One-day event showcases classic soul food

A dish from Urban Blendz, a catering company owned by Taste of Soul Ithaca co-founder Avis Frasier.
A dish from Urban Blendz, a catering company owned by Taste of Soul Ithaca co-founder Avis Frasier.
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Ithaca’s food scene boasts a prevalence of local foods, vegetarian and vegan entrees, and globally inspired flavors. However, authentic Southern comfort food is notably absent from this reputation.

To fill that gap, Avis Frasier and Candace Foster conceived of a one-day culinary event they’ve dubbed Taste of Soul Ithaca – and it’s about more than just the food.

“I come from Harlem, my grandma comes from the South, we have other food entrepreneurs who are from different backgrounds, and they have the background of Southern cooking,” Frasier said. “I just wanted people to experience that … and let others know that we do have home cooks and caterers out here who can provide the different cuisines.”

Frasier and Foster both own catering companies – Urban Blendz and Nu Spice Catering, respectively – and they specialize in classic soul food. Both participated in the Food Entrepreneurship Program at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County.

Frasier credits this program both with helping her develop accounting and inventory management skills, as well as providing opportunities to connect with local farmers and collaborate with other caterers. It was in this way that she and Foster first met; since then, they have swapped business advice and catered events together.

They conceived the idea for Taste of Soul Ithaca last October, envisioning a showcase of authentic soul food served by multiple chefs. At the upcoming event, Foster and Frasier will be joined by Alex Obinatul of Hot Spot Grill and Sophia Georgiou, namesake and owner of Sophia’s Sweets.

“We were having a meeting, and the first thing I asked was ‘what does soul mean to you?’” recalled Frasier. “Being that I come from Harlem, soul food to me is greens, black eyed peas, red rice, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese. So, I wanted to hear from others. We collaboratively sat down and talked about what each person’s going to make so that when people come in, they really can experience the different tastes of the soul coming from people’s cultural backgrounds.”

Taste of Soul Ithaca is being styled to feel like a big community barbecue. Participating chefs will each serve up three to four classic dishes. The price of admission includes one of each item from every chef, so attendees can taste the full breadth of the menu. Frasier is confident that everyone will find something they can enjoy.

In the three years since starting her business, Frasier has adjusted her dishes to appeal to a wider swath of her customers here in Ithaca.

“When I make black eyed peas, I make them without the meat, but I use fresh vegetables and herbs,” Frasier said. “When I make my chili now, instead of regular beef chili, I make turkey chili and I add some squash in it. There’s a lot of different ways I had to elevate my soul food in order to bring it to this market so that way it can taste good but yet it’s still African American – it still comes from the soul.”

Local comedian Kenneth McLaurin was excited to lend his experience planning events to help this vision come to fruition.

“Here in Ithaca, as a community, we’re big on learning and educating and understanding people and engaging with different communities and different cultures,” McLaurin said. “The way that that happens a lot of times in Ithaca is that the minority cultures are invited to engage with the white population, the majority population, on its terms – like come to this event and be a part of this. This is an opportunity for people to come and engage with … the black and the African American and the African community on its terms around food. And I think that really makes this sort of event important.”

While it wasn’t direct inspiration, McLaurin drew parallels between Taste of Soul Ithaca and community meals hosted by Ithaca’s former Club Essence.

“I want to give a shout-out to an old school group in Ithaca: Club Essence. That was an African American [social] club that did a lot, and they had something where around Christmas, they would have a big dinner for that for the African community,” he said. “This sort of harkens back to that; it’s a way to look back and remind the community of what we’ve done and the type of events that have happened [in Ithaca].”

McLaurin was pleased to share that sponsorships from Alternatives Federal Credit Union, GreenStar Food Co-Op and CFCU have helped them fund a well-rounded event. In addition to the abundant food, the evening will include live entertainment from Sabbathwind, Remanu Panther, SingTrece and YK and JC Money of YunG’En Entertainment.

“I want them to leave with the experience of the fullness of a community,” Frasier said. “I want them to leave with them knowing that these cultures exist. I want them to leave full, happy … and know that [this food] is always going to be around.”

Taste of Soul Ithaca will take place on Saturday, Oct. 19 from 4 to 8 p.m. at The Space @ GreenStar. Advance tickets, available at tasteofsoulithaca.com, are $20 for adults and $15 for youth 14 and under. In addition to the food and entertainment included with admission, each vendor will be selling food if – or rather, when – guests want to take some home.

When asked if they would consider putting it on again, McLaurin smiled and said “Even if it goes bad, we’re going to do it again. We’re just going to do it better.”

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