JANESVILLE—Serving collard greens as an entree in an attempt to block out bitterness is sort of like using garlic to sweeten cheesecake. On the surface, it doesn’t make sense.
But if you add some salt and lemon juice, allow time for it to marinate and monitor its temperature, the greens’ natural acidity starts to dissipate. Before long, more appealing tastes begin to emerge.
There’s an important message hidden in this simple cooking lesson. And for 16 years, students at Blackhawk Technical College and local community members have discovered it together during the school’s annual Soul Food Luncheon.
Unfortunately, many would-be diners already have missed their opportunity this year as tickets for the 2021 meal sold out Feb. 2. Those interested in reserving spots for 2022 are encouraged to keep an eye on BTC’s Facebook page starting in late January of next year.
Led by Chef Mark Olson and prepared by BTC’s Culinary Arts students, the luncheon exemplifies how food can be more than sustenance. As racial tensions continue to run high in America, such programs serve as cultural cotter pins to connect people from different backgrounds and ethnic groups.
“It’s a way to introduce people to ethnic foods, sure, but it’s also about opening people’s eyes,” said Lisa Hurda, director of the Blackhawk Technical College Foundation.
“For instance, before I went in person, I had never had collard greens,” she added. “Sometimes you just need to get outside of your box. Everybody just wants to be understood a little bit better, and through food we can come together.”
But “coming together” isn’t an option this year. The ongoing pandemic has limited the luncheon to curbside pickup only, and though ticket-holders still can hunker down over generous portions of glazed ham, candied yams, coleslaw and more, the organic conversations prompted by the sharing of tables will be sorely missed.
“Many fond memories of my childhood usually centered on food and on coming together at the table,” Hurda said. “We can’t really do that in person right now, but it is still important.”
Merriam-Webster defines soul food as “food traditionally eaten by southern Black Americans.” It is fitting, then, that the luncheon takes place each February during Black History Month.
It is also worth noting all proceeds from the meal and an accompanying online auction will benefit a scholarship fund for minority students at BTC. During the 2020-21 school year, 156 students benefited from the fund to the tune of about $86,000.
“And that trend is going up,” Hurda said. “In 2018, the fund awarded in the mid-$20,000 range, and in 2019 it was around $35,000.”
Among those who will be preparing the meals is Jasmine Nickles, a second-year student from Rockford, Illinois. Nickles was involved in last year’s luncheon, which she enjoyed for more than just the chance to gain kitchen experience.
“Soul food is the best food ever,” she said. “It’s just really comforting. I love the fried chicken, greens, cornbread ... all of it. It truly speaks to the soul.”
For those unfamiliar with soul food staples, this year’s menu includes—along with the aforementioned dishes—barbecued back ribs, dinner rolls, red velvet cupcakes, peach cobbler and bottled water.
Tickets sold for between $10-$12, and portions, as always, are expected to be generous.
Nickles is clear on what else attendees should expect.
“Happiness, and a full belly,” she said. “It’s just a great chance to experience some new foods people maybe never have tried before.”
Along with encouraging people to come out and try a different cuisine, Nickles said she hopes the luncheon will inspire others to follow their dreams—or to support those who do.
“It’s important to get more minorities out for things like this,” she said. “If they see colleges doing things like this, it might inspire them to go to school, get out in the community. And it might inspire others to support more black-owned businesses.”