Chicken Soup for the History Soul: Talking Food at AASLH

Almost all professional conferences are pretty good. But some of them are great. Every so often, the inexplicable chemistry of site, partners, program, and people produces an especially juicy experience. For me, last week's American Association of State and Local History meeting in Detroit was one of those. It was truly a restorative, like a hearty chicken soup for the weary museum soul.

My meeting kicked off in the very first session slot with a collaborative presentation: "Don't Get Chopped! Cutting Through the Obstacles to Great Food Interpretation." My three colleagues and I decided to bring a fun and pragmatic spirit to this how-to discussion about introducing or expanding food interpretation. We started with a challenge in the style of the Food Network competitive cooking show Chopped, bringing up three "champion" interpreters to give a taste of their strategies for avoiding the "chopping block" of unsuccessful programming. Each drew a "secret ingredient" from the basket, symbolizing an interpretive challenge. 

Rachel Thomas-Shapiro, interpretation supervisor at Mystic Seaport, started off. Her secret ingredient - a piece piece of way-more-than-day-old bread - stood for the challenge of refreshing stale interpretation (see what we did there?). Rachel described how food stories can unite disparate exhibits, and her fresh ideas for  'pop-up' approaches, like using social media on  to invite people into preservation projects on the spur of the moment, as soon as fruits are ripe. Rachel also noted the power of retitling and rebranding classic cooking programs to lend a contemporary flair, and how to structure daily cooking around clear goals and criteria, such as requiring interpreters to demonstrate at least two different cooking technologies. 

Next up was Cathy Stanton, public historian, anthropologist and co-author (with yours truly) of the forthcoming History and the Food Movement: The Missing Ingredient (Routledge 2017). Cathy's challenge was "plain vanilla" interpretation - the same-old, same-old methods we tend to keep trotting out, 30 or 40 years in. How to spice things up? Among her creative ideas were "change of venue," taking a cue from food trucks and pop-up restaurants to move museum content into alternative spaces, and taking a "small plates" approach of putting out simple, quick, inviting interactives that open up spaces for broader conversation. 

Finally, Tanya Brock drew the beef jerky - one tough snack, representing the tough food safety regulations most communities have in place. Tanya encouraged museums to reach out to local health organizations, partnering to develop food presentations they can approve. Somewhat surprisingly, Tanya has found that many health departments are willing to create flexible plans such as allowing historic cooking in special events that happen a few times a year, or supplementing historic equipment with as-close-as-possible hygiene practices, like substituting rental sinks and sanitizers for the three-bay sink commercial kitchens have. Tanya told the group about ServSafe certification, available through the National Restaurant Association in class or online. This quick, affordable training class for food handlers can boost health departments' confidence in (and respect for) the professionalism of museum food interpreters, showing that you take safety seriously. 

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Food topics continued to dominate my AASLH experience. In sessions, tours, and casual conversations, I learned about more food programs and ideas worthy of note:

  • Genesee Country Village and Museum has really gone whole hog, extensively integrating food interpretation across its program. Several houses feature cooking daily, and period-style 'street vendors' offer dill pickles, German pretzels, and baked potatoes. There's a working confectionery exhibit, and visitors can join in regular tavern dinners and teas. Nicely produced audio mp3s include "Alcohol vs. Water" as an early American beverage, and "The Wheat in Wheatland."
  • Andrea Jones described the creative breaking of boundaries during a Girl Scout program on food waste, "Waste Not Want Not," at the Accokeek Foundation. One event featured colonial apple-butter making, while in another setting, an actor dressed as a trash can was chasing bruised vegetables to make the point that even imperfect-looking food can still be good. The trash can suddenly "went rogue" and showed up in the apple butter demo, spurring the colonial actor to feign puzzlement about why anyone would waste good food, while the kids did their best to explain why we think it's okay to throw food out.
  • David Donath from the Billings Farm & Museum proudly descried the museum's new partnership with Vermont's Grafton Village Cheese Company to make two artisanal cheeses from raw milk produced by Billings' prizewinning Jersey cows. Their Sweet Cheddar and Butter Cheddar is now available at select local stores and at the museum, allowing guests to take home an edible souvenir connected directly to the farm's history and local dairying traditions. 
  • Dearborn's Arab-American National Museum is serious about food. On an afternoon visit there I picked up a brochure and map for "Yalla Eat!" culinary walking tours of the museum's neighborhood, featuring tastings of coffee, pastries, nuts and more. The museum's exhibits on Arab-American food culture were charming, warm, well-thought-out and really inviting. I stared into that fridge for a long time, wanting to help myself.

All this and some great meals - including the bright and creative flavors of Republic Tavern's small plates and the Southern-inspired cuisine at the cool Savannah Blue (where the risotto is "cheddar-engaged") - made the Motor City meeting an especially satisfying smorgasbord. Thanks to AASLH and all the participants for a really rich and rewarding event.

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