MOHAI’s new food-focused exhibit revels in our riches.
Even if you eat lunch before visiting MOHAI’s new exhibit, Edible City: A Delicious Journey, you’ll still leave hungrier than you arrived. More than a gentle nudge to the stomach, Edible City stokes an intellectual hunger, a voracious desire to dig into the thriving furrows of Seattle’s neighborhoods and root out the hidden morsels they provide.
Seattleites know from experience that over the decades this verdant burg has sprouted scads of farmer’s markets, gourmet co-ops, ethnic groceries and restaurants of every conceivable variety. Moreover, Seattle was planted in the most fecund corner of the American continent, a temperate, resource-rich paradise that for eons has offered up flavorful, healthy foods virtually straight onto the plate. Edible City presents this teeming gastronomic symphony in concert and context, interweaving the human story with the natural one to describe a robust but fragile symbiosis—one that depends on care and cooperation to ensure its continued bounty.
Rebekah Denn, a writer for The Seattle Times and cookbook ghostwriter, spent two years putting together Edible City. She divides the exhibit into six chapters, giving a clever framework to an otherwise unwieldy topic. In the first, “Raw Ingredients,” Denn raises Edible City’s prevailing argument: Seattle food is defined not by a signature dish (sorry, Seattle dog) but by a set of staple foods like salmon, oysters, mushrooms and berries. Rich stuff found in the waters and woods verging on the city’s doorstep. But more important than enumerating items, she insists, is understanding the spirit behind them, the ethos of fresh, local, seasonal, sustainable. That spirit is endemic to the Northwest and recently became the universal mantra of modern cuisine across the country.
In the second chapter, “Processing and Prepping,” Denn points out the crucial input to local cuisine provided by Seattle’s immigrant communities—a quintessentially American tale that often goes overlooked. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, smallish Seattle had one of the country’s highest populations of international immigrants, as people from across Europe and Asia found their way to the city. The South End was transformed from forest to farmland by Italians and came to be known as Garlic Gulch. (Angelo Pellegrini, who came to the U.S. from Tuscany as a kid in the early 1900s and eventually became a professor of English Literature at UW, remains Seattle’s most undersung food ambassador. Among other recipes from local food luminaries, Edible City reproduces his 1946 recipe for pesto, credited as the first mention of pesto published in the U.S.) Chinese, Japanese and Filipino people gravitated to the International District, bringing with them noodles and rice and, thanks to Shiro Kashiba, America’s first sushi. Scandinavians built the bulk of Ballard’s fishing industry.
Other threads of social awareness are woven into Edible City. “To Market, To Market” details not only the original intent behind Pike Place, which was to ensure that a wide swath of Seattleites had access to fresh produce, but also the reason for its decline after World War II. The internment of Japanese farming and vending families left Market stalls empty, which led to a disinterested public, up until Victor Steinbrueck’s 1971 rally for preserving the Market as an active symbol of the city. Elsewhere, space is devoted to Seattle’s appreciation of worker-owned co-ops like PCC and Darigold as well as the evolution of Uwajimaya, Seattle’s preeminent icon of Japanese culinary culture. “Bringing It Home” describes the establishment of community gardens, or P-Patches, to feed hungry families during the dark days of the Boeing bust, plus the fantasy-to-reality development of the Beacon Food Forest.
The exhibit’s final segment, “Serving It Up,” is most encouraging of all. A photo wall of famous Seattle chefs features all the usual suspects—alpha males like Douglas, Stowell, Rautureau—as well as current stars like Edouardo Jordan, Renee Erickson and Rachel Yang. Across the floor, a video loops, showing a travelogue that veers excitedly through neighborhoods and stops at beloved spots for interviews. Here’s the owners and chefs from Island Soul, Katsu Burger, Catfish Corner, Fonda la Catrina, Foulee Market, all representing their signature cultures and cuisines, each one a crucial thread of the web that is Seattle food.
We live with an embarrassment of riches, and Edible City serves up Seattle’s vast, vibrant menu. It’s a savory reminder that, as people who eat, our responsibility is to recognize and relish our good fortune.
Edible City runs at MOHAI through Sept. 10, 2017