Everyone, à table! to the Anchorage Museum’s opening of its exhibit, What Why How We Eat, on Friday February 22, 2019 in the evening. What Why How We Eat is a comprehensive exploration of food in Alaska, its wonderful diversity, unique ingredients, challenges, and ingenuity. The exhibit promises to be fun, approachable, and have something for just about everyone. The opening night will include demos, pop-up presentations and cool interactive displays.
What Why How We Eat will run through January 12, 2020, thus giving everyone time and opportunities to interact with it at their own pace and in numerous of ways through evolving programming that is built around the exhibit. What Why How We Eat is not a traditional art exhibit, it’s an environment in which everyone is welcomed and can interact with different aspects of food and a myriad voices and perspectives that are included. According to curator Francesca Du Brock, “The exhibit has already drawn in collaborators and partners outside a more traditional exhibit, and the timing of it gives people time to encounter and experience the exhibit in their own terms, get interested and involved.” Some of these partners include curatorial advisors, Julia O’Malley and Dr. Liz Hodges Snyder, and community partners such as: Alaska SEEDS of Change, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services, Calypso Farms, the Food Bank of Alaska, and many more.
What Why How We Eat is an environment in which museum goers can visit multiple spaces dedicated to the different aspects of food and that are connected by concepts and a very particular Alaskan aesthetic. “I felt very strongly that it was important to create a space where people can feel at home though textures, feelings, colors, and smells, I wanted it to be inviting. The aesthetic reflects a lot of the housing stock in anchorage that was built in the 70s and 80s so most people have some relationship to that kind of aesthetic; we wanted to bring out the warmth of that look,” said, Ms. Du Brock. And indeed, it works because it provides an inter-generational space that almost everyone has experienced as they come in and go out of family and neighbors’ houses at any point in recent decades.
Perhaps the biggest attraction is the kitchen, which is set up as an interactive space, with an induction burner, and that will host programming that includes food demos, classes, and presentations from a range of partners. According to Ms. Du Brock, the kitchen side was perhaps the hardest to develop because a kitchen is all about the emotions and traditions tied to food, and even though the kitchen is a cool and familiar environment and, “it’s also personal, and cultural, and deeply rooted in everybody’s experience—and how do you talk about that? So we focused on sense of smell, tradition and diversity of experiences, for example, we got starches from all major groups that are represented in Alaska and put their staples starches from their cuisine in the cabinet.” There are also depictions of people in different scenarios of sharing and eating what are counted inside cabinets and presented as images with light box backgrounds. Folks are invited to open the cabinets and also see what is in the drawers. The drawers have Alaskan utensils, which may seem basic, but Alaskan kitchens have unique tools that reflect how we live, such as tools for processing wild foods, canning equipment, crab forks, etc.
No exhibit about food in Alaska would be complete without a space dedicated to the land and Alaskans’ interdependence on the environment. The middle room of the What Why How We Eat is dedicated to Alaska’s biomes and pays homage to traditional harvests and subsistence activities that inform and permeate the broader culture, and tie the land to the food. The exhibit includes narratives representing different areas of the state such as subsistence stories about caribou out of Arctic Village, whale hunting in Point Hope, and crab fishing representing the commercial industry, Kenai dip netting, etc.
Immigrant voices are also well represented in What Why How We Eat, and the experiences of immigrants are threaded through out the exhibit. According to Ms. Du Brock, “Food is universal and everyone is an expert in how they eat and have strong opinions about it, so I wanted [the exhibit] to be open enough that everyone could find themselves in it in some way.” To this end, the museum offers opportunities through programming but also by including another room dedicated to Everyone Is Welcome Here, a 2018 project by artists Sergio De La Torre and Chris Treggiari, which used food as the lens for exploring the immigrant and refugee experience in Alaska. Through cooking lessons, interviews, and shared meals, Everyone Is Welcome Here created a platform for participants, immigrant and non-immigrant alike, to reflect on ideas of identity, adaptation, community, and home. This project explores the ways Alaska’s food culture forms part of a global web of flavors and traditions that continue to change and evolve. In this latest iteration, ephemera from the artist’s research, interviews, and meals are presented in conjunction with participants’ stories and feedback.
What Why How We Eat also features an Alaskan cuisine and Remix room, in which the magic of fusion can be seen, and the ingenuity of Alaskans shines as they invent a cuisine that is adaptive and creative—fried bread taco, anyone? The remix room will also hold hundreds of cookbooks so folks can interact with facsimiles and are even invited to use their phones to capture recipes. There are even children’s books in the mix, this in addition to interactive displays and the hydroponic set ups are sure to get the kids’ attention.
And, last but not least, the last room in the exhibit explores the invisible dynamics of food in Alaska; food as a resource that is often difficult to comprehend. The exhibit puts in context the challenges that remote distance present, the state’s reliance on outside food, and the economic forces that make the cost in rural Alaska reach astronomical levels. One of the more germane interactive presentations of What Why How We Eat is one where a participant is given $20 dollars (in theory) and they he/she/they must decide what to buy in a setting where the cost of a basket of goods is compared around different geographies in the state. How’s that for a wakeup call? Kuddos to the Anchorage Museum team for taking on such a broad and important topic—Food—and bringing it home.