Virtual Soul Food Cooking Class kicks off Black History Month at UMSL

Cathy Jenkins shared the story behind starting her Ferguson, Missouri, restaurant, Cathy’s Kitchen, during Monday’s Black History Month kickoff event. Attendees made Jenkin’s red beans and rice, cooking along with her virtually and asking questions as needed.

The questions kept coming Monday evening, but Cathy Jenkins didn’t miss a beat.

Dressed in a red chef’s coat and a black toque from her downtown Ferguson, Missouri, restaurant, Cathy’s Kitchen, she answered adeptly while slicing onions and garlic, draining beans, and otherwise going through the steps for her renowned red beans and rice during a live cooking webinar for the University of Missouri­–St. Louis community.

She was wrapping up describing her no-fail way of cooking rice – 2 inches of water over the top of the grains and simmered with no lid – when someone asked what they should do if they’d mistakenly combined the beans and rice in one pot. Could that be separated?

UMSL student Ammarra Berry cooked with her daughter and niece. (Photo courtesy of Ammarra Berry)

UMSL student Ammarra Berry cooked with her daughter and niece. (Photo courtesy of Ammarra Berry)

“You just got to roll with it,” Jenkins said, with a good-natured laugh sneaking into her voice. “If you did all that together, you just got to roll with it. Please send me a picture, and let me know how it came out.”

About 50 screens across the region were attuned to Jenkins for Monday’s cook-along, UMSL’s Black History Month kickoff event and a virtual analog to the annual Soul Food Celebration. The event was organized by the Office of Student Involvement and the University Program Board.

Senior Rachel Thompson, UPB Enrichment Programs chair, was the person in charge of creating the event. She started out by thinking of things that would capture the spirit of the in-person event.

“We thought it would be cool to do something along those lines that’s safe where students can stay home and still get to participate, still get a taste, no pun intended, of what we usually do every year,” Thompson said. “It’s to keep the tradition alive. Cooking classes, they seem to be very popular, so we were like, ‘OK, let’s try this.’ Last semester, we did a couple, and they went really well.”

She knew students knew of and loved Cathy’s Kitchen and was delighted when Jenkins quickly agreed. Thompson selected the red beans and rice recipe because she felt it would be accessible to all the participants, could easily be made vegetarian and because it had to be comprised of staple foods that Sodexo could easily package into boxes for participants to pick up.

“Sodexo has been so flexible and very helpful to our ideas,” she said. “They got all the kits ready. They printed the recipe cards. They make it such an easy process for us, which is really nice because this year has been about experimentation. This is the first time we’ve done virtual events for UPB.”

Zachary Mirowitz and Gabriela Szteinberg enjoyed "Cathy's radiant energy" during Monday's event. (Photo courtesy of Zachary Mirowitz)

Zachary Mirowitz and Gabriela Szteinberg enjoyed “Cathy’s radiant energy” during Monday’s event. (Photo courtesy of Zachary Mirowitz)

Thompson served as moderator during the event, relaying questions and comments from the Zoom webinar participants and opening and closing the evening. She began by talking about how the event speaks to Black History Month and the importance of community and enticed participants’ attention toward future events and supporting local businesses.

Stories and travel were the bread and butter of Jenkin’s presentation, during which she told the origin story of the restaurant.

“This is the original kitchen,” she said, gesturing to her setup. “I started Cathy’s Kitchen right in my home. It was a little different than it is now.”

She ran that first version through Facebook, posting one menu item every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Less than a year later, her business was booming. She told her husband, Jerome, that she wanted to start a restaurant.

“I love when we travel, and we taste all this different food, and when I come back to St. Louis, I can’t find it,” she recalled saying. “He says, ‘Let’s go find it together.’”

They packed their three kids in a van and embarked on a two-month trip. They drove from St. Louis to Florida, then across the lower half of the U.S. up to California and Nevada before making their way back home.

Along the way, they tasted good food and discovered recipes. Those became the backbone of Jenkin’s menu, which is organized by location such New Orleans, Memphis, Florida and sections such as “Rest Area” for kids’ food and “Co-Riders” or sides.

When she returned, she resumed cooking from home until one day when she looked outside her house and saw a line of cars stretching down the street – all full of people who wanted her food. The next day, she and her husband found the future location of Cathy’s kitchen.

The building’s owner told her to take her time, not charging her a lease until 30 days after opening. Her fans rallied around her, donating items when she didn’t have the funds to purchase them.

“That’s the type of community that we live in,” Jenkins said. “I just want to encourage all you young people out there. Listen, whatever you think you want to do, try it. Especially if you have someone who believes in you. Don’t give up on your dreams.”

The participants took heart from Jenkin’s story and her cooking. UMSL student Zach Mirowitz had registered for the event because he thought it sounded like a fun way to commemorate Black History Month and engage in the Triton community.

Mariah Childs' and daughter Mya's favorite part was seeing how their dish would turn out after making an early mistake. Childs said, "Never take a mistake for granted. Enjoy the little things and laugh. See the positive regardless of the pandemic or negative energy." (Photo courtesy of Mariah Childs)

Mariah Childs’ and daughter Mya’s favorite part was seeing how their dish would turn out after making an early mistake. Childs said, “Never take a mistake for granted. Enjoy the little things and laugh. See the positive regardless of the pandemic or negative energy.” (Photo courtesy of Mariah Childs)

“My favorite part of the Zoom meeting was Cathy’s radiant energy,” he said. “She constantly interspersed her cooking instructions with words of encouragement about the importance of pursuing your dreams and cooking trivia.”

Organizational leadership student Ammarra Berry had also registered because she thought it sounded fun. As a former registrar at the culinary school L’Ecole Culinaire, cooking and trying new dishes has been an enjoyable pastime for Berry.

“Cooking to me is the ultimate form of love for my household because we can sit and eat together over a delicious meal,” she said. “My daughter and niece and I like to make foods together and pretend like we have a blog to post on Facebook. It gives them something to enjoy during the COVID-19 pandemic. This activity helped me with keeping the home fires burning. The dish turned out superb.”

Graduate student Mariah Childs also used the event to prioritize family. She cooked with her daughter, Mya O’Bannon, who turns 2 in March.

“She loves to eat, and I figured this would be a good mother-daughter event to bond together,” Childs said. “Since I had her little brother and her big sister, Niyah, was a virtual school student, I haven’t spent much time with Mya lately and wanted her to enjoy this moment with me.”

Their sentiments echo Thompson’s rationale for the event, which was partially to support a local business while building community at UMSL but also to celebrate the full experience and contributions of Black Americans.

“It’s good for us to remember that Black history is so much more than struggle,” she said. “It’s delicious cuisine. It’s music. It’s fashion. I think the Soul Food Celebration helps us remember that during a time that can get inundated with the weight of heavy conversations and difficult topics.”

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