A Summer Meal: Fort Greene

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Helen Ast sold vegetarian meals at the 71st annual IAAF
At the 71st annual International African Arts Festival, Helen Ast prepared and sold organic vegetarian meals. Natalie Meade/The Brooklyn Ink

A woman with hands decorated in orange nail polish and heavy silver rings on seven of ten fingers serves kale salad with red onions and cherries in a plastic container for a customer when she hears a voice.

“Are you Helen?”

Her focus is disrupted and she smiles with her head held high.

“Yes, I am,” she says.

Helen Ast is 63 years old and has her own stall at the International African Arts Festival (IAAF) at Commodore Barry Park in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. She has been an independent vendor in the IAAF since 2011. The festival is a growing attraction since its inception in 1971. In 2014, 75,000 guests from the tri-state area and as far as Ethiopia traveled to Fort Greene for this cultural celebration.

This African marketplace has myriad vendors and small businesses, so Ast’s customers wind through the maze of jewelry, urban fashion, soul food, body oils, paintings, and Caribbean foods to find her natural and organic offerings. For four days in the beginning of July, she sells prepared foods, baked goods, and sorrel to an eclectic and expanding customer base.  One customer said that Helen Ast’s Raw Delights were worth waiting on line for.

On Sunday, Ast’s array of prepared foods consist of a kale salad, red quinoa, fresh okra, nut loaf, and rainbow coleslaw made with red and green cabbage and dill. She also makes vegetable wraps and nori rolls to order. Ast is quick to correct anyone who said she cooks.

“Cooking requires applying heat to the food, changing the ingredients’ natural state,” Ast says,  “I prepare. I slice and dice and toss and turn.”

The dishes she prepared for customers at the festival are a reflection of the foods she consumes and lifestyle she lives on a daily basis.

Helen Ast learned the extensive principles of holistic health under the guide of her close friend and mentor, Marie Wright.  Wright is a Board Certified Holistic Health Practitioner and owner of Essential Living, a holistic nutritional wellness center in South Plainfield, New Jersey.

While working at Essential Living, Ast learned most of what she knows about holistic food prepping from Marie Wright. She also worked at Wright’s raw and prepared foods kiosk at the IAAF until 2010.

Helen Ast IAAF
Helen Ast in front of her kiosk at the International African Arts Festival in Fort Greene. Natalie Meade/The Brooklyn Ink

Soon, Ast sought another challenge. When she felt she learned enough to develop her own cornucopia of organic health foods, she started her own company for private catering and events.

By 2014, Helen Ast is a seasoned vendor at the International African Arts Festival. However, her experience with the event could not prepare her for the inclement weather, short staff, and infrastructure mishaps that seemed inescapable.

When Ast smiled proudly when she heard her name on Sunday, one would not guess that her stall was rained out for two days and two different tents collapsed before she was settled and ready to serve her prepared foods.

Helen Ast wears a white outfit and an orange headscarf for a splash of color on Sunday. She was also barefoot with a cowrie shell leather bracelet around her right ankle.

“I like to feel the earth, even in the rain,” she said, “if I put my shoes on, it just feels different.”

She laughs, hugs, and serves all of her customers with a smile. She even invites them to sit and enjoy their organic feast. However, Ast was not alone underneath the blue tent. She enlisted the help of her friends and family to make the weekend a success.

Ast’s younger sister, Mildred Moore, 57, travels all the way from Charlotte, North Carolina and was eager to help. She serves food to people who resistthe aroma of fried fish for a healthier bite to eat.

Ast’s daughter, Ali Walker, 37, and her sons Zamir Walker and Zakai Hudson, 15 and 11 years old respectively, help too. Ali Walker floats while Hudson asks everyone if he could help with anything at all. Ultimately, Hudson’s job breaks apart bags of ice to keep the dishes and drinks chilled. Walker’s other son,on the other hand, lounges in a lawn chair with a denim jacket on his face shielding the sun. Hechats on his iPhone to his friends and helped when Ast needed someone to run an errand.

Moore and Hudson are the two most receptive people to Ast’s holistic lifestyle. They are most likely to eat the raw foods she prepares.

Helen Ast will continue to prepare and slice and dice all summer long. She will share her organic bites at the Restoration Health and Wellness Expo in Bedford Stuyvesant on July 12.

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