WAVERLY — Rodney Lewis, owner of Waterloo restaurant Rodney’s Kitchen, dropped by Wartburg College on Monday to share his African-American cuisine with the campus community during Black History Month.
He led the preparation of 450 to 500 meals of fried golden catfish, macaroni and cheese, and green beans with turkey for students to enjoy for dinner at the Mensa Dining Center.
Catfish is “one of the most popular dishes in black culture, pretty much all over the country,” Lewis said, “…it’s what they like.”
“It gives me the opportunity to go out and showcase some of my dishes here on campus. It also gives people an idea of what I’m doing at my restaurant in Waterloo,” he added.
“Unity” is a word he used to describe what the dishes bring to campus.
He thinks the dinner isn’t just about African-American heritage. It’s a lesson for people who come together to learn about world history, or “understand or experience the culture of black history.”
People also read…
There are many opportunities for such learning on campus.
Wartburg is a “melting pot”. According to the college, it has 1,543 students from 36 states and 66 countries (not including the United States). This includes 186 American students of color and 94 international students, a few more if you count students who hold dual citizenship.
Food brings people together
Soul food “feeds the soul and the spirit,” Lewis said. More generally, food brings people together.
Typically, the Wartburg Black Student Union has a caterer prepare a smaller-scale “soul food dinner” for the group. But this year, in honor of Black History Month, it was important for everyone to share their tasting.
“Our food is really important in our culture. It brings us together. This is important at parties. The recipes are passed down from our grandmothers, and also in the days of slavery we didn’t have much to work with, so we were really creative with that,” the BSU president said, Jaylen McBride. “It’s transformed, and it’s something that’s close to our hearts.”
McBride, a senior at Wartburg, notes that Lewis’ presence here brings people closer to African-American culture during a year when BSU celebrates the theme of “black excellence.”
“Working with an African-American chef is something we’re proud of,” McBride said.
“We wanted to share our food and our culture, and we thought that was the best way to do that,” she added.
“I want to show students that meals made from scratch don’t have to be complicated and that even in a dorm room, you can make delicious meals that are better for you than Ramen noodles.”
A new experience
Chef Jami Dare took over the kitchen at Wartburg College in November after returning to the Cedar Valley from New Orleans. But on Monday afternoon, she took “a back seat” to watch a master with a different background practice his craft.
“We are really happy to collaborate. I think it’s an amazing opportunity,” she said. “We are so lucky here at Wartburg to have this little melting pot of international students and students from all over the world. I think the food is really, really great for building bridges and opening doors for people who wouldn’t normally experience this type of cuisine. It’s a great way to start a conversation.
She hopes this will arouse students’ curiosity about the history and meaning of the different dishes. This is an example, she says, of the potential the university community has to learn from each other.
“I think this (event) is the first of its kind, and I’m so excited to have Rodney here as a guest conductor,” she said. “It’s just a wonderful opportunity for everyone involved, and I really hope we can do it again next year and maybe expand it,” she added.
Wartburg is renovating Centennial and Vollmer Halls, two of its freshman dorms. When complete, there will be a common area with a “demonstration kitchen” that will not only give students a place to congregate over a meal, but will also offer educational food programming.
“Everyone loves food. It’s a great way to collaborate and come together around the dinner table,” she said.
But how do you teach culture when some students just want to feed their face?
“It might be beyond my abilities as a chef,” she joked. “But I think we’re putting the pieces of the puzzle in front of them and hopefully they’ll put things together and that will generate some interest, and maybe they’ll want to do things like that in the future.”
“This may be the first in a series of events, hopefully, where we can cross cultural boundaries with food,” said the chef, who hopes to not only expand international options, but also vegetarian and vegan offerings.
PHOTOS: Kimball Ridge building collapses