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Curtis Aikens: celebrity chef, TV star, father, entrepreneur, businessman, adult learner, vegetable lover, and more
Even when he was a young child, no one had to tell Curtis Aikens to eat his fruits and vegetables."My grandfather, W.H. Curtis, loved to garden, and he grew a vegetable garden each year," Aikens recalls. "I spent all my summers with him until I was 12, following him around in the garden. I was attracted to the wonderful colors of the produce."
"Back at home, my mother was a great cook. She used lots of fresh fruits and vegetables in our meals. She was also a great maker of pies — pecan, apple, sweet potato &mdash as well as fruit cobblers and candied yams. It wasn't that I didn't love meat, I did and still do, but the produce just stuck out in my mind."
Not much has changed in that regard. Aikens still loves fruits and veggies, and Aikens’ mom still cooks a traditional Southern meal every Sunday. This past Sunday it was baked ham, sweet potatoes, turnip greens, cornbread, and sweet tea, Aikens says, quickly noting that he didn't get to be there for the weekly feast.
That is a change. Aikens now makes his home in Novato, California, but today he is in New York City and on any given day, he is likely to be anywhere in the country, taping a television show on The Food Network, offering recipes on Good Morning America, or speaking to literacy groups.
Aikens loves to talk about literacy even more than food because he says learning to read at age 26 changed his life more than the fame he has achieved as a celebrity chef and author. He has an abiding passion to help other adults see that change in their own lives.
"We all liked to cook," he recalls. "We all liked to eat. In fact there weren’t too many things we didn't like to eat."
Aikens’ love of produce even led him to his first job, not surprisingly in a grocery store — the Conyers, Georgia A&P Market."
"I loved the job," he recalls." I loved speaking with all the people. I was supposed to be in the grocery department, but when the store wasn't busy, I hung out in produce because that’s where all the action was. I learned a lot there."
The importance of freshness was an important lesson.
"I never liked pineapple," Aikens says, "but then in the produce department I got my first taste of fresh pineapple. It was so good, and it reinforced my idea that produce needed to be fresh."
Meanwhile, though, Aikens’ education wasn’t going as well. When racial desegregation finally arrived in Georgia, Curtis was a second-grader at an all-black school. Even then, Aikens knew something was amiss. "It was more a babysitting service than a school," he says.
Then he was given a choice to transfer to a formerly all-white school. The fifth grader was already so far behind, however, that he couldn’t catch up. He couldn’t read, so he faked literacy. He became a superb listener who could recall everything said in class. When forced to take a test, he would write illegibly so the teacher would have to ask him to explain what he wrote. Aikens was good on his feet and could reel off the answers when asked orally. He knew the material that was presented in class, just not how to read or write about it.
"I never caused trouble," he says. "Before I would fight or argue, I would do anything to make it work. When people like you, they want to help you. People took care of me."
That got the young Aikens through high school and even into college at Southern University. While in college, he vacationed in California and decided to relocate. Soon, he was working at an Alpha Beta grocery store in the San Francisco Bay area.
In 1981, Aikens opened his first business — a produce company called Peaches, after his favorite fruit. He still didn't know how to read.
Running a business — daily buying differing amounts of fruits and vegetables and keeping track of it all — called on even more of the ingenuity he had used to keep his illiteracy secret. He created a personal system of hieroglyphics, a language known only to him in which strawberries had a certain character, apples another, etc.
He was successful and quickly moving up the career ladder, but Aikens says he could never feel good about himself or his success because he couldn't read.
One day he saw a public service announcement (PSA) on station KABC in northern California for the Marin County Free Library Literacy Program.
"The PSA spoke to me," he recalls. "It said I could learn to read and not be ashamed or embarrassed. For the first time, I knew I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t read. I made the call to get help."
Aikens was 26 years old.
In two or three weeks, Aikens was assigned a tutor, actually two &mdash the husband and wife team of Steve and Jean Siebel.
"They opened doors for me," says Aikens about the couple. They made me feel at home and told me not to be afraid to ask for what I needed.
"They tested me to see where I was. I had a very large vocabulary for someone who couldn’t read, but I had no idea about phonics or sight words. They helped me pull all those tools together.
"For me the process was beautiful, an eye-opening experience. It was also a freeing experience to me. I felt like I got this deep, dark secret off my back and it was such a relief."
Aikens worked with the couple for a year.
"I was absorbing everything like a sponge," he recalls. "Before I learned to read, I had to learn everything by listening and hearing. Now I could study. It was like being in a dark room and someone switching the light on for me or like going from a bicycle to a motorcycle to a car. It was just beautiful."
Views on Literacy
This experience created strong beliefs about adult learning and the teachers who guide the process.
"Teachers need to know that new learners are like babies," he says. "The more knowledge you feed us, the hungrier we get. We want to learn more and more. You are our lifeline, and we are so thankful for you although sometimes we can"t tell you right then. Adult educators don"t change lives; they save them."
To adult learners, Aikens has a similarly strong message.
"Adult learners need to know most of all that they are not alone. Don’t be ashamed; don’t be embarrassed. Nearly one in four people can't read. That means illiteracy is in everybody’s family. It touches everyone."
And he has another important message for adult learners.
"Just because you can’t read doesn’t mean you’re not smart," he says. "It just means you don’t have one skill that you need. You can get help to get that skill."
For Aikens, literacy means freedom, strength, and pride.
"Learning to read made the big world smaller," he says. "It made me a part of this big ole world. I am doing things I never dreamed of doing. Before, I always felt like I was on the outside looking in, like I was the odd person out. Now I’m in."
Today, one of Aikens favorites endeavors is talking to new readers.
"I’m not special because I’m on television," Aikens insists. "I’m special because I’m a child of God. I took charge, and I did it. If Curtis Aikens can learn to read at 26, everyone can."
Aikens has been with the Food Network since its inception, previously as the host of Pick of the Day, From My Garden, Meals Without Meat, and Food IN A Flash.
As a food consultant, he has worked with The United States Open Tennis Tournament, The New York City Plaza Hotel, and The United Nations Cafeteria. Aikens supplied produce for the TV series In the Heat of the Night, and the feature film Glory. He has been consultant and food stylist on commercials for Pizza Hut, Pillsbury, and McDonalds.
In 1991, he was dubbed "The Home Grocer" as part of the morning show, Home, on ABC. Other television credits include Oprah, Entertainment Tonight, and ABC World News Tonight, along with many others.
He has been the subject of myriad newspaper and magazine articles, including the cover story for USA Today and a feature on NBC Nightly News, which focused on his rocky path to literacy.
Today — back in California as his home base — Aikens is in the process of launching a new website called Screaming Fresh (www.screamingfresh.com). On the site, you can find out how to locate fresh fruits and vegetables in your area, find tips on shopping for fresh produce (e.g., don’t overbuy; only buy a three-day supply) and get pointers on cooking with fresh foods. Aikens also plans to link up with farmers' markets across the country.
Aikens is also an author, writing his first book just six years after learning to read and write. He has published Garden Grocer’s Guide to the Harvest, Curtis Aikens’ Guide to the Harvest, Curtis Cooks With Heart and Soul, and Recipes to Weight Loss and Its Control. He has also produced Curtis Aikens’ Video Cookbook, a home video cassette featuring recipes and produce tips.
An avid advocate for literacy, Aikens shares his story with schools and literacy groups across the country, donating a portion of his royalties to literacy programs.
His own sons, Curtis, Jr., 16, and Cole, 13, already read at a college level and are avid musicians.
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