Dinners explore intersection of plant history, cuisine

The cuisines of the African diaspora tell the story of how food plants native to Africa have, across generations, remained central to the foods that Black communities celebrate.

Throughout Black History Month, Cornell Dining has been offering a series of dinners featuring its take on traditional dishes of the African diaspora. And at these dinners, the Cornell Botanic Gardens is introducing students to its exhibition, “Seeds of Survival and Celebration: Plants and the Black Experience.”

The exhibition, at the gardens’ Nevin Welcome Center, includes an outdoor plant display during the growing season, an audio tour and an indoor exhibit, all describing plants that are significant to the Black experience in the Americas, dating back to the transatlantic slave trade.

“I hope that this event helps to raise awareness about the Botanic Gardens and what they are doing to try to make Cornell really a more welcoming place for people who hold all different kinds of identities,” said Catherine Thrasher-Carroll, the mental health promotion program director at Cornell’s Skorton Center for Health Initiatives. “I hope that, especially for students of African descent, that when they see this display, it gives them a sense of ‘I do really belong here.’”

Sponsored by Black Students United, the dinners – held in eight of Cornell Dining’s residential dining rooms during February – carried themes such as Caribbean or Moroccan cuisine; Jamaican, East African or Haitian fare; or North or West African inspirations.

The dinners have become an annual collaboration with Black Students United, said BSU co-president Tofunmi Olabode ’24, a student in the ILR School.

 “Black Students United appreciates Cornell Dining’s continued efforts to include us in this celebratory month,” Olabode said, noting that Cornell Dining’s chefs prepare menu items that will be new to most students, while incorporating dishes that those who’ve explored Caribbean or even Southern U.S. cuisines will recognize.

“We’re grateful to Black Students United for collaborating with us on this month’s events,” said Paul Muscente, director of Cornell Dining. “Our culinary team loves the opportunity to explore cuisines from around the world, and Black History Month offers a chance to visit a real variety of cultures and prepare traditional foods from these communities.”

In 2021, plants for cuisine were planted in front of the Nevin Welcome Center and along the entryway into the herb garden, Thrasher-Carroll said.

 “And inside the center,” she said, “there’s a display of products as well as cookbooks that actually use all of these different plants for cuisine, that we’re probably all familiar with, like collard greens and sweet potato pie.”

The 21 plants include food plants native to West Africa – such as black-eyed peas, okra and millet – that were used as provisions on slave ships and became embedded in American cuisine. Also highlighted are the cash crops – like sugarcane, cotton and tobacco – that fueled the transatlantic slave trade.

The final week of Black History Month will feature meals Feb. 23 at Keeton House Dining Room, Rose House Dining Room and Cook House Dining Room on West Campus, and at Okenshields on Central Campus. Visit Cornell Dining Now for each dining room’s hours and menus.

Mark H. Anbinder is a communications specialist for Student and Campus Life.

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