November 2

Q&A With Curator of Edible City

Two-time James Beard Award winner and local culinary authority Rebekah Denn talks Seattle food, history, and curating MOHAI’s newest exhibit, Edible City: A Delicious Journey.

How did the concept for the Edible City exhibit initially come about? 

MOHAI called and asked if I was interested, and what my vision would be for a project like this. I think they’d been thinking about it internally for a few years as Seattle’s place in the national food scene kept becoming more prominent. And, of course, food is one of those topics that is accessible to everyone, and is meaningful far beyond the nuts and bolts (nuts and fruits?) of what goes in our mouths.

Have you worked on any similar projects in the past or is this a first? 

I have not. In fact, when they asked if I had any questions for them at our first meeting, my first one was, “Do you realize I have done nothing like this before?” My understanding is that they have found, notably with Robert Horton’s “Celluloid Seattle,” that journalism skills carry over well to curating–the ability to research, write, and focus a story.

Tell us about the curation process. Where did you start?

The overall charge was: “Where are we with food in Seattle and how did we get here?” I started out with a short list of topics that clearly had to be part of the story. You can’t have an exhibit on Seattle and food, for instance, without including Pike Place Market.

MOHAI’s people know just how to do this, and guided me along the way. Staff members at the Georgetown archives helped search out interesting artifacts from the MOHAI collection, including a full-size farm cart and the entire collection of baking tools from the Sagamiya bakery that was once so famous for mochi. I read a ton of books, and relied heavily on original articles from The Seattle Times. The Seattle Public Library loaned out items from its Market collection. Nancy Leson gave us access to her voluminous restaurant files and reporting notes, and almost everyone I talked with was incredibly generous with time, memories and loans. (Did you know there was a bottled Starbucks beverage before the Frappuccino? It was called “Mazagran,” and Melody Overton, who blogs as “Starbucks Melody,” loaned us the bottles she still has.)

I then tried to figure out how to tell this story about Seattle in a logical (but not chronological) way.

Did you learn anything surprising about Seattle’s culinary history or culture along the way? 

So much. I was surprised by how what is old always winds up being new again. Angelo Pellegrini wrote wonderful books in the ‘50s about growing and eating local foods, and they would fit right into any modern farm-to-table talk. Then I was surprised by how certain people and brands used to define the city, and yet as time goes on fewer residents know their names, from restaurateur Walter Clark to Sunny Jim peanut butter and the “Mapleine” flavoring produced by Crescent spices. We all know about Starbucks now, but more than a century ago the Manning’s coffee roastery was the famous one in Pike Place Market.

Were there any “must-haves” on your list for the exhibit? Were any items particularly difficult to track down?

I had my heart set on quite a few, like Angelo Pellegrini’s kitchen tools and handwritten recipes–Armandino Batali introduced me to his children, and the family was so generous with everything. I so wanted to show something that represented Cinnabon, and Jerilyn Brusseau (the “Cinnamom” who created the recipe for Restaurants Unlimited Inc.) was wonderful about arranging loans both from herself and from Greg and Rich Komen of RUI. She had held onto the original cinnamon tasting notes from when they were working on the recipe at the RUI test kitchen, and hand-delivered that to us.

We were a little nervous about asking famous bladesmith Bob Kramer for a knife to display–people wait on years-long lists just for a chance to buy a Kramer knife–but he was wonderful, taking us through his studio and explaining his process and giving us materials for the exhibit.

Maybe the most interesting place to find an item was in plain sight–Monorail Espresso is still an active business, and owner Aimee Peck still owns the original cart. She was planning on refurbishing it, but let us borrow it for the display first, which was a pretty awesome thing to do.

Which section of the exhibit was the most enjoyable to put together? 

As a journalist, I’m used to having words and, if I’m lucky, a picture or two to tell a story. So my favorite part was utilizing all the other approaches MOHAI has at its disposal. When we wanted to show the incredible diversity of our neighborhood restaurants, for instance, we commissioned filmmaker Kay D. Ray to create a fabulous little movie zipping around the city and interviewing different restaurateurs. When I was trying to explain to the exhibits team how important Table 1 used to be at Canlis, they said, “Hey, can we build a replica of that for the exhibit so people can see what it’s like to sit there?” (And they did, with the aid of the Canlis owners.) Sitting at the table gets the point across in a totally different way than reading it on a photo caption.

Which Seattle-centric recipes/foods top your list of personal favorites? 

One of my favorites is probably Jon Rowley’s strawberry shortcake, which Sheila Lukins (renowned cook and food writer) called the “best ever.” I love it because, well, it tastes amazing, but also because it’s such a Seattle-type dish: Rowley himself is an important figure in Seattle’s food history (he developed it with Sally McArthur for Anthony’s restaurants), and berries are such a Seattle food. He recommends the locally grown Shuksan strawberry in particular, which sounds like an heirloom but was actually developed by researchers at WSU to perform well in our climate.

What was it like to curate an exhibit and write an accompanying book simultaneously?  

Museum exhibits include surprisingly few words, and the book was great in that it allowed us to include more stories, and fuller ones. That said, it was only 80 pages, and we could have easily filled twice that!

(Edible City: A Delicious Journey can be purchased at MOHAI or on Amazon.)

After curating this exhibit, how might you describe Seattle’s culinary growth over the past few decades? 

Stratospheric, just like the city’s growth in other ways. In addition, I think that over the past decade or so we’ve been able to define “Northwest food” in a way that we couldn’t before.

How would you define Seattle’s culinary identity today? How is it unique from that of other major food cities?

It’s unique in several ways–geography, access to ingredients, its status as a technology town (San Francisco is that too, but in a different way), its collaborative spirit, and for its certain adaptability. The Beacon Food Forest, an idea that sounded crazy–free food for anyone who wanted it?–is actually a success here, and I don’t think that would have been true in every city our size. One thing that has seemed specific to Seattle is that we are big enough to try out new ideas, but small enough to feel like a community.

 This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Interview by Karin Vandraiss, Photos courtesy MOHAI Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection

At The Center

SLU is the geographical center of Seattle