16 March 2018

WHO'S IN THE KITCHEN? EXPLORING CANADA'S CULINARY CULTURE AT THE THOMAS FISHER RARE BOOK LIBRARY

A MUSE BOUCHE

BY: JENNIFER LEE

It's exhibition opening season, gentle readers! My colleagues Cassandra Curtis and Sadie MacDonald graciously answered my questions about their project, an upcoming exhibition at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library and a banquet of associated programming (both public and digital). Join us to talk about complementary interpretive vehicles, making exclusion visible, and a really, really cool cookbook. 

JL: Hello! Can you describe the project and your specific roles in it?

SM: Our exhibition is entitled Mixed Messages: Making and Shaping Culinary Culture in Canada. We explore Canadian culinary texts, objects, and ephemera with a focus on the individuals and communities who participated in and influenced - or were excluded from - that wider culinary culture.

Image used with permission of Rogers Media Inc., All Rights Reserved.
Cassandra and I are responsible for curating an interactive exhibition in the MacLean Hunter room, the lower gallery/classroom space of the Thomas Fisher. We are also preparing a public program connected to the exhibition at Fort York for Doors Open Toronto 2018.
Officially, Cassandra is in charge of all digital content (such as our exhibition blog, which Cassandra built on Omeka and coordinated content for) and I am coordinating physical content (I researched the culinary print material in the Fisher), but we basically have been working on everything together and jumping in to support each other when needed. As curators we have been working under the direction of Irina Mihalache, Nathalie Cook, and Elizabeth Ridolfo, who are curating the upper gallery space.

Our external partners are the programming team at Fort York. We have been working closely with Bridget Wranich and Jocelyn Kent to develop programming for Doors Open Toronto. 

JL: This is a multifaceted project, using digital content and public programming alongside more traditional exhibition models. How have you found the process of working with so many different interpretive vehicles? How does each enhance the exhibition as a whole?

SM: It has been a bit of a learning curve working with these multiple project components (before this project, neither of us had extensive experience with programming, for example), but Cassandra and I have both been really enjoying the process so far.

Each component - digital, programming, and traditional - has unique qualities that add to the exhibition. For example, this an exhibition that is all about food and cooking, but obviously we can’t have any of that take place in a rare book library space! This is why the Doors Open public program is so valuable; it gives us an opportunity to actively participate in the culinary culture explored in this exhibition, and invite others to do so as well. We will be serving food based on recipes in the exhibition at this event.

A bottle of Crosse and Blackwell curry powder, estimated to be from the Edwardian period. On loan to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library from the Collection of Mary Williamson. Photo courtesy of Sadie MacDonald.

The digital content provides an additional way to share the themes and stories of this exhibition with our audiences. There will be an iPad in the gallery that visitors can use to explore culinary texts - not all of which will be explored in detail in the physical gallery displays. The exhibition blog also adds a personal, “behind the scenes” touch to our exhibition, as it is a way for those involved in curating the exhibition to share their experiences bringing the project together.

The digital, programming, and traditional aspects all play into each other and reference each other, but each adds something special to the exhibition using the unique qualities provided by that medium.

CC: It really has been very valuable how multifaceted this project has been for us. I never would have chosen solely a public programming project but I've found it surprisingly fun and engaging to put together!

JL: You mentioned that the exhibition discusses individuals and communities who were excluded from culinary culture, not just those who were visible. It can be difficult to tell these stories when marginalization and erasure affect the material available to us. Has this been an issue for you?


CC: Interesting question! Like a lot of collections, what's absent is what stands out sometimes when it comes to marginalized communities. We've been trying to find a constructive way to talk about the fact that so many of these recipes reference ingredients from these communities without giving them any credit. Then there are some opposite examples too, where a surprising amount of credit is given.

SM: Yes, there is more material out there than one might anticipate. Dr Mihalache and Liz Ridolfo will be discussing Indigenous community cookbooks in the upstairs gallery, for example. And there is one fascinating cookbook, a “crowd-sourced” recipe collection of “Canadian Favourites” organized by the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (a forerunner party to the NDP) in the 1940s. This book includes a wide variety of recipes from many cultures present in Canada, including Indigenous and immigrant cultures, and more importantly, credits those cultures and the individual who provided each recipe.

However, this is something of an exception. A lot of the cookbooks we look at fail to credit the original cultures, or superficially or erroneously make reference to the recipe’s cultural context (for example, the trend of cookbooks referring to recipes with pineapple in them as “Hawaiian”).

So that in itself provides a way to open this conversation about marginalization - by talking about the gaps and oversights themselves and looking at what they tell us.

Canadian Favourites: CCF Cookbook. Ottawa: CCF National Council, 1947. Collection of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.
JL: Is there an object or story that you've found particularly meaningful or delightful?

CC: For myself I've most enjoyed thinking about these cookbooks in the context of the real women who used them and how much they were asked to do. One of the angles we're looking at this from is the resourcefulness that was demanded of women in terms of domestic work, from angles such as rationing and technology. The feminist in me has been really enjoying doing research about women and domesticity! 

SM: I already mentioned the CCF cookbook, and I think that’s my favourite object because of how surprising it is in the context of this exhibition. While many cookbooks from our period of study (1860-1960) appropriate recipes and fail to credit their cultures of origin, that isn’t the case with this cookbook. There are a few Indigenous recipes provided by the Fisher River Reserve in Manitoba, for example - and they are given credit for it. Recipes from immigrant communities are also credited, and the names of the dish in their original languages are often given as well. It’s a very multicultural cookbook - you can find Chinese and Russian recipes on the same page! Reading this cookbook, which was produced in a political context, one gets the sense that it is attempting to speak to the multicultural make-up of 20th-century Canada.

JL: I'm so excited to see this woke proto-NDP cookbook, I can't even tell you.


Mixed Messages: Making and Shaping Culinary Culture in Canada will open on May 21st at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library and run until August 31st. The Doors Open event will take place on May 26th and 27th at Fort York. You can find more information about the exhibition here and read blog posts from Sadie, Cassandra, and other project team members at the exhibition blog.

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