“Edible City,” the new exhibit at the Museum of History & Industry, contains many lessons about food — including how our geography defines, and continues to shape, our culinary tastes. (Food, however, is not included.)
The problem: A vendor at Pike Place Market selling California spinach when Seattle-grown spinach was available.
The consequence: An emphatic letter from Market head Arthur Goodwin to the errant vendor, threatening to confiscate the California greens if they weren’t gone in 24 hours.
This was no modern farm-to-table standoff, but a warning pecked out on a manual typewriter in 1927. It was just one parallel between Seattle’s past and present in my 2-year project curating “Edible City,” a new exhibit on Seattle’s food history for the Museum of History & Industry. (The exhibit will be on display through September 2017.)
‘Eating up Seattle: How A City Found Its Own Cuisine’
7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 5, MOHAI, 860 Terry Ave. N., Seattle; $15 members, $25 nonmembers, including food, and after-hours access to the Edible City exhibit from 6-7 p.m. (mohai.org).
Research on what seemed like an ungovernably enormous topic involved a deep dive through MOHAI’s enormous Georgetown archives, newspaper clippings, and generous loans from individuals and institutions. We learned of local foods, leaping salmon, signature restaurants, street-food battles, even Seattle’s inferiority complex — they’ve all been here before, though sometimes in different forms.
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Seattle’s “Mr. Restaurant” of the 1930s to the 1960s, for instance, was Walter Clark, operator of the Twin T-P’s and Clark’s Top Notch and 51 other restaurants over his long career. He was the Tom Douglas of his day, barely remembered in ours. That ephemeral nature of fame was one of the more humbling lessons of the exhibit. Fortunately, there was also plenty of uplift in trying to make sense of what food means in Seattle — and why.
“Edible City” covers areas any Seattle resident might expect, including the Market, historic restaurants like Maneki (which held the city’s first sushi bar), Seattle’s coffee culture (including the city’s first espresso cart and the bottled drink that preceded the Frappuccino), and the Rainier cherry (it sounds like an heirloom, but was created in the 1950s at Washington State University). Some of its other nibbles of Seattle’s food history are less well-known, from the invention of the Cinnabon, to the Dutch Baby pancake trademarked by a downtown restaurant, to the Angelo Pellegrini recipe credited for popularizing pesto in America.
MOHAI’s staff held a potluck so we could get to know each other and toss around ideas when the project first began. (I brought a homemade version of Beecher’s mac and cheese. Beecher’s fabulous recipe is online at ediblecity.mohai.org.)
From the start, we knew one of our biggest problems involved the same topic as the exhibit itself: food. How could we represent a subject that’s barred from its own exhibit hall? Keeping food away from artifacts is a key part of preservation and conservation. We couldn’t even — I know this, because I shamelessly begged — pipe in a Cinnabon-like smell wafting viewers toward the Cinnabon display as if they were entering a mall’s food court. (Special kudos to the MOHAI staff for not kicking this food writer off the project the first time they welcomed me to their climate-controlled archives facility, when I tried to walk in with a cup of coffee in my hand. It got discarded like a batch of nonlocal spinach. I got to stay.)
We did find other ways to tell Seattle’s food story, including letters, photographs, menus, recipes, cannery labels, mochi molds, bacon hooks (the historic ones from a Georgetown butcher shop look identical to the ones used today by another Georgetown meat business, Hitchcock Deli), a 4-cent “clam stamp” minted by showman restaurateur Ivar Haglund, and hundreds of other examples. The museum commissioned a series of original films by filmmaker Kay D. Ray for an in-depth look at issues like Native American food sovereignty and profiles of Seattle’s varied neighborhood restaurants.
Some of the artifacts we borrowed were hiding in plain sight; some were treasured as family heirlooms. To name just a few, Monorail Espresso, the city’s first espresso cart, is still in business, but current owner Aimee Peck let us borrow the original 1979 cart for our exhibit hall. The family of Uwajimaya founder Fujimatsu Moriguchi loaned us the wooden boxes he used to steam fish cakes at his first business venture. Famed bladesmith Bob Kramer brought us a case of materials including one of his almost-priceless finished chef’s knives.
The museum’s staff members were also tireless and creative in conveying our points, building a replica of the prime table at Canlis restaurant (complete with a stunning view and kimono-clad server), and transporting a full-size farm cart and a 1930s-era kitchen from MOHAI’s archives to the South Lake Union museum. (The kitchen, partly made up of parts preserved from the Camlin hotel, is just the sort of surprising-to-us thing you see as an outsider trekking through the archive’s orderly aisles.)
Some of the city’s strengths we highlighted, like our tech culture, helped us in the endeavor. Trying to answer the eternal question of “What is a Seattle food,” for instance, we asked staff at Seattle-based Allrecipes.com to analyze which recipes were searched for by Seattle residents more than people from anywhere else. The results? Five of the top 10 involved razor clams.
After asking all those questions and taking in all those perspectives on Seattle food, we found the bigger picture went beyond any one dish or business or even industry. We learned that our geography defines our meals, as does our ethnic diversity, our innovative workforce, and — yes, even in a city known for its “Seattle freeze” — a collaborative community.