2009-06-17 / Front Page

Mayors spice things up for a worthy cause

Mayors' Wellness Campaign aims to promote healthier living

The three judges for the annual Mayors Healthy Cook-Off held at the Wegmans supermarket in Woodbridge last week were surprised when presented with a dish of Cajun grilled alligator and dirty rice made by North Brunswick Mayor Francis "Mac" Womack.

JEFF GRANIT staff Woodbridge Mayor John E. McCormac explains his grilled brown-sugar barbecue chicken breasts he prepared at the fourth Mayors Healthy Cook-Off at the Wegmans supermarket in Woodbridge on June 10.
When asked if they ever had tried alligator before, Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D-19th District) looked up and shook his head "no," and former New York Jets running back and kick returner Bruce Harper said, "No, but it was a pleasant surprise."

And the alligator "didn't bite back," Vitale added with a smile.

Matt Cerchio, a chef at Wegmans, said he had eaten alligator before.

Womack was one of four mayors from across the state who participated in the cook-off, including Woodbridge Mayor John E. McCormac, Scotch Plains Mayor Nancy M. Malool, and South Amboy Mayor John T. O'Leary. The mayors competed to see who could prepare the most healthful dish as part of the Mayors' Wellness Campaign's effort to promote healthier living and more active lifestyles.

The Mayors' Wellness Campaign is an initiative of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute in partnership with the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.

The June 10 event was the second cookoff held at Wegmans. The previous two cook-off events were held in Parsippany and West Deptford.

"We are so happy and delighted that Wegmans opened its doors again," said Emily Littman, director of the Mayors' Wellness Campaign. "Over one-third of the state's 566 municipalities have joined the campaign, and we look forward to spreading our initiative to municipalities that are not yet on the campaign."

The campaign supports mayors as champions of community health. The goal is to increase opportunities for New Jersey residents to participate in daily physical activity with a long-term goal of reducing health-care costs secondary to obesity. Through public and private partnerships, the campaign provides structure and resources for healthy community initiatives.

McCormac welcomed the mayors and the dozen or so people, including Bill Dressel, executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, Councilman Gregg Ficarra, who is the head of the township's wellness campaign, Councilman James Carroll, Jeff Zirpolo, owner of the Club at Woodbridge, other members of the club, and members of the Woodbridge YMCA, who came to watch the mayors compete.

The mayors, in chef hats and aprons, spent a half-hour or so preparing their meals in the Wegmans kitchen with executive chefs from the supermarket supervising them.

Then the mayors presented their healthful meals to the crowd before the judges began tasting the dishes.

Womack said his decision to make Cajun grilled alligator came from his deep roots in the South.

"I went to college in Alabama," he said as he was cutting up the alligator meat. "I was recently down in Louisiana on a business trip, and that is when I decided to make it, because the meat is very lean — though I never cooked alligator before. Usually it is fried, but since this is about healthful cooking, I decided to grill it."

Womack added that an interesting point is that in the New Jersey area, one can get alligator meat for $25 a pound, and down in Louisiana one can get 6 pounds of alligator meat for $7.

"Wegmans ordered the meat for us," he said. "I ordered the bread shaped as alligators [from], of all places, Illinois."

Womack's table was decked out with colorful alligator bread, one of which was dyed green, and alligator meat facts, which included that the meat is high in protein and low in calories, fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, and is a source of Omega-2 fatty acids that protect against heart disease.

M alool, who came into office in Scotch Plains six months ago, said she heard about the cook-off and wanted to become part of it.

"I'm a big fan of all the cooking shows, and I love Wegmans and shop here all the time," she said.

Malool whipped up a dish of pork tenderloins with apple spinach.

"I actually called a friend of mine who is a chef, and he provided me with a healthful recipe, which I practiced at home the other day," she said.

O'Leary said he has been a longtime friend of McCormac's and decided to participate.

"I wasn't able to make it last year, and I wanted to join in on the fun of spreading the awareness of healthy living and eating," he said.

O'Leary prepared a dish of stuffed filet mignon with a side of crab cake.

McCormac, with the help of the Wegmans staff, prepared a dish of grilled brown-sugar barbecue chicken breasts.

In the end, all the mayors received an award for their healthful dishes. McCormac won for best overall taste, Womack won for presentation, Malool won for nutrition, and O'Leary won for best-overall dish.

For information about the Mayors' Wellness campaign, visit www.mayorswellnesscampaign. org

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