Thursday, 5 February 2015




Now more than ever, museum educators and interpreters are experimenting with new approaches to representing history. In offering engaging alternative entry points, many museums are integrating multisensorial experiences into exhibitions and public programming. Historic cooking and the study of food history has become a popular (and delicious!) method for visitor engagement, because who wouldn’t love learning about cultural history through tasty treats?!

The Mind of a Chef Logo, PBS
The Mind of a Chef Logo, PBS

I recently discovered a wonderful PBS documentary (available on Netflix)  called "The Mind of Chef”, narrated and produced by the infamous Anthony Bourdain. What struck me most about this show are the ways in which it unveils the art of cooking through history, science, and travel. The first half of season two is hosted by award winning Chef Sean Brock, who works as the executive chef at the restaurant Husk, located in Charleston, South Carolina. His narratives are heartening and compelling as he demonstrates his incredible commitment to preserving Southern foodways, reviving traditional cooking and farming methods, and tracing their historic roots (no pun intended)! I know, I know, this documentary does not necessarily constitute as a “museum innovation”, but it certainly explores a topic that is represented through innovative interpretive methods in museums.

Chef Sean Brock (less sunburnt than normal!) and the cover of his new cookbook, Heritage.
Chef Sean Brock (right) and the cover of his new cookbook, Heritage.


Chef Sean grew up on a rural Virginia farm, located in the Appalachia region, where his mother taught him to cook with heirloom ingredients growing in his own backyard. As a chef, his main culinary mission is to dispel the notions that Southern cooking lacks variety, is unhealthy, and is all deep fried. In fact, traditional Southern food is hearty, often vegetable driven, and adventurous in its use of unorthodox ingredients and cooking methods. Some of the most interesting ingredients used in his recipes were kohlrabi, sumac, homemade fermented farro and benne miso, banana miso, dried vinegar beet reduction, and eucalyptus preserved blueberries.

Sean Brock cooks up a Southern classic, Hoppin’ John
Sean Brock cooks up a Southern classic, Hoppin’ John 

While much of the show takes place in kitchens, Chef Sean spent an equal amount of time outside experimenting with traditional farming methods with friends. One of the most interesting yet “primitive” practices he demonstrates was fire threshing green farro (spelt). This ancient burning technique, used on harvested grain that are green and not yet mature, toasts and dries the farro, giving it a wonderful smoky flavour profile. He also reminisces about growing up on a farm, where he would witness the full lifespan of the plants in which he had grown. His experiences as a child enabled him to better appreciate where his food comes from and how important basic farming practices truly are, namely seed saving.

Chicken and Dumplings with Chef Sean Brock and his mum!

I was particularly excited about the episode, “Preserve”, where he shares his Cabinet of Curiosities in his food cellar. Filled with hanging fermented fish, dried vegetables, preserved fruit, homemade miso, and his grandmother’s “ancient” bread mother, his cellar felt more like a museum collection of scientific experiments and specimens, than a pantry.

Greasy beans (left) are strung up like popcorn for the Christmas tree and dried
Greasy beans (left) are strung up like popcorn for the Christmas tree and dried
He also visits Anson Mills, where farmer Glenn Roberts cultivates traditional Carolina Gold rice. Historically the primary crop grown in South Carolina, Farmer Glenn is slowly reviving this almost extinct heirloom grain. Another wonderful segment from this series occurs when Chef Sean learns to cook cornbread cakes—better known as hoecakes—over an open fire on the metal hoe used to tend the farm crops. His friend at Blackberry Farms reflected on how this was a traditional lunchtime practice amongst farmers.

The Bradford Watermelon Story. 
Why people used to poison their watermelon crops!

Now I know I mostly discussed farming practices, but Chef Sean and his friends also make many mouth watering seafood dishes. He traces the drying, salting, and fermentation process back to Senegal in Africa, where his friend takes him to a massive fish market on the sandy ocean shores. There he unveils how West African food heritage is still very much embedded within Southern cooking practices, despite the many years that have passed since the beginning of slavery in America.

From hunting frogs in crocodile infested marshes to mashing fresh ingredients in Senegal, Chef Sean takes his viewers on a sweet, savoury, and sentimental adventure into the heart of Southern cuisine.

1 comment:

  1. I like to see how more and more food becomes a "natural" part of discussions about heritage and culture. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this series, which is on my list of things to netflix (I guess it can be called a word now, right?) over the reading week (as part of my research, of course). The funny part is that historic homes have been doing work around food for a very long time but with very little visibility - so another reason to enjoy this account of the relations between food and heritage!