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Chicago’s AYO Foods is taking West African food mainstream



The frozen meals that AYO Foods creates and markets sit next to P.F. Chang’s food in Target’s freezer section.

But AYO Foods founders, Perteet and Fred Spencer, would prefer their fare be next to Amy’s Kitchen, the organic packaged and prepared foods giant.

“If you look at our caloric intake, our protein content, our fiber content, it’s very comfortable, if not better than some of the other kind of ‘better for you’ frozen items out there,” Perteet Spencer said. “And I can guarantee you it’s going to be much more flavorful.”

The Spencers launched AYO Foods, an array of West African frozen meals and hot sauces, in July 2020. In two years, they’ve expanded into stores nationwide, including Chicagoland Mariano’s, Heinen’s, and The Fresh Market stores.

Frozen options range from jollof rice to cassava leaf stew, egusi seed soup just begging for some doughy fufu to sop up all the rich flavors, and chicken yassa, a popular dish of slow-braised chicken thighs with lemon and caramelized onion.

The couple partnered with “Top Chef” alumnus Eric Adjepong and chef Zoe Adjonyoh — cookbook author and founder of Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, to promote West African cuisine through the brand. As the daughter of a Liberian immigrant, Perteet Spencer said she believes everyone deserves to see themselves when they walk down the grocery aisle.

“We’re talking about an entire continent not represented in grocery stores,” Perteet Spencer said with an incredulous tone. “It’s not a monolith; we’re talking about 17 different countries (in West Africa). Every tribe, every country, they all have their unique way of doing things.”

The regional cuisines share similar ingredients, and “it’s just the process of cooking — the different seasoning and flavors that you use — that separates them,” her husband said.

Before making fresh egusi stew with egusi seeds, chicken, onions and collards, Perteet makes her way to an African market on Foster Avenue and North Broadway to gather dried crawfish and shrimp powder, seeds, and iru, also known as locust beans. Now, a version of the same dish with such hard-to-find ingredients is available at dozens of stores across the country.

“We’re really excited to take people on this journey through West Africa to allow them to experience the flavors and ingredients,” she said. “The common mark that unites the food are these really slow-cooked, layered flavors … that’s pretty consistent with everything, whether it’s the dough rising on the puff puff, or the stew simmering on the cassava leaf.”

Fred Spencer likens the AYO Foods process to cooking soul food, with big pots, layered flavors and hearty, traditional fare.

But finding ways to retain the depth and quality of those slow-cooked dishes on a mass production scale took serious effort, Perteet Spencer said. At one point, she brought in her mother so manufacturers could shadow her preparation in order to do it properly and not rush the process.

“We have lots of horror stories early in our journey of partners that didn’t work out because they wanted to speed up the process,” she said. “If you have a pot of greens, the best ones are those that cook low and slow. We needed to honor that process as we found partners to scale this up.”

The result are ingredient lists that are familiar and alluring: roasted garlic puree made of simply garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and thyme accents the chicken yassa; just five ingredients comprise the fried puff puff bread.

“We’re using fresh vegetables, we’re doing that slow-cooking process. We’re not cutting corners,” she said. “It was really important for us to honor the process and not short change it as we went through our journey. It’s just how we operate.”

That operation began three years ago, when the Spencers, DePaul University college sweethearts, noticed market trends changing.

“We saw this huge rise in global flavors, a massive gap in flavors of the continent in total,” she said. So she left her corporate job as a brand manager with General Mills to bring joy to the world — ayo means “joy” in Yoruba — full-time, with Fred’s urging and support.

While she takes credit for introducing her husband to Liberian food, she said she learned how to cook from her father. He immigrated from Lofa County, the northernmost portion of Liberia, to the Twin Cities in Minnesota at age 17, bringing with him cooking that reminded him of home. Her parents would eventually meet in Minnesota.

Perteet and Fred’s large families serve as inspiration to the food brand, but it’s the pair’s love of food that is the nexus of AYO Foods. Fred, a real estate developer, opened a restaurant when he was 24 years old (something he said the couple might get back to someday). With a grandmother from Alabama, the Roseland native recalls cooking as a childhood chore, because he would get all the tedious food prep duties. But that’s changed since he’s gotten older.

The family affair that cooking has always been is now one the youngest Spencers are picking up. Perteet and Fred’s daughters, 11 and 8 years old, like the kitchen so much, sometimes they have to be pushed out of the space. Their oldest tries to get her biscuits as flaky as her father’s, and she’s currently working on perfecting her macaroons, said Perteet Spencer.

“They love being involved in the kitchen with us,” she said. “I didn’t start cooking until college, and to see them start so young, it’s exciting to see. You can’t have family together without a ton of really incredible food.”

The first AYO Foods dishes were those the couple personally love — jollof rice, egusi soup and cassava leaf stew. The couple prides themselves on AYO Foods being rich in nutrients and low in sodium.

“Obesity is at an all-time high, diabetes is at an all-time high, hypertension is at an all-time high. We couldn’t in good conscience put out a product that was a contributor to all of that,” Perteet said. “I think one of the things that AYO does really beautifully is prove that food can be good and tasty, but still be good for you. We wanted to really be able to set a model for that.”

The plan for the brand is to expand beyond frozen foods to bring greater inclusivity and diversity to shelves. AYO Foods already has pepper and shito sauces — the former is habanero-based, the latter has a seafood base, complemented by hot peppers, tomatoes and caramelized onions.

“We started with frozen primarily because it’s the easiest transition to have authentic ingredients — not adding preservatives or anything like that — to bring the true essence of the food,” Fred Spencer said. “But we want to make this a broad brand, as opposed to just frozen.”

The self-described “big dreamers” know the platform AYO Foods allows has a lot of wingspan to make an impact above and beyond celebrating the culture through packaged foods. The Moonboi Project is the Spencers philanthropic effort born from that platform — one that enriches the West African culture.

In December, AYO Foods partnered with Girl Power Africa, a nonprofit committed to empowering women and children impacted by civil war and ebola in Liberia through entrepreneurship. AYO is supporting the cultivation of 15 acres of Liberian farmland, the Spencers said.

“Part of what we’re doing with these dishes is bringing awareness to these crops, to this food, which we hope in turn creates increased demand and economic change in West Africa,” Perteet said. “Already we’ve built three homes, fully cleared the land, (and) we’re starting to see the first crop yield. And the yield of that is actually being used to give back to women who were victims of either ebola or the Liberian civil war as seed capital to start businesses of their own.”

Seeing the impact the food brand is providing in such a short time has the Spencers excited about the potential of AYO Foods to not only change the lives of their immediate families, but other communities in desperate need of help, as well.

“If anything can get across from any of this is that, AYO was created as a family company,” Fred Spencer said. “We’re doing this as a family together, and that’s what’s going to make it successful.”

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Kevin Durant gets MVP chants at Barclays Center in win vs Wizards



It felt like a game the Nets should have won handily — probably because the last time they played the Wizards, they set a new scoring record at Capital One Arena.

Kevin Durant got hot early and Joe Harris broke free from his recent cold streak. The game felt like Brooklyn’s for the taking.

Rarely, if ever, though, is anything exactly as it feels or seems at Barclays Center. On an explosive scoring night that featured MVP chants raining down on the best basketball player in the city, the Nets had to scratch and claw their way to a 113-107 victory that moves them above .500 for the first time all season.

And they didn’t truly put up a fight until the bottom of the third quarter.

“[We stayed] disciplined not giving up too many easy ones, especially down the stretch,” said Kyrie Irving. “We had a pretty decent third quarter but I felt the fourth quarter we created that separation we really needed.”

Durant scored 39 points on 13-of-20 shooting from the field. Just weeks after he broke Wizards C Daniel Gafford’s ankles with a nasty hesitation-crossover-pullup combo, he had the remainder of the Wizards’ starters on skates.

Kyle Kuzma slipped to the ground as Durant split a double. Deni Avdija stumbled a bit before fouling Durant on an and-one jump shot. It was equal opportunity employment for any defender who applied to the job of the night: slowing down one of the most vaunted scorers in NBA history.

It’s impossible. Durant’s scoring numbers border on absolute. He scored 16 points in first quarter alone.

“Sometimes I have to make sure I don’t take it for granted. The fact that he shows up every single day. He’s ready to work. He’s ready to listen, he’s ready to be a great teammate,” said head coach Jacque Vaughn. “So our group is evolving and I keep stressing the ability to be flexible with the whole idea of trying to win and Kevin has that on his mind all the time. He steps on the floor. He wants to win.”

Therein lies the roadblock for this Nets team in pursuit of an ever-so evasive NBA championship — or a deeper playoff run than their “Seven-Eleven” era best second-round exit.

Durant is an all-world talent, and Irving is a threat to go for 30 any given night. The remainder of the pieces on a stacked Nets roster are still acclimating to one another.

Case in point: As Ben Simmons (calf) and Yuta Watanabe (hamstring) project to each miss another week of action, veteran forward TJ Warren is set to rejoin the action Friday against the Toronto Raptors.

As a result, the Nets look disjointed for stretches on both ends of the floor. They are fighting to survive the limited minutes Durant needs to rest on the sidelines in order to recharge to dominate his individual matchup. Even in the minutes Durant plays, the offense sputters when the ball leaves his hands.

In the minutes he’s on the bench, it becomes the Wild Wild West.

“I think this game we actually did show some composure and poise at the end, which was great to see,” Vaughn said. “We got in our sets, we got the ball where we wanted to, made them double team us, and for the most part, we were in the right position to make the right play. So overall, good win by our guys. We’ve been grinding our guys with minutes. And these games are coming fast and furious, but they’re answering the bell and I’ll give them credit.”

After Durant played the entire first quarter, Vaughn called a timeout 33 seconds into the second after Wizards G Monte Morris got to the rack unbothered.

That happened over and over again and was Vaughn’s third timeout in the game’s opening 13 minutes. Paint defense has been an Achilles heel for a Nets team with only one true playable big man.

Simmons plays backup small ball five in spurts and has played well. Markieff Morris also plays small ball five. Backup center Day’Ron Sharpe missed the game due to a non COVID-related illness, but he rarely plays outside of garbage time.

As a result of their roster construction, the Nets play small. It doesn’t always work, especially when Simmons is out.

“[Opposing teams going big] is always going to be a problem for us and we know it,” Vaughn added. “Before the game we showed the last time they played us, how they got offensive rebounds. And we’ll continue to show our guys.”

Star guard Bradley Beal came off a screen and drove freely to the rim with a one-handed dunk. Durant flailed his hands and shook his head in frustration.

That, and his scoring, were the constant for the night.

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Much of that frustration is in the team’s inconsistent ability to generate defensive stops — and if they do force a miss, the added grievance comes from this team’s inability to crash the glass. The Nets entered Wednesday night ranked second-to-last in rebounds. The Wizards won the battle on the glass, 51-35. Their 14 offensive rebounds translated into 25 second-chance points.

Nic Claxton finished with just seven points and eight rebounds. It became clear, early, he was going to struggle against the once lanky Kristaps Porzingis.

Porzingis has done what Claxton must continue: He has put on the body mass that allows him to be a force in the paint and on the glass. The ex-Knick tallied 27 points and 19 rebounds. Beal finished with 25 points on 10-of-20 shooting and Kyle Kuzma added 25 points.

A win is a win, and the Nets will take them as they come, especially after digging themselves a 2-6 hole to start the season. This season, though, is about more than beating a Washington Wizards tram projected to make the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.

It’s about being the last team standing and going toe-to-toe with teams like the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics.

Twenty-one games in, the Nets aren’t on that level. They still have a long way to go before arriving at the destination.

“We know we have high expectations for our team, but the process is more important than an end result,” said Durant. “So each day matters like I just said, and Jacque has been preaching that since he got the job.”

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Imprisoned for being HIV positive | podcast | News



“The police come to my job, they’re telling me that this gentleman that I had dated is pressing charges on me because I didn’t tell him I was HIV positive.”

Lashanda Salinas faced criminal charges in Tennessee after her former partner accused her of exposing him to the HIV virus. Although Lashanda had been on medication since she was a teenager, and says she was open about her status, she was convicted and is now on the sex offender registry.

“I had to take a lie detector test every six months to prove to them that I [hadn’t] been around a child,” Salinas tells Hannah Moore.

“Everyone’s perception is that if someone’s having sex with someone who is HIV positive, they must be being deceived or they must be being tricked into doing that, and that is so not the case,” says Robert Suttle, who was also convicted in Louisiana after being reported by his former partner.

“You’re being arrested, you’re losing your job, you’re losing your livelihood, over something related to your status,” Suttle tells Moore. “So it’s almost like you’re guilty before you’re even proven innocent when it should be the opposite.”

Campaigners say these laws are reinforcing stigmas about HIV, and discouraging people who don’t know their status from getting tested. Edwin Barnard, the Executive Director of the HIV Justice Network, tells Hannah Moore how these laws, often relics of the 1980s before medication was available, are a danger to public health. Reporter Amelia Abraham explains why ethnic minorities and women are disproportionately criminalised.

Members of the Aids Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP), Housing Works and GMHC holding a protest outside the New York District Attorney's office in Manhattan, US.

Photograph: Erik McGregor/LightRocket/Getty Images

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Al Roker readmitted to hospital for blood clots



Beloved weatherman Al Roker has reportedly been rushed back to the hospital for blood clots, after being released just last week.

“Al was rushed to the hospital after Thanksgiving,” People reported Wednesday, citing an anonymous source. The source added that he’d gone by ambulance.

On top of that, the source said that the “Today” show weather anchor’s wife, journalist Deborah Roberts, had gotten locked out of her car when it malfunctioned, trapping her phone and belongings.

The 68-year-old Roker initially posted about his plight on Instagram on Nov. 18, saying he was hospitalized for blood clots in his leg and lungs but was in “recovery.” He was discharged on Thanksgiving, missing his first parade in 27 years.

Roker’s reprieve was short-lived. A day later, he was readmitted.

While he made it home in time to watch at least part of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on NBC — hosted by his “Today” colleagues Hoda Kotb and Savannah Guthrie — the meteorologist also missed the Rockefeller Tree lighting on Wednesday.

The upstate New York tree’s illumination was again celebrated by Guthrie and Kotb, along with Craig Melvin and “Access Hollywood” anchor Mario Lopez.

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