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Men in the kitchen fill stomachs, coffers for African-American culture center

County Executive Allan Kittleman plans to make pulled pork for a popular food tasting event next weekend, taking a break from the Mexican casserole he used to prepare as a state senator.

Ken Ulman always brought homemade crab dip to the event when he was Howard's executive, and Jim Robey was famous for cooking up sausage and peppers during his administration.

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While politicians' culinary contributions remain popular, they are only a small part of the appeal of Men in the Kitchen, marking its 21st year as the major fundraising event of the Howard County Center of African American Culture.

More than 50 men of all races, ages and ethnicities will don white aprons and chefs' hats to serve their home-cooked specialties from 2:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, April 12, at Long Reach High School.

"The food is the star," said Mae Beale, a board member at the center who likes to line up her plates of food from various chef stations for tasting each year. "Who doesn't like to spend an afternoon eating?"

The event raises money for the nonprofit educational center established in 1987 by Wylene Burch. The organization's founder and executive director died at her Columbia home Sept. 10 after a brief illness.

A longtime community activist, Burch was dedicated to the collection, preservation and interpretation of African-American culture, with a particular emphasis on the lives and contributions of county residents.

"This is our first Men in the Kitchen without Wylene, and we miss her," board Chairwoman Everlene Cunningham said of Burch, a New Orleans native and retired elementary school teacher who was known for her vivacious personality and perseverance.

The event was canceled last year because of Burch's death; it was moved to April this year to accommodate a separate fundraiser being planned for October. The board is running the organization until a new executive director is named.

"Wylene came up with the idea of men doing the cooking — not their wives or anyone else doing it for them," Cunningham said of the event, which draws between 200 and 300 people. "Everything she did, she did with passion."

With dishes representing the cuisines of Africa, Asia, Greece, India and Jamaica, as well as regional American favorites such as Texas-style ribs and New Orleans gumbo, leftovers are never a problem.

"It's like a big family dinner" where everyone comes hungry, Cunningham said. "We clean it all out."

The center, located next to Oakland Manor on Vantage Point Road, houses a museum that contains artifacts and memorabilia such as photographs, artworks, books, music recordings, and a sports and military gallery.

The HCCAAC Research Library and Archive at Howard Community College is open to the public.

"Wylene had the mind of a schoolteacher and the heart of a collector," said museum curator Laurence Hurst, who often went antiquing with Burch, hunting for items to add to the museum's collection. "She had an eye for Maryland objects and knew what would be valuable to the community."

Hurst said Burch began collecting when she was teaching in Prince George's County and kept what she called "a traveling museum" in the trunk of her car until she could establish a place to exhibit the items.

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Burch's daughter, DeLace Burch, said her mother made it a priority to expand her children's knowledge of African-American culture and history.

"She wanted us to learn about the civil rights movement in America, even though we were growing up in Germany and France while our father was in the military," said Burch, a Columbia resident who serves as the center's treasurer.

"She felt it was important for us — and all African-Americans — to know who we are as a people, and important for us as Americans to contribute to our country," both of which Wylene Burch made a priority when the family returned to the U.S., her daughter said.

Men in the Kitchen was Burch's vision of a different way to tap into the love of food while raising much-needed funds, Hurst said.

Longtime board members such as Adolph Motley Jr., who has been preparing his recipes for the event since its inception, bring in repeat guests clamoring for their favorite dishes.

"When people arrive they look for their favorites, and if they can't find them we hear about it," said board member Gloria Barksdale Harver.

At the 20th-anniversary celebration in October 2013, Motley and Hurst and two other men, Tony Cunningham and Dennis Singham, were honored for never missing a year as chefs. They were given gold-colored chef hats to wear in a group photograph to mark the milestone.

While Motley hasn't settled on his contribution for this year, he might bring spaghetti salad, a cold pasta dish made with cucumbers, sweet onions, tomatoes and zesty Italian dressing that has proved popular in the past. He also makes a hearty vegetable soup.

Motley said crowd-pleasing menu items over the years have included crabs with gravy, pig's feet and Jamaican ginger brew.

Hurst will contribute a dish he calls Seafood Bay, which incorporates various types of shellfish from the Chesapeake in a coconut cream sauce served over pasta.

The family reunion atmosphere of the event is a big draw, organizers say.

Kittleman, who is serving as honorary co-chairman this year with Jason Bladen, said he appreciates the event's ability to unify neighbors for an afternoon.

"Men in the Kitchen is one of my favorite events; I really enjoy what the rest of the 'chefs' prepare," he wrote in an email. "But the most important thing is how it brings the community together for a great cause and a great time. I see friends [there] every year, and no one leaves this party hungry."

Hurst said the event's formula never gets old.

"The menu is diverse, and that's what keeps people coming back," he said. "Columbia was built on diversity, and that's what makes what we are doing so special."

If you go

Men in the Kitchen will be held 2:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, April 12, at Long Reach High School, 6101 Old Dobbin Lane, Columbia. The cost is $45; children age 5 and younger are admitted free. To purchase tickets: 410-715-1921. For more information about the Howard County Center of African American Culture: hccaac.org

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