Words by Michaela Mazure, Photos by Michaela Mazure and Jay Patruno
Whether it’s teaching Occupational Therapy classes, leading international service delegations for People For People, or co-hosting her local television show, Sargent College Clinical Professor Dr. Karen Jacobs never fails to keep herself busy. Yet despite her jam-packed schedule, she always makes sure to leave her Wednesday nights open to run the Sargent Choice Test Kitchen.
An occupational therapist by trade, Dr. Jacobs didn’t actually begin her career in the health industry. After completing her undergrad in psychology at Washington University, she became a school teacher and worked in the leather business. It wasn’t until the mid-70s that she was introduced to occupational therapy, by a fellow vendor at an art show. “It pulled everything together,” she claimed, after hearing the description of what the career was from the potter next to her. It was something that would combine her creativity with her love for crafts and people. She immediately began pursuing a master’s degree in occupational therapy at Boston University. She went on to further her education at UMass Lowell for her EdD; her dedication to enhancing her studies has earned her numerous accolades and awards, as well as allowed her to publish multiple books and journal articles.
Cooking, however, was something that ran in her blood, and never required formal education. She was exposed to a wide variety of culinary trends: her parents experimented with vegetarian and vegan diets, and her grandmother has been her culinary inspiration since she was a child. “My grandma taught me how to cook,” said Jacobs, going on to point out framed family recipes in her apartment, as well as a rolling pin and grater that were passed on to her from her grandmother. Jacobs’ cooking has also been highly influenced by the places she has been fortunate enough to visit. Her global profession has granted her the ability to visit China, Israel, Russia, India, among many other places. She has collected cookbooks from various countries she has explored, and claims that Asian/Japanese fusion has become her favorite.
Jacobs began cooking with students when she became the faculty-in-residence at Warren Towers. Though she has been a member of the BU faculty since 1983, it wasn’t until her last child “left the nest” to attend the university did Jacobs decide to live in the dorm (something her daughter was not too pleased with to say the least!). In Warren Towers, students would go to her apartment to cook without any regards for nutrition, and the SCTK actually didn’t come to life until she moved to Stuvi 2.
With her target audience now being upperclassmen, she felt as though the students should learn to create healthy meals for themselves. “I wanted to do things that would help them transition to graduates of BU,” said Jacobs. With the help of Jenn Culvert and other Sargent College faculty members, Jacobs was able to bring the test kitchen to life. Each week, Culvert sends Jacobs new Sargent approved recipes, and Jacobs, with the help of her guests, creates and tries these recipes to determine if they should be featured on the Boston University menu. Some of the Sargent Choice guidelines include using whole-grains, emphasizing plant-based cooking with lean meats, using heart-healthy oils as fat substitutes, and flavoring dishes with herbs and spices to minimize salt use. Guests range anywhere from undergraduates to faculty to even alumni who come back not just for the food, but for the great company Jacobs never fails to provide.
Jay Patruno, a junior nutrition major in Sargent College, works as Jacobs’ assistant for the test kitchen every Wednesday night. When asked how to describe Dr. Jacobs, he smiled, and after thinking for a few moments, went on to explain, “Mom’s not the right word because you fight with your mom. She’s that cool godmother you always want around.”Although for him, the test kitchen began as a job, it resulted in a friendship that he expressed his utmost gratitude for. “People fall in love with the atmosphere and want to keep coming back…The test kitchen is successful because of Karen, because of who she is,” said Patruno, who went on to advise students to come check out the SCTK, if not for the free food, to meet Dr. Jacobs and get to know her.
Jacobs realizes how fortunate students at BU are to have such incredible food, and is amazed at how well the dining halls cater to certain allergies, diets, and restrictions. She believes that eating healthy can be fun, and more importantly it allows us to remember our culture and family. She hopes everyone gets the chance to check out the test kitchen at least once, and learn simple ways to eat healthy and prepare clean meals.