Local-food and nutrition advocate Vel Scott believes food is much more than what we eat: It’s nourishment for the mind, body, and spirit.
When Bon Appetit, Oberlin’s food service provider, hosted Scott for a series of dinners in each of the campus dining halls on April 4-6, many students said the meal “felt like home.” That’s precisely the goal Scott had in mind.
“I want students to get a bold taste of the freshness and love that the food was prepared with. I hope it will remind them of home,” said Scott while supervising the kitchen of Lord-Saunders, where Bon Appetit cooks were busy preparing batches of succulent collard greens. On the menu that evening: beef short ribs prepared with vegetables and fresh herbs; baked chicken coated with seasoned breadcrumbs and herbs; black-eyed peas, collard greens, and cornbread.
When asked if this would be considered soul food, she gives a quizzical look—the kind that tells you she’s been doing this much longer than you have. “You can’t box in soul food,” she explains. “Soul food is how you prepare it. It comes from the earth, then we each put in our flavors, our love, our cultural background. It’s good for the soul.”
A longtime Cleveland resident and former business owner with her late husband, Don Scott, Vel is a leader in the movement to bring healthy living into people’s lives. Through her workshops, lectures, and cooking demonstrations, she teaches that food can be a catalyst for better living. Bon Appetit invited her to share her knowledge with Oberlin’s chefs, managers, and cooks, who then took what they learned by offering a special meal using some of her favorite ingredients.
A self-made cook, Scott’s expertise in healthful, culturally relevant food stems from the changes she made when her husband experienced health problems. The couple owned three nightclubs in the Cleveland area, and she ran the kitchens. She made a conscious decision that if rich, salty foods were bad for her husband, they were bad for customers, too. Not wanting to sacrifice flavor and enjoyment, they decided to travel to West Africa to explore their roots.
“I saw the simplicity of life, with people eating together,” she recalls. Garlic, onions, greens, and fresh coconut played recurring roles in the food they ate. “We tasted the warmth and love. It was a real eye-opener.”
Since then, she’s gone all over the world to learn about regional cooking styles and traditions. Along the way, she discovered that every culture has its own soul food. For instance, just as sauerkraut always goes with sausage in Germany, you wouldn’t think of serving collard greens without cornbread in her native Mississippi.
Second-year Anthony Allen, a chemistry major and football player, says he came to the dinner looking for some good sources of protein, and he was pleasantly surprised to find that the meal was healthful, too.
“Everything was prepared with great care and forethought. It was a pleasure to talk with Vel. Bringing in outside chefs to train Bon Appetit staff can help diversify the menu in the dining halls. I would enjoy seeing more visiting chefs in the future.”
Wayne Wood, the general manager of Bon Appetit at Oberlin, says the dinner with Vel Scott was a new way to connect with students. He says the most common feedback he received was that the food “felt like home.”
“We have passionate chefs and managers. They’re still talking about what they learned from Vel. I hope this is the start of more programs like it in the future.”
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