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Bidding Adieu to Taste of the U

Published on Monday, February 9, 2015

By: Bruce Coleman

Published in News Stories on February 09, 2015

After two name revisions, four venue changes, dozens of award presentations and well more than $700,000 raised, the Taste of the U will celebrate its silver anniversary – and final event – Feb. 21 at the Jackson Medical Mall Thad Cochran Center.

What has made the annual culinary extravaganza to benefit the UMMC Alliance’s Patient Needs Fund so enduring has little to do with the vibrant costumes, fancy displays, diverse cuisine and the passing of the handsome pig trophy that have become hallmarks of the gastronomic shindig. According to Al Faulk, the first male to chair the Alliance’s Taste Committee, the party is and always has been about the people.

“As a new employee (in 2009), I saw Taste as a great way to meet people,” said Faulk, director of IT solution strategies in the Division of Information Systems. “Then I joined the Alliance, and now there’s a whole other group of people I get to be involved with to help put on this event.

Department of Physical Facilities, the 2004 Taste Champion
Department of Physical Facilities, the 2004 Taste Champion

“Taste has allowed us to get to know others within our department, to develop as a team. The people are what make Taste special – those who participate and those who benefit from the event.”

At its zenith, Taste of the U boasted 32 different chef teams in 2008 and raised more than $75,000 in 2010. In recent years, those numbers have tailed off: this time around, event organizers are struggling to find 10 chef teams to register.

“You can be a victim of your own success,” Faulk said. “To live up to what some of the larger departments have done in the past can be quite daunting, especially if it’s your first time to have a team.

“We’re trying to get as much participation at various levels as we can, and to return to what made Taste so special to begin with – simply serving the food that you love to make to the people you work with.”

That was the original concept launched by Annie Lee Nelson – wife of vice chancellor emeritus for health affairs Dr. Norman C. Nelson – in 1989 when she asked Medical Center faculty from different countries to prepare dishes for a fund-raising event she named “A Scandalous Affair.” It was hosted by the Medical Center Women’s Auxiliary, the group that would become the UMMC Alliance, and it signaled a sea change in the organization’s philanthropic activities.

“At that time, the Auxiliary’s big annual project was making a quilt that they would raffle off,” said Celeste Eason, executive assistant in the Office of the Vice Chancellor and longtime Alliance member. “Mrs. Nelson is a great cook, and she decided to do something with food.”

Eason estimates less than 100 may have attended that first event, which took place at the Northpointe Barn in Jackson. But as word spread among UMMC faculty and staff about the marvelous time participants had, the Auxiliary asked Dr. Nelson if the group could host the event again the following year.

“Dr. Nelson said yes . . . but that we must name it something else,” Eason said.

Dr. James L. Hughes, left, Dr. Wallace Conerly and Virginia Hughes
Dr. James L. Hughes, left, Dr. Wallace Conerly and Virginia Hughes

Thus the newly christened Taste of UMC became an annual fund-raising event. It first took place in the UMMC Pavilion, which had its limitations: too much revelry might have been considered inappropriate in an area dedicated to patient care. More importantly, adult beverages were not allowed on the Medical Center campus.

The search was on for an off-campus venue for the event, and in 1999, the Taste of UMC moved to the small wooden building known as the Music Hall on the campus of the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum on Lakeland Drive. Taste participation already had swelled more than what that building could accommodate, so the next year, it moved to the Ag Museum’s Sparkman Auditorium.

Proceeds from the event were growing steadily, and the Alliance Executive Board decided that naming a Taste honoree, combined with the venue change, would provide a fund-raising boost. Naturally, the Nelsons were the first honorees; the list of those who followed read like a “Who’s Who” at the Medical Center. In all, two University of Mississippi chancellors, two UMMC vice chancellors, several department chairs and other friends of UMMC have been honored.

The booth that launched the Taste’s competitive spirit: Orthopedics’ Mediterranean flavor.
The booth that launched the Taste’s competitive spirit: Orthopedics’ Mediterranean flavor.

It was also during this time that Taste took on a competitive flair. Dr. Thom Tarquinio’s orthopedic team served up a Mediterranean fish dish – and spiced it up with a little seaside flavor.

“They all came in wearing fishing shirts, they put netting on the wall, and they had some kind of big plastic fish sign that said ‘Go fishing.’” Eason recalled. “A couple of people said to me, ‘I didn’t know we could decorate.’ I said, ‘I didn’t, either.’

“That started everybody thinking ‘I’m going to out-do you.’ The next year, the School of Nursing had something fabulous, followed by Dr. Raymond McGee’s ob-gyn team, who offered whisky shots with their dish.”

Taste participants began to supplement their dishes with such creative presentations that the Alliance board members had to find a way to reward them. Along with a slate of awards that recognized the most creative table decorations and delicious food, Ginger Roby Daniels, associate director of alumni affairs, suggested a big pig trophy should be given to the overall winner. A contest to name the porcine prize took place, and “Dr. Fine Swine” was born.

By 2004, the Taste of UMC had grown so large even the Ag Museum’s facilities could no longer contain it.

“The last time we had it at the Sparkman Auditorium, we were packed in like sardines,” Eason said. “Dr. Bob McGuire (professor of orthopedic surgery) told me he loved the event, but that he would not come back until we moved it. And he wasn’t alone.”

The search was on for a new host facility, but none of the obvious suitors were a good fit.

“We looked at the Trademart and the new conference center downtown, but we would have had to use their catering services, and that defeated the purpose,” said Barbara Kellett, director of internal audit who co-chaired the Alliance’s Taste committee at that time. “At that point, we said, ‘Why not the Jackson Medical Mall?’”

Thanks to the efforts of Primus Wheeler and the Jackson Medical Mall Foundation, details of hosting the Taste event were hammered out quickly.

Barbara Kellett, left, Pat Fordice, Theresa Bridges, center, and Juanita Phillips
Barbara Kellett, left, Pat Fordice, Theresa Bridges, center, and Juanita Phillips

“Barbara and Donna Windsor (then-Taste co-chair) said ‘We have a vision.’ So I said, ‘OK, let’s give it a shot.’” Eason said. “It turned into a perfect venue, and it still is. And it didn’t cost us anything.”

Interestingly enough, despite the sometimes-outlandish costumes and creative booths that have become the event’s trademark, Taste has never had a specific theme.

“We wanted to give our participants as much artistic freedom as possible,” Kellett said, “so we let them come up with their own themes.”

When the Medical Center was rebranded with the initials UMMC in 2009, the event made one last name revision. But the focus of Taste of the U remained on the Medical Center.  

“The Alliance Executive Board has always taken pride in the fact that all of the proceeds have stayed on the UMMC campus,” Eason said. But after more than two decades of culinary creativity, she said the writing was on the wall: lagging participation would soon be the death knell of what had been one of the most successful fund-raising events in the Medical Center’s history.

“Although everyone had a ball last year, the crowd was light, and the Alliance Executive Board had said this is it, this is the last year,” Eason said. “One of our UMMC retirees said, ‘How could you end it on the 24th year?’ With that thought in mind, we had never had a male chair the Taste committee, so we thought it would be appropriate to have Al lead us in the final silver anniversary.”

As chair, Faulk is championing a return to the event’s roots. There will be no honoree this year, and if there aren’t many wild costumes or labor-intensive displays, that’s OK, too. Faulk is just asking participants to enjoy sharing their favorite food, a concept that has resonated with individuals throughout the Taste’s history.

“One thing I’ll always remember, in 2005, there was a little table in the corner, and Sam Smith (UMMC comptroller) was serving fried rice,” Kellett said. “It wasn’t fancy, and while I looked around at all the elaborate displays, I almost missed him.

Back to the basics: Sam Smith simply serves fried rice.
Back to the basics: Sam Smith simply serves fried rice.

“But everybody I talked to said, ‘Have you tried the fried rice over at that table?’ Sam ran out – he may have been the first one to run out of food that night – and to me, that’s what it should be about. Sam had a simple table, but he had great fried rice.”

Last year, Eason asked Dr. Elham Ghonim, director of infection prevention, to make something for Taste of the U.

“She prepared baklava – that’s all she served – and it won Best Taste,” Eason said. “The whole point (of Taste) is to help others and to have some fun. When you can directly affect a person’s well-being physically, emotionally and mentally, that’s what keeps the Alliance going.

Chefs and Volunteers Needed

Chef teams and volunteers are still needed for the 25th annual Taste of the U. Chefs and chef teams should call Melanie Lauderdale at 5-8319; volunteers should call Kathy Webster at 4-6377. To purchase tickets, make a donation or become a sponsor, visit the Taste of the U section of the UMMC Alliance webpage at www.umc.edu/alliance.


The chapel that food and adult beverages built

Carl and Dr. Ruth Black with Barbara Kellett
Carl and Dr. Ruth Black with Barbara Kellett

In 1999, Dr. Ruth Black, former director of the Department of Pastoral Services, was seeking funds to build a chapel at UMMC.

She turned to the Alliance Executive Board and asked if it would be willing to use some of the proceeds from the Taste of UMC to help build and maintain the new spiritual center.

“That was the year we decided we needed to move the event off campus so we could serve wine, beer and liquor,” Celeste Eason said. Taste garnered more than $13,000 for the chapel that year, and 15 years later, has raised more than $180,000 for chapel services.

“I’ve always refereed to it as the chapel that food and adult beverages built,” Eason said with a laugh.


Taste honorees through the years

1999Dr. Norman C. and Annie Lee Nelson

2000Dr. Winfred L. and Alabel Wiser

2001Hilda and Pete Conerly

2002Chancellor Robert and Margaret Khayat

2003Dr. Wallace and Frances Conerly

2004Dr. James and Virginia Hughes

2005Barbara Austin

2006Dr. Ruth and Carl Black

2007Dr. John Bower and Edna Curry

2008Suzan Thames

2009Con and Betty Maloney

2010Dr. Dan and Lydia Jones

2011Dr. Bev and Lynn Evans

2012Dr. Helen Turner

2013Dr. Suzanne and Dr. Richard Miller


A look back at Taste of the U (Photo Gallery)

Click here to view a photo gallery of Taste of the U through the years.


Purchase your Taste tickets!

To purchase advance-sale tickets, make a donation or become a sponsor, visit the Taste of the U section of the UMMC Alliance webpage at www.umc.edu/alliance.