Sunday, November 11, 2012

How About Some Delicious History? Our Annotated Dinner

I've been thinking about food and museums quite a bit lately.  An article on what museums can learn from the Pickle Project is forthcoming in Museums and Social Issues and I've just been accepted as a participant in the National Council on Public History's Working Group Public History and the Local Food Movement at the 2013 conference in Ottawa, where Cathy Stanton of Tufts University and Michelle Moon of the Peabody Essex Museum have put together a great group to explore ways in which those of us who work in public history can forge stronger connections and deepen conversations with local food producers and those who promote local and regional food.

But this past week I had a tremendous opportunity to see food history, the local food movement, and interpretation all wrapped up into one delicious package at an annotated dinner with the Context Travel staff in London.  Art historian and food scholar Janine Catalano worked with St. John,  one of the premier restaurants in London and a pioneer in reintroducing regional British cooking,  to produce a dinner that helped us understand the history of food in London, in a physical sense (St. John is right by Smithfield Market, a livestock or meat market for 800 years), an intellectual sense, a historical sense and a sense of what's new.
"But what is an annotated dinner?"  you may be thinking.  Exactly what it sounds like.  With each course (and there were many)  Janine (above)  artfully guided us through history, using historic images passed around,  brief readings from primary sources, while also helping us learn about the current state of the local food movement in Britain.
What did we eat? All delicious...

  • Radishes and carrots
  • Oysters and crabs--wrote Samuel Pepys in 1661, "I entertained them with talk and oysters until one o'clock and then we sat down to dinner." 
  • Roast bone marrow and parsley salad
  • Pigs head and potato pie--definitely the thing on the menu that sounds the strangest--but absolutely delicious! 
  • Roast beef accompanied both by a reproduction of William Hogarth's 1748 painting The Gate of Calais or O, the Roast Beef of Old England and horseradish.
  • Brussels sprouts greens and potatos 
  • Eccles Cakes and Lancashire Cheese
  • Poached Quince and Brioche
It struck me that this kind of interpretive effort, in a restaurant, is something that many of us who work in museums could undertake.  I think sometimes we're too often stuck in our own places,  worried about our own lack of kitchens, or what will happen in our historic house.  We were in the simplest of rooms,  with white butcher paper on the table,  so no worries about precious artifacts,  but the history--and current issues--came alive. 

In my conversations with Context docents we've been talking about using all of our senses, not just sight,  to convey the meaning and texture of a physical place.  The salty briny taste of oysters;  the slightly unctuous feel of the pig head and potato pie,  and the crispy sound of a radish bite, all made the heritage of British food come alive.

And what could be better than learning new things while gathered around a table with a group of friends?

4 comments: said...
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Gobae said...

Fantastic! I would LOVE to attend an "Annotated Dinner". Food has a power unlike any other. Museum Audience Insight's polls have indicated that cooking is the #1 event at history museums and our own experiences have borne that out too.

I am curious, how much did the dinner cost? Also, were the dishes modern versions of historical foods or were historic cooking techniques and ingredient types used?

j. said...

That sounds absolutely fabulous! Two of my main passions combined. I wish there was a similar dinner in Berlin...

Linda said...

Gobae--my apologies for the delay in responding. I actually don't know how mucht he dinner cost, but do know that the dishes were modern versions of historic foods--but what was interesting was that so many of the foods were really about the purity of the ingredient (the radishes, the oyster, the beef).

J. --I think dinners like these would be fascinating anywhere! I'll be in Berlin in the spring--perhaps we should seek one out.