and Wellness Festival cooking competition.
Chelsie Manning, 10, of Edmondson Village takes part in The Black Girls Cook Kids Food and Wellness Festival cooking competition. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Gloria Thomas of Reservoir Hill resisted the urge to shout directions at her daughter. “Sauté the eggplant!” she wanted to say. But 9-year-old Makenzie Capehart didn’t look worried — even though she had never cooked salmon before.

“How about mushrooms?” the girl asked her partner as the minutes ticked down. The challenge was to make a dish using ingredients salmon, quinoa, eggplant and Swiss chard, and to do it in 45 minutes.

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Over the stereo, Beyoncé asked, then answered her own question: “Who run the world? Girls.”

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The cooking contest was the highlight of the first Black Girls Cook food and wellness festival held Saturday in East Baltimore. Organizer Nichole Mooney, who teaches cooking classes through her Black Girls Cook nonprofit, said she was inspired to start the event after attending a similar event in New York. “Let’s do something fun and free,” she said to herself. She hoped that the event would help spread awareness of healthy eating habits to children in the area.

“It’s empowering to see us take our rescue into our own hands,” said yoga teacher Ana Rodney, who brought along yoga mats for demonstrations. While many people associate yoga with time and money, she aims to show people that they don’t need money to practice. “You can do it in the grass,” she said.

Handing out samples of salad was Sache Jones of the No Boundaries Coalition, an advocacy group in the city. While gun violence and other social ills gets more attention, Jones said, improper diet can have negative health impacts that are just as damaging. Her group partners with Whole Foods and other vendors to sell fresh produce to Baltimore residents who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it.

The event was held at City Seeds, a commercial kitchen in Broadway East part of the Baltimore Food Hub, inside the grounds of a crumbling 19th-century water pumping station under renovation.

Derrick Manning, who grew up in East Baltimore, expressed astonishment at seeing an event celebrating healthy food in an area of the city more known for liquor stores and carryouts. Fried chicken and greasy food was a staple of his childhood. His mother died at 38, and his grandmother died of heart problems and diabetes. “I don’t want to continue that cycle,” Manning said.

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Today, Manning, a firefighter, keeps to a pescatarian diet and is trying to wean his children off meat. His daughter, Chelsie, who has taken classes at Black Girls Cook, keeps a garden at their house. On Saturday, 10-year-old Chelsie sliced a filet of salmon in half, gently shaking salt and Old Bay onto the meat. Watching his daughter cook, Manning was so proud he cried.

In the end, the three teams of two presented their plates to the judges. They included Bryce Taylor, a 16-year-old Mt. Washington resident who himself had been a contestant on “Chopped Junior” four years ago. He praised the seared salmon that Makenzie and a partner prepared. Staged with carrots and eggplant and accompanied by a cake of quinoa garnished with lemon and onion, the dish sure looked like a winner.

“Everybody get pictures of this plate?” one of the judges asked the audience. “Make sure you do before we eat it all.”

Everyone took home prizes. But 9-year-old Makenzie and her partner took home the top prize, a Pioneer Woman pressure cooker and her very own cutting board.

“It makes my heart warm,” Thomas said.

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