Traveling Smithsonian Exhibit, Key Ingredients: America By Food, at the DeLavy House Museum
America’s culture is food. We sup to socialize. We chow down to celebrate. We stuff ourselves to suppress our flaws. We binge to bring ourselves joy. But what exactly is “American food”? Hamburgers, hot dogs and a well-fed man in a red apron tending a grill in a highly manicured yard is an image that comes to mind. America may not have a cuisine as well-defined as the motherlands many of us spring from, but we do love to eat. And eat. And eat. Key Ingredients: America By Food, a traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution on display at the DeLavy House Museum, shows how what we harvest, prepare and consume defines our melting-pot culture—and just in time for our annual Best of Burque Restaurants poll.
Tall, collapsible panels from the troubadour exhibit fill the picturesque DeLavy House, opening with the statement that “American food” defies definition. From there, it gives a historic look back on how large-scale agriculture got its start in the U.S. with settlers using techniques learned from the Native Americans and the massive labor force of slaves from Africa. Slave labor-supported farming, ranching, the industrial revolution and the invention of large refrigerated warehouses are all represented by historic photographs from the Library of Congress and private collections. The images paint a concise picture of items we take for granted today—like fresh meat, fruits and milk—as being uncommon and expensive before the invention of efficient shipping and in-home freezers. The exhibit would have benefitted from a few more of the vintage advertisements, such as the ones for the first-ever frozen dinner aisle and quick-and-easy meals, as they are among the best visuals in the show.
Alongside the new age of refrigeration is a section dedicated to the core of the exhibit: food as regional identity. Chili cook-offs, tomato festivals, the world’s largest pumpkin and New Mexico’s famous state question: red or green?—America might not have an official national food, but its states, cities and towns wear badges of their fare to declare their identity. (Think Wisconsin Cheesehead Hat.)
The exhibit moves from the evolution of food as a product, including some classic photos of drive-in diners and T-birds, to the etiquette of eating food, in public and at home. A poem from Goop and How to be Them: A Manual of Manners for Polite Infants by Gelett Burgess points to the silliness of those with poor table habits and asserts no one should be a Goop. (What’s a Goop? Don’t know. But you don’t want to be one.) The book, published in 1900, was written as a tool to teach children ages 4 to 8 proper table manners, something of the utmost importance to parents practicing the art of hospitality.
Key Ingredients: America By Food is only a taste of the full-bodied history of America’s dining rooms. The exhibit comprises succinct historical bits coupled with large, detailed images and graphics, and leaves a yearning for more. But, as it is the Smithsonian, Key Ingredients has an online educational companion with more factoids, images and history to satisfy food history hunger at www.keyingredients.org. Online and in person, Key Ingredients is informative, well-designed and worth a hearty glance over.