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Pork Dumplings with a Side of Wisdom, on ‘Seasoned’

In Pitt EXCEL’s Instagram series, an engineering student of color cooks a favorite meal while dishing on life, career and identity

Nse O’Dean had prepared some of his ingredients ahead of time: He had chicken in a plastic bag, coated with a vibrant blend of curry spices; a bag of frozen vegetables on stand-by; and a pan on the back burner. He adjusted the camera (his phone, propped up on the counter), poured some oil into a hot pan, and began chatting about his job, his car and his future plans.

With his face ever-so-slightly out of frame, the recent graduate of University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering shared his cooking steps with all the ambiguity of a true family recipe. All the while, he fielded live questions from an audience of Pitt EXCEL students and friends:

“What gave you the most anxiety when you got out of college?” “How do you get back to your focus if you find yourself feeling lost?” and “How do you get comfortable with the unknown?”

It’s true across cultures and throughout time: Cooking brings people together. It’s a way of sharing traditions and culture while caring for the people closest to us. 

It was with that in mind that Pitt EXCEL, the undergraduate diversity program at the Swanson School, created the Seasoned video series on Instagram. Each 45-minute, biweekly Instagram Live video welcomes a member of the Pitt EXCEL community to share wisdom on a given topic while cooking a dish of their choosing.

Delicate red velvet waffles, tidy pork dumplings and spicy Tuscan shrimp pasta were created live on camera while the chefs answered questions about careers, identity and navigating today’s world.

The mind behind the series is Halima Morafa, a Pitt EXCEL member and a junior studying mechanical engineering. She worked with Yvette Moore, director of Pitt EXCEL, to develop the idea. They wanted to showcase both the wisdom inherent in the community and the cooking skills developed during quarantine.

“Seasoned came to me as an expression that no matter what, food and conversation will bring people together. The connection is bigger than the divide,” said Moore. “It was a time for the young Pitt EXCEL Scholars to learn from some of their legacies.

“Sometimes, as people of color we forget we have a legacy that is strong and rich. This is what Seasoned created while we all were able to sit around our virtual kitchens,” she added.

Seasoned has been a perfect antidote to the fatigue caused by the pandemic, the loneliness of quarantining and the stress around the Black Lives Matter movement.  “I’ve always seen food as the center of a community. Seasoned was something lighthearted and gave us a time to connect with family and be there for each other,” said Morafa. “With everything being virtual, it feels good to have community engagement, but with real conversations about real things.”

The videos themselves feel casual and personal—as if the host, who relays questions and provides comment, is chatting with a friend who happens to be making dinner—but the topics make for impactful discussions.

“I loved listening in on conversations as there were always nuggets of wisdom I took from them,” said Ruby DeMaio (ChemE ’22), a current EXCEL student. “Pitt EXCEL has a really great relationship with our alumni, and this was definitely a different way of getting to hear from them. Overall the series came across as very organic and I can't wait for it to come back!”

Seasoned created a space for alumni to connect with their friends and support one another, as well.

“I kept tuning in because each person featured was someone that I had the chance to get to know during my time at Pitt so I got the chance to hear from them and watch them make a new cuisine at the same time,” said Jahari Mercer (IE ‘20), an EXCEL alum. “Pitt Excel really is one big family, and so I tuned in to be around my family. I had the chance to see others tuning in and chat with them while we were all online.

“For me, it was fun just to laugh and hear from others that you don't get to physically see during this time.”

So far, viewers have heard from several EXCEL alumni: Rene Canady about growing pains while learning to make red velvet waffles; Nse O’Dean created his feast of curried chicken, peas and rice and chow mein while discussing being comfortable with the unknown. Christine Nguyen talked about giving back to the community while sharing her take on bun rieu, a Vietnamese crab noodle soup, and Kiara Lee showcased her colorful salad techniques while chatting about work-life balance.

Current students also shared their wisdom. Morafa chatted about the importance of good communication while preparing Tuscan shrimp pasta with an added kick, and Sydney Anderson, a senior studying chemical engineering, shared her insights on building self-confidence, while creating pork dumplings.

“All the chefs have been great with a plethora of knowledge,” said Morafa. “All around, it’s a fun show to tune into and learn something from peers. It lets us connect with our family over the summer.”

Though the series was set to run only until the end of the summer, the videos remain on Instagram to inspire. 

Find all of the Seasoned videos on Pitt EXCEL’s Instagram (@PittEXCEL).

Author: Maggie Pavlick

Contact: Maggie Pavlick