Members of Big Blue Varsity Softball and Baseball teamed up to host the School's inaugural event, a fundraiser to benefit the Cancer Support Community (CSC),
Treasured Lower School chef Charlie Williams has been cheerfully nourishing—one could argue, spoiling—Short Hills students, faculty, and staff for 25 years. His signature, most celebrated feast of the school year is his Thanksgiving spread, a tradition well over two decades old. But nearly as old, and equally revered, is his Soul Food extravaganza, which he launched to coincide with Black History Month not long after he began working at Pingry.
What was on that very first menu? Fried chicken, barbeque ribs, fried fish, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, black-eyed peas, corn bread, and peach and apple cobbler. Twenty-two years later, not much has changed, and the Lower School community—who anticipate his gastronomic comforts each year, long before the winter weather even sets in—wouldn't have it any other way.
Proof can be found not simply in the full mouths and smiling faces in the Chen Dining Commons, but in the line of eager parents, who always manage to find a reason to visit campus around lunchtime on the special day. He estimates about 15 parents dropped by for this year's celebration, held on February 13 (30 showed up for the Thanksgiving meal). They have gone so far as to give him their cell phone numbers, pleading that he alert them to the date ahead of time so they are sure not to miss out. Even Assistant Headmaster–Short Hills Campus and Lower School Director Ted Corvino P '94, '97, '02, a famously picky eater, who often spurns lunch, makes an appearance.
Mr. Williams comes by his craft naturally. His parents are from South Carolina and, as one of 12 children, his mother taught him early, and well. "I used to eat grits with cheese every morning for breakfast. It was too much—I can't eat it anymore!" he recalls. "My mom cooked a lot of soul food for us—macaroni and cheese, Hoppin' John [also known as "Carolina peas," a mixture of black-eyed peas and rice], and banana pudding." To this day, and to the benefit of a hungry Lower School crowd, he has trouble cooking in small batches. "I don't know how to cook for five or 10 people; I'm heavy-handed," he says. "I have to cook for a lot of people, and with leftovers for several days. That's how my mom cooked."
Thankfully at the Short Hills Campus, Mr. Williams has plenty of help. "The execution of Soul Food Day is truly a team effort," reports Mr. Ciampa, Sage's Food Service Director. "Supervisor and Sous Chef Felipe Morales and Sous Chef Kyle Jones worked really hard to help prepare the food. And Executive Chef Won Ho supervised production and Assistant Food Service Director Kim Needham helped with the set-up and signage."
This year, after viewing a social media post of blissful Lower School diners, an Upper Schooler challenged Sage Dining Services to follow suit on the Basking Ridge Campus. Led by Mr. Ciampa, they did! On February 28, Middle and Upper Schoolers were treated to the campus's first-ever Soul Food feast: southern-style crusted catfish, fried chicken, stewed collard greens with bacon, smokey black-eyed peas with kale, mashed potatoes, Carolina-style pork barbeque sandwiches with creamy slaw, a macaroni and cheese "station," and cornbread. For dessert: peach and baked apple cobbler. Judging by the piled-high plates, it, too, was a great success.
"I was proud that there was a tradition in place celebrating African American history at Pingry. It's a small but meaningful way for people to learn to embrace other cultures, especially the young students at Short Hills," explains Ajuné Richardson, the sophomore responsible for initiating the "challenge." "I wondered why we, on the Basking Ridge campus, didn't have that same tradition, so I suggested that we change that. I understand that many traditions will be exclusive to their respective campus, but one that celebrates the rich history and heritage of a people can and should be shared, always. I'm glad that Pingry and Sage Dining Services made it happen!"
For his part, Mr. Williams, who admits to orders take-out on weekends, enjoys the tradition every bit as much as the students. "I'm going to continue it as long as I'm here," he says. That's delectably satisfying news for the Pingry community.
Photos, top to bottom: Friend chicken, collard greens, and mashed potatoes were among the offerings at the Basking Ridge Campus's first Soul Food Day; Mr. Williams (left), serves up the same at the Lower School's annual meal.
Contact: Andrea Dawson, Senior Writer, firstname.lastname@example.org