Soul Food Cafe Dishes Up More Than Heritage

Lit candles and white tablecloths at Eastern Mennonite University helped create a restaurant dining experience Saturday evening at Martin Chapel.

But this was no ordinary feast.

The main course at EMU’s Multicultural Services’ Soul Food Cafe was cultural diversity, says Melody Pannell, director of the program. Contemporary gospel music, fellowship and a celebration of the kickoff of black history month also were on the menu.

Pannell credited a Manhattan restaurant for inspiring the annual event, now in its third year. The restaurant served soul food, she said, and treated customers to live music.

"It was very popular," she said.

‘Celebration Of Faith’

The EMU event appears to be picking up steam. About 60 people purchased tickets for the dinner and concert this year. Volunteers began preparing for the feast on Thursday, said John Grinfin, 23.

An accounting senior from Frederick, Md., Grinfin is one of eight assistants in Pannell’s office.

The event does more than take note of African-American culture during February, he said.

"It’s a celebration of faith, as well," Grinfin said.

He and EMU junior Bill Seidle, 21, of Madison, were among the early arrivals to help create the right atmosphere for the cafe.

Seidle, a social work major, was attending his second Soul Food Cafe. After going last year, he decided to join Multicultural Services as an assistant.

"It is very important to promote diversity among students," Seidle said.

Crossing Bridges

The aroma of the freshly cooked food wafted into the room as Pannell ran down the list of dishes on the evening’s menu.

Along with collard greens and baked macaroni and cheese, the menu included cabbage, candied yams, cornbread and sweet potato pie.

Asked to define soul food, Pannell said it is "food that makes you feel alive and good in your spirit, and is cooked with love."

Pannell said she hopes people attend events this month celebrating black history and multiculturalism, and try something new.

"When they cross cultural bridges and backgrounds and open themselves up to new experiences," she said, "they receive something back."