Breaking cornbread: Soul Food Luncheon provides comfort, conversation

The comforting aroma of Cajun fried chicken, mustard greens and candied yams greeted guests at the annual Soul Food Luncheon Feb. 11 in the Grand Hall of Rice Memorial Center.

First-year Ph.D. student Tarence Rice, Jr. said he appreciates events such as the Soul Food Luncheon that help encourage even closer bonds among students.

First-year Ph.D. student Tarence Rice, Jr. said he appreciates events such as the Soul Food Luncheon that help encourage even closer bonds among students. (Photos by Tommy Lavergne)

As one of the centerpieces of Black History Month, the yearly dining event invites the entire Rice community to enjoy mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese and other soul food favorites. Sponsored this year by the Office of Multicultural Affairs, the luncheon drew students, staff, faculty and alumni alike.

At one of the many crowded tables, first-year Ph.D. student Tarence Rice Jr. mingled with his fellow grad students. Mixers like these, he said, enabled him to meet other students outside his Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. And the opportunity to ease into grad student life through clubs such as the Black Graduate Student Association, Rice said, has also helped with his transition from his undergraduate years at Tennessee State University.

“I definitely enjoy that about Rice,” he said. “I feel like I made a great decision to be able to come and be a part of such a great grad student community.”

Professor Anthony Pinn was among the many faculty members who came out to enjoy lunch in the Grand Hall.

Professor Anthony Pinn, director of the Center for African and African American Studies, was among the many faculty members who came out to enjoy lunch in the Grand Hall.

Meanwhile, at a nearby table, another newly minted Owl was busy talking with friends about the previous Sunday’s big Africayé cultural show. Jones College freshman Kwame Ntim chose Rice for its engineering program without realizing he’d be just as attracted to its social and club offerings.

Ntim is already active in the local chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, the Rice African Student Association, the Black Student Association and the Black Male Leadership Initiative. In addition to performing in this year’s Africayé showcase, he said, he’s also enjoyed participating in all of the other Black History Month events in February — especially the Black Women’s Appreciation Luncheon.

“I’m just trying to be as involved as possible my freshman year,” Ntim said. Though he hails from Baltimore, Ntim’s family is originally from Ghana, making the selection of Southern U.S. favorites in the Grand Hall even more enticing.

“A friend told me about the soul food lunch and I said, ‘What’s that?’” Ntim said. “He told me it was about black culture and the food that they have down here and I said, ‘Why shouldn’t I be here?’”

Another enticement to attend was the opportunity to network with professors and alumni such as Janis Scott ’74, who attended the luncheon to engage with Rice students.

Janis Scott '74 attended the luncheon with her cousin.

Janis Scott ’74, right, attended the luncheon with her cousin.

Widely and affectionately known as Houston’s “Bus Lady” for the years she’s spent advocating for public transit in underserved communities, Scott was recognized for her efforts in 2016 with the Outstanding Achievement in Civic and Community Service award at Rice’s Blueprint for Excellence Gala. As a Jones College associate, Scott is also a popular fixture at Rice events — including this year’s Africayé.

“Baby, they were dancing!” Scott said with a laugh. “It hurt my knees just watching!”

Her table at the Soul Food Luncheon was packed with undergraduates, one of whom Scott gently encouraged to close a laptop and enjoy the meal and conversation. Being able to share her advice and experiences — whether with interview tips or talking to students about the importance of networking — is one of the reasons Scott thinks alumni should stay involved at Rice.

“We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us,” Scott said. “I always tell them, ‘Y’all have good book sense, but let me tell you about street sense.’”

Scott tugged at some tufts emerging from her elegant blue headwrap. “See that white hair?” she said. “Talk to your elders and you’ll learn from them.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.