Eat, Read, Look

exploring the Culinary Arts Museum

by by Caroline Soussloff

Food has become a constant source of public anxiety as we strive to make conscious choices three times a day, to eat locally, healthily, and humanely. There is merit in all of this attention and concern, of course. We have a national obesity problem. Agro-business harms the environment and abuses livestock. But sometimes a girl just wants to eat french fries in peace. The Culinary Arts Museum at the Johnson and Wales College of the Culinary Arts is a refreshing departure from the usual approach towards food, a celebration rather than a condemnation.

The Museum uses history to both inform and entertain. While the majority of visitors to the Museum are tourists, the Museum is also a serious academic resource, cultivating its archives and working closely with students and scholars from Johnson and Wales and beyond. “We’re catering to everybody who eats,” says the Museum’s director, Richard Gutman, adding, “which should be a lot of people.”

The Museum presents food as both a professional craft and a means of survival. The exhibits chronicle the evolutions of both haute cuisine and home cooking. An exhibit on food competitions, “Country Fair to Culinary Olympics,” pays equal homage to the talents of local farmwives and world-class chefs, while “Cultural Beginnings” discusses the diets of Ancient Chinese nobles and peasants alike.

Gutman explains that the Museum also tries to incorporate ways to inspire the students as part of its mission. Thus Johnson and Wales graduates-turned-celebrity chefs, like the Food Network’s Emeril Lagasse (’78), are among the faces found in the Museum’s “Pantheon of Chefs.” The Museum honors the achievements of current students as well. Enshrined in glass cases in “Country Fair to Culinary Olympics” are elaborate weddings cakes designed and baked by Johnson and Wales students for a school competition.

The cakes are the only actual food on display, and, while aesthetically pleasing, they do not look particularly appetizing. (In fact, they have a synthetic interior, so perhaps this is no surprise.) With some exceptions, the Museum’s exhibits focus more on food preparation and the social and business aspects of dining and consumption than on food itself. If you want to feast your eyes on something mouth-watering, you will have to go next door to the College’s kitchens.

Collectors’ items
Inside, the Museum is a single, vast room. The museum map instructs visitors to snake through the space, which is vaguely divided into exhibits by signboards. The result is that it is not entirely clear where one exhibit ends and another begins. Together the exhibits tell a loosely woven story of modernization and commercialization. It offers glimpses of the way things were before technology and agro-business took over, and the stages in between then and now. For example, the gallery of stoves presents the stove’s metamorphosis from Colonial fireplace to its modern incarnation with actual models, lined up side by side.

However, the exhibits do make for a random assortment. Walking through an 1833 New England tavern, one arrives at an exhibit on the diets of Ancient China. The randomness and sense of wandering can be disorienting, but it arises—perhaps necessarily—out of the breadth of the Museum’s focus. No other museum in the country has a comparable range of culinary artifacts, which number over 500,000.

Some of the Museum’s arbitrariness derives from its reliance on individuals’ loaned or donated collections, which tend towards the eclectic and comprise the majority of the Museum’s exhibits. The Museum originated as an archival resource for Johnson and Wales students after industrialist Paul Fritzsche donated his private collection of 7,500 rare cookbooks, some as many as five hundred years old, to the College in 1979. Later, chef Louis Szathmáry of Chicago’s renowned The Bakery restaurant contributed substantially to the Museum with the donation of his own collection. Szathmáry’s contributions include White House documents relating to food. His collection’s hand-written notes and event menus appear in the exhibit “Dinner at the White House.”

The Museum continues to rely on diverse private collections for source material. The temporary exhibit “Dripping with Color: the Art of the Fruit Crate Label,” features 238 clever and colorful fruit labels, on loan from a private collector. The labels date from the commercial fruit boom in California’s Santa Clara County in the latter half of the 19th century and early 20th century, and contain images such as the beaming blonde pin-up girl on the Golden Girl Grapes label, or the Waldorf Apples bellboy bearing an idealized apple on a platter. In the near future, the Museum will feature individuals’ collections of chocolate and ice cream molds, as well as toy stoves.

Order up!
Gutman himself is a collector whose passion is the American diner. Some of his diner-related paraphernalia appear in the exhibit “Diners: Still Cookin’ in the 21st Century.” He has written four books on the subject, and has worked on many diner restoration projects. One of his restoration projects is the Ever Ready Diner, which last operated in Providence in 1989 and now sits in the Museum.

To Gutman, the diner is quintessentially American. “I think the diner is an iconographic presence,” he says, “You think of a certain type of food when you think of a diner: home-style food, and American food, but also spaghetti and meatballs, Greek salad. America is a melting pot of different peoples and cultures and food traditions that all come together around the table.”

The exhibit chronicles the evolution of the diner. The story of the diner begins in Providence. In 1872, a Rhode Islander began selling meals and coffee out of a horse-drawn wagon to night-workers after other restaurants in town had closed their doors for the night. The concept was eventually exported to Worcester, MA, where the Worcester Lunch Company began building restaurant trailers that could be moved from location to location, catering to levels of demand and avoiding building codes. As diners grew in popularity, diner manufacturers shipped their products across the country via barges, trucks, and trains. Gutman calls the history of the diner “a story of technology in that it’s a building that is built in a factory and rolled out to its site with everything already in it other than the food.”

Diners have evolved over time, from wagon carts to the sleek steel models of the 1950’s to the Mediterranean-influenced designs that became popular as Greek immigrants entered the business. However, their menus and their presence in American communities have remained a constant. “Each place has its own personality,” Gutman says, “They’re part of the fabric of our communities…everybody goes there and everybody feels comfortable there.” Gutman is interested not only in the story of the diner as an institution, but also in the stories each diner has to tell.

“As I tried to gather all of these stories of these anonymous people who have put in these long hours cooking up meals and serving people I found that sometimes their pictures don’t even exist,” he explains. On his desk sits a photo album given to him by a former waitress. It is filled with black-and-white 1950’s photographs of families, couples, and groups of friends crammed into booths, and workers perched on stools at the counter. Gutman calls it “an incredible document of everyone in a community.”

“The way you eat your meat reflects the way you live.” –Confucius
The Museum relies on unexpected artifacts to piece together culinary history. “Cultural Beginnings” pieces together the diets and culinary customs of Ancient China from art, poetry, and archaeology. For example, the exhibit displays utensils and ceramics from as far back as 3,500 BCE. A reproduction of an ancient etching depicts the step-by-step process of wine making. A poem from the third century BCE, waxing romantic about a feast, reads, “O Soul, come back! Indulge your appetite!”

The Museum intends to expand the “Cultural Beginnings” exhibit soon. “One of the things that I saw last week [in Italy] were some petrified foods found in some tombs in Egypt,” says Gutman, pulling up images on his computer of a 3,000 year-old loaf of bread and a crusty gray pile of dates that had been placed in a tomb to provide sustenance for the deceased into the afterlife. The artifacts themselves reside at the Museo Egizio in Torino, but the Culinary Arts Museum will incorporate images such as these into “Cultural Beginnings.”

“Ancient stuff could not be more relevant,” Gutman insists. He shuffles through his desk and proffers a pamphlet for Dogfish Head Craft Brewery. “Using spectral micrography, scientists looked at what was in the vessels left over from funerary banquets, analyzing isotopes and lipids and all of these things, and recreated this beer that was in King Midas’ tombs,” he explains, “This is something I like to use as an example. Yes, we have a lot of historical stuff here [at the Museum] but this place is hardly a nostalgia trip.”

On the other hand, the most entertaining aspects of the Museum tend to be the most nostalgia inducing, revealing the humble and sometimes humorous beginnings of familiar items in our lives’ today. The exhibit on country fairs highlights the World’s Columbian Exposition, where health fanatic Henry D. Perky debuted a machine that produced the “little whole wheat mattresses” that were the sole component of his diet, known to us today as Shredded Wheat. Elsewhere at the Expo, a cake mix business hired a former slave to give cooking demonstrations with their product. Her likeness became the original advertising image of the Aunt Jemima brand.

These examples point to the place packaged foods—and the industrial food complex that produces them—hold in Americans’ shared food culture. Like the hamburgers and French fries found at local diners across the country, they are comfortingly familiar and distinctly American.

Eating unhealthy foods is what Americans do. Our conflicted relationship with food did not emerge out of nowhere in the 21st century, rather, as the Culinary Arts Museum suggests, it is a matter of heritage and a part of our history.

The Culinary Arts Museum is located at 315 Harborside Avenue and is accessible by the 3 bus line from Kennedy Plaza. The hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 10 AM through 5 AM. Regular admission is $7; $4 admission with a student ID.