Food is often one of the most fun and expressive parts of a culture, and it’s no secret that food is embedded in the cultural experience. In the African American community, how food is prepared, served and shared can be one of the most important expressions of love.
The Black Student Union celebrated its 25th anniversary with an assortment of classic soul food dishes, including fried chicken, artichoke-spinach dip, peach cobbler and vanilla ice cream, fresh green salad and barbecue ribs.
According to BSU President junior Christopher Bland, these dishes, along with other classics like black-eyed peas, fried catfish, collard greens, cornbread, macaroni and cheese and candied yams, have been served throughout black households across the United States for decades and are staples of the southern soul food cuisine that families across the world enjoy.
“[Soul food is] something traditional that you’re going to eat and it’s going to bring you back,” Bland said. “It’s about those memories of warmth and family and love.”
After months of preparing, this year’s Soul Food Dinner turned out to be anything but a simple and traditional home-cooked meal.
The event was complete with a red carpet, photographers and scholarly speakers – it looked more like a grand gala than a family dinner at grandma’s house.
“We went all out,” Bland said. “It’s our 25th anniversary. It’s extravagant, and I like extravagant things, but it’s has to be – we’re celebrating 25 years [of being] here.”
Red carpet or not, Bland said that no matter how the meal is laid out, the preparation of soul food always has a special way of commemorating big events, bringing families and friends together and healing relationships.
“That’s what it’s all about; it’s food that comes from the soul to feed the soul,” Bland said. “It’s hearty, robust, fattening – it’s the kind of food that’s so good and savory you really can feel it warm and soothe your soul.”
Of course, Bland clarified, while almost all soul food is southern food, not all southern food is considered soul food.
“There’s a cross-over, I think, a blend, but it’s not all one and the same,” Bland said. “There are certain dishes that apply to both southern and soul, like the fried chicken, but soul [food] always has connections [to] family and celebrating being happy – and alive.”
And although the event was held right in time to end Black History Month, Bland explained that soul food is not actually a universal expression of black culture, but rather a predominantly African-American identifier.
“It’s not something everyone grew up with,” Bland said. “Most of our [executive board] is not African-American, actually, so this food isn’t something their ancestors made.”
With its roots buried in southern cultural tradition, the soul cuisine has a distinctly southern comfort flavor – something very unlike some of the other cultural foods celebrated in some divisions of black culture, like the plantain-based Jamaican or Haitian cuisine, Bland said.
“A lot of members haven’t been brought up with these kinds of foods,” Bland said. “They’re used to specifically Caribbean food or maybe Ghanaian food, which is totally different than this.”
Luckily, events like the annual dinner serve as a great way to blend and celebrate all sorts of different cultures and traditions. Like many other cultural clubs at Geneseo, Bland said, BSU strives to promote acceptance and diversity on campus, specifically attempting to bridge those cultural dissonances through the power of its guests’ taste buds.
Three keynote speakers also contributed their thoughts, songs and experiences to the cultural conversation throughout the night. In associate professor of history Catherine Adams’ speech, she echoed Bland’s emphasis on the necessity of having functioning and flourishing Black Student Unions today.
“I think being black is an ambiguous idea, but it’s something BSU allows people to explore,” Bland said. “Is being black something that you look like, or is it something that you participate in? It’s a question we struggle with, but I think it’s a mixture of both.”