By: Jingshu Helen Yao
When I first became interested in food culture in museums, my main focus was on how food could be exhibited in a museum space. Unlike other objects and artifacts, food is more closely connected with living history, which has to be displayed and interpreted differently. However, while material culture still remained of interest, food in museums opened up new possibilities in creating an inclusive space, telling diverse stories, and inviting more people into museums- especially those from communities that were marginalized in the cultural sector of western society.
The reason I first applied for a job at Fort York National Historic Site was because of its foodway programming. It was an odd reason to join a military museum, but I had heard a lot about its historic kitchen and its animation, research, and cookbook publications. My journey into the museum sector was unfortunately met by the pandemic, which meant that most of the programming was put on pause when I joined the site.
Historical Recipe: Derby Cake (Photo by Jingshu Yao)
While none of these were taking place during my first few months of work, what struck me the most was the visitors’ reaction when they first entered the kitchen space. The 1826 Historic Kitchen is usually the last stop on a standard tour. Visitors often exclaim when they see the restored 1815 soldiers’ barrack for the 8 bunk beds shared by 32 people, for the red coats and muskets lining up against the wall, for the 5 pints of beer on the ration list. The fascination in seeing these objects stemmed from alienation, upon the discovery of how different the living standard was 200 years ago compared with today. Unless they are die-hard fans of the war of 1812 history, it isn’t a space they resonate with. Although the experience is more immersive, they leave with the same knowledge and sentiment as they would if they were shown a picture of the barrack set up.
Historical Recipe: Strawberry Water (Photo by Jingshu Yao)
Their surprises in the kitchen, however, came with more familiarity. Even though the technology of the time is what makes the historic kitchen so drastically different from contemporary kitchens, it still remains easier to relate to. Senior visitors sometimes identify items similar to what their family kitchen used to have, or even tools they themselves had used. Younger visitors associate cooking over an open fire with their experience during camping, or barbecues. Visitors from different cultural backgrounds were amazed at the similarity of culinary infrastructure across cultures. Even visitors who had minimum English skills would appear delighted in the kitchen, since it was the only space on site one could understand without the ability to read panels, or understand interpretations.
Later on, when we were finally able to start the fire and make food from historic recipes to share with the visitors, a new sense of excitement would wash over them when they enter the kitchen after the half-hour information dump from the tour. Most visitors wish to appear tentative and focused during their visit, and sometimes seem anxious when listening to interpretations. However, their general expression would relax in the kitchen space, for the smell of food being cooked, the warmer air, and seeing the food-making process bring memories and familiarity to the space from 200 years earlier. The kitchen space gave the sense of comfort that was universal to most visitors.
Open-hearth cooking (Photo by Jingshu Yao)
I found visitors more comfortable asking questions and wandering around in the kitchen, especially when they were told many of the objects were in fact artifacts, but still functional. Very few spaces in a historic place allow such a level of interaction, the freedom to walk around, touch things, and see action.
What intrigues me the most, however, was the potential of the kitchen space. Many food-related programs at Fort York already associated Toronto’s diverse communities with the kitchen space, such as Hungry for Comfort and Indigenous Food Market. However, its geographic location and history provide a great opportunity for research on indigenous food ways in Toronto prior to colonization, and how the settlement and urbanization had changed the landscape.
I once said on a tour that the kitchen is my favourite place in the historic site, and a visitor let out a laugh. I wasn't sure if it was a laughter of mockery or otherwise. Indeed, it was an odd choice to work at a military museum for its foodways program, yet I’ve seen its value, and I believe in its potential.