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A recent Islamic Cultural Celebration Dinner was planned and executed by Jordanian pastry cook Hind Abulali and included Saudi Arabian Kabsa and Lebanese kafta made with Halal meats.

University of Mary Washington Cultural Series Is a Crowd Pleaser

Team effort brings authentic tastes and culture to the dining hall.

Thanks to a collaborative effort by students, dining services and the campus multicultural center, University of Mary Washington pulls off about a dozen events each year celebrating different ethnic and cultural groups. Over the decade since it launched, the series has consistently been a fan favorite among students on the Fredericksburg, Va., campus.

The university dining service, a Sodexo account, works in conjunction with the school’s James Farmer Multicultural Center (JFMC) to host special meals in support of the center’s Cultural Awareness Series. The series is designed to promote deeper understanding and appreciation of race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, age and culture. Besides food, it incorporates performances, lectures, forums and other presentations.

Teddy_Harrison.pngPhoto: In addition to a menu that featured dishes from tribes of various regions such as the Sonoran Desert, Northern Plains, Southeast and Northeast tribes, Grill Cook Teddy Harrison, who is of Cherokee heritage, wore his tribal regalia and talked with guests about his heritage.

The special dining events involve a number of stakeholders: Sodexo executive chef Peter Stine, representatives of the JFMC or specific student cultural groups and marketing manager Rose Benedict, who originated the idea along with Stine. At times, individual students or dining staff team members who are intimately familiar with the spotlighted culture have a hand in determining the menu as well.

“These dining events were created to use dining experiences to help further Sodexo’s and the university’s core values of promoting diversity and inclusion,” Benedict says. “We believe it’s very important to take every possible opportunity to raise awareness and appreciation for other cultures,” she adds. “What better way to do that than through our common love of good food?”

The key, she notes, is to do it in a way that avoids misrepresenting or misappropriating other cultures. That’s where the JFMC and student cultural clubs’ assistance has been essential.

“In my view,” Benedict says, “we couldn’t successfully create this kind of dining program without the direct input from members of the university community who have those cultural backgrounds. We don’t ever tell our guests what their culture should look like in terms of food; we listen to them.”

Sometimes students bring in their favorite family recipes from home. More recently, Stine recognized the opportunity to include additional input from members of the dining team, who represent a cross section of cultures. He began including them in the planning process for each event, soliciting their input on menus, recipes and overall presentations.

A recent Islamic Cultural Celebration Dinner, for example, was planned and executed by Hind Abulali, a Jordanian pastry cook, who shared her joy and enthusiasm for her culture with the dining team, students and other guests. The menu included Saudi Arabian Kabsa and Lebanese kafta made with Halal meats, Moroccan-style mashed potatoes, tabouli, halal chicken with Saudi rice, Halal roast beef with seven spices, and several Middle Eastern desserts.

Raymunda_Rauer_cooking300_2.pngPhoto: Raymunda Rauer, a dining supervisor and native of the Philippines, prepared her family recipe for Filipino Pancit and wore a traditional Filipino costume while serving the dinner.

The special events—some lunches, some dinners—take over the university’s main dining room at Top of the UC, an all-you-care-to-eat restaurant with various points of service. They are promoted primarily through social media and flyers, and food costs run about the same as for normal menus.

While students and staff have a say in shaping the menus, “we help steer them based on availability and what’s seasonal at the time, so we can provide the best quality,” says David Schneider, dining manager at the university. “We try to hit that authentic flavor profile to represent the culture.” The biggest challenge to mounting these special events recently has been Covid—at times dine-in service has not been practical, and these lovingly crafted meals have been packed in takeout containers. As a result, some students have left with five or six takeout boxes from different stations.

“This year, we think the biggest challenge will be keeping students away,” Schneider jokes. The events draw larger-than average crowds and require plenty of advance planning and extra help from student dining ambassadors and members of cultural groups involved in the specific occasion. These volunteers help keep the lines moving and sometimes pith in to serve food as well. While the facility adheres to its no-limits policy, portion control for some items is a must for items like fried foods to ensure everyone in line gets a taste.

Benedict says the program has strengthened dining services’ overall partnership with the university and created goodwill among its diverse student and staff population. “We have a lot of professors here from other countries and a lot of international students, and we always look forward to their feedback,” Benedict says.

“Through this series we have demonstrated how a campus dining operation can successfully host multicultural dining events that are truly inclusive, from the point of concept through final execution, and which uplift and support the university’s vision, mission and values,” Benedict says.

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