No matter one’s place in this world, all people share a common culinary language. A dish can be worth a thousand words. Everyone eats and each person brings a unique flair to the craft of cuisine. Like oral tales, legends, and anecdotes, recipes are passed down and collected over time. Since the dawn of man, food has offered a foundation on which to build civilization. From the first fire pits to the finest French kitchens, a community that eats together, stays together. Everyone gathers for the meal. Everyone stays for the company.
The Food and Community exhibit on third floor of O’Neill Library displays a melange of photos, books, and other food-related materials to attest to the connection between cooking and coming together. Many books in the exhibit turn open to photos of families eating dinner, facing each other as they fill their plates and spirits with each others’ company. Others depict the moments after dinner, the table is converted into a place of digestion and digression as children do homework and others play music.
On the wall of the display, photos pulled from Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio’s collection What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets illustrate differences and commonalities from gastronomy from about the globe. Ancient high-relief sculptures depict feasts and classical-era frescos that document plentiful bounties. The understanding that food brings people and communities together makes itself manifest in their history, literally etched into stone forever.
Modern photos show traditional bread making in Africa, butchers curing fresh slabs of meat, and markets selling grains and vegetables. Steeped within food is a history, a craft and a commerce, that acts as the bedrock of human interactions in these unique scenarios. These photos help illustrate how food fosters human interaction on both personal and professional levels.
Various films and documentaries are also displayed to illustrate the intrigue food beckons artistically. This speaks to the separation of food from its relation to subsistence and speaks to how food availability has facilitated its conversion into an art. Whether through food-comedy Big Night, sushi documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, or City of Gold on food critic Jonathan Gold, the inclusion of these films speak to foods importance beyond the kitchen as it stems into other facets of life. Chefs are able to bring a level of attention and craft into their creation on a level primordial man would likely have never thought.
But the exhibit also pays close attention to the effect of globalization and the worldwide availability of food. As the world becomes smaller and more accessible, foods from about the world will be more universally available for anyone who wants to diversify its palet. The exhibit shows how local communities continue, by their own accord, to uphold their unique relationship to food. Several New England-area cookbooks and descriptions illustrates this aptly.
Some of excerpts describe how many local towns continue to let their local markets dictate their consumption, like maple syrup, beans, and seafood. Additionally, local restaurants and publications, like The Boston Globe’s recipe section, continue to hold fast to local staples. Food is one way to ensure a local history is not lost in the larger global cultural market. Appropriately, one of the larger headlines of the exhibit read “The Dinner Table as Heritage.”
But these notions of abundance are contrasted by the reality that some people do not enjoy the availability of food the West enjoys. The exhibit contains descriptions next to many of the other works that highlight on the importance of charity with regards to food. Giving food helps brings security. Not only does it bring the malnourished subsistence, but it allows for energies to be channeled into other areas of production, without fear of food insecurity.
When looking at food through this historical lens, the phrase “we are what we eat” adopts another compelling meaning. When we reach for our pots and pans were are often also reaching into our past.
Food is a sensory experience that founds a crucial part of our interaction with the world. As infants, before words come out of our mouths and before we even dare to open our eyes, we can taste. Speaking in those sensoy terms, we begin our foray into a language being spoken on our tongues rather than off of them. Before tackling our next meal with fork and knife in hand, the Food and Community exhibit asks that individuals mull over the story behind each legume, steak, or pastry.
For many throughout history, the most crucial part of any meal remains the same. Who we pass the plate to is often more important that what is contained on it.
Featured Image by Taylor Perison / Heights Staff