During the first semester of my freshman year, I participated in a first-year interest group called “Food Studies” led by Laurie Beth Clark. Not only did I find the agricultural, social, political, and economic layers of food systems interesting in Agroecology 103, but I also enjoyed cooking with and learning from various members of the community who had some tie to food – agriculturally, professionally, or extracurricularly – in our core class Inter-LS 102. During this time, we cooked with amateur chefs in the Food Application Laboratory and heard from speakers from all around the Madison area. This is where I discovered the idea of food as multifaceted in purpose – a means to nourishment, device for storytelling, and reflection of heritage; food systems is simultaneously an extremely complex system encapsulating politics, economics, and cultural diversity yet also a simplistic and essential component of survival.
In an effort to reconnect with my food studies interest this past semester, I reached out to Laurie Beth to inquire about any projects she might be part of relating to sustainability and food systems. She told me about Recipe Box, “a project celebrating how we share food culture,” that had just ended as part of the Wisconsin Triennial at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Laurie Beth and her partner Michael Peterson conceptualized the exhibit after receiving their own mothers’ recipe boxes and realizing the wealth of knowledge that accompanies those index cards. From there, they began collecting the recipes of other friends and family and displayed them as part of the exhibit along with copies of recipes and cardboard recipe boxes – both of which could be taken home by MMoCA visitors. The archives of this collection now live on their website as they hope to preserve the project for the community. Additionally, Laurie Beth and Michael hosted four potluck dinners in which guests made a dish and brought the respective recipe to become part of Recipe Box. Unfortunately, I contacted Laurie Beth right after these events had wrapped up, however this gave me an opportunity to adopt Recipe Box and create my own project around it.
When I mentioned my role as a marketing intern at Madison Children’s Museum, Laurie Beth thought Recipe Box could be repurposed for a younger demographic and showcased at the museum. I reached out to a member of the education department and we brainstormed the best way to convert Recipe Box to fit Madison Children’s Museum, eventually deciding to include it as part of the museum’s monthly Free Family Night.
On March 4th, I set up a miniature Recipe Box exhibit in the Rooftop Clubhouse of the museum. The exhibit had many elements – a board asking, “what is your favorite meal or dish?” and displaying copies of recipes that had been part of the original Recipe Box exhibit, various cookbooks from the museum relating to sustainable cooking or general recipes for kids’ cooking, blank recipe cards to be filled out, and recipe boxes to be constructed, decorated, and taken home. As visitors entered the clubhouse which is home to the museum animals (lizards, snakes, etc.), I would ask if they would like to contribute a recipe or make a recipe box, explaining the purpose of the project and my connection to it.
I helped a couple of boys recount their favorite meals – spaghetti and tacos – by first considering what ingredients were necessary and then the instructions needed to make the dishes. I had laid out copies of recipes that had previously been contributed to Recipe Box as well as a few of my own quick recipes and they each took one, constructing a cardboard recipe box and beginning their own collection. While it was interesting (and funny) to watch children contribute their favorite meals, the most captivating part of my experience was the parental interaction with the project.
As most adults at the museum are parents, grandparents, or other family members, the recipes they contributed felt largely centered around the idea of family; reading the recipes for “Peppermint Candy” from Gramma Valerie and “Almond Flour Biscuits” from J.C. Smith gave me the impression that these dishes were meant to be shared. Watching these adults take respite from their young children to reflect on the foods that most quickly came to mind, I felt like an observer to the sociological manner in which food is a part of each of us – a way to express love, teach respect, and garner memory. This type of “nourishment” goes beyond the caloric needs, necessary protein intake, and daily sugar limitations that we ascribe to the idea of one’s diet. Rather, recipes are a living manner by which we honor the creator each time we excavate the instructions and create the dish.
When I first came to Laurie Beth, she asked me “does your family have a recipe box?” to which I responded yes – the details of its appearance murky in my memory but the illegible writing and stained index cards vivid; the recipe box was rarely taken out as most worthy recipes were memorized or otherwise only for holidays. Additionally, in my family, my father is the chef, rarely using specific recipes and instead creating concoctions based on inspiration from the Food Network, his decades-long subscription to Bon Appetit, and childhood dishes. Much of my relationship with my father is centered around the kitchen, watching him cook, and eventually imitating many of his practices as I’ve grown older and begun preparing my own food.
All of this – just from one simple question of “does your family have a recipe box?”. There may not be many items or practices that people from across different countries and different beliefs have in common but food – its preparation, consumption, and communal nature – is one.
My own testament to food as culturally charged as well as personally reminiscent feels well expressed by the Ted Talk “Can home cooking change the world?”. In it, Gaston Acurio, a Peruvian chef, explains how over the course of a few decades Peruvian chefs joined together to honor their own culture through food rather than adopting international standards of what the “best” dishes were. This meant turning towards the local and reflecting on what it means to honor one’s past through cooking. For him, this resulted in ripple effects of improving the local economy, bringing in tourists, and focusing on local foods which translates into a positive environmental impact. Though I do not believe my project was quite on this level of community engagement, I believe it achieved a micro-level similarity in terms of asking a population to reflect on the foods that they consume as a means to sharing and connecting with one another. For me, this reflection was meaningful and by extension I hope it was for the Madison Children Museum attendees on the night of March 4th.
Though I only had a few dozen participants, I believe that my version of Recipe Box created meaning; whether this meaning exists in the few minutes a grandmother wrote down a holiday recipe she had memorized over the years or lives on in the cardboard recipe box that now sits in a childhood bedroom, my three hour experiential project was able to promote conversation about food and culture amongst children and their caretakers.
Erin Katz is an incoming junior at UW-Madison studying marketing, entrepreneurship, and food systems with the hopes of contributing to the future of sustainability in business.