As you might have gathered from my recent posts on social media, or the call for proposals which was recently published on this very website, I have recently started working with Manchester Jewish Museum.
The Museum is at a very interesting time in its history, as it joined Arts Council’s National Portfolio in the last round, which notably enabled the creation of a Creative Producer post. This post is held by the fantastic Dr Laura Seddon, whose role, as far as I understand it is to work closely with a diverse range of artists to animate the museum’s programme. As well as this, the Museum has been awarded funding to redevelop its building and extend its home in what is one of Manchester’s oldest surviving synagogues. What is particularly exciting about this capital development project is that plans for the new museum include provision for a community learning kitchen.
I don’t think I have to spell out how I feel about this idea, do I?
The development of the community learning kitchen is but one of the myriads of ways the museum is committed to exploring food as part of its work. For the next few months, I will be working with the museum to ‘scratch’ a number of ideas exploring the role of food as a vehicle for cultural identity; food in/as artistic practice and food as a means of bringing (diverse) people together.
There isn’t really an official title for my role in this project (yet!), but as I’ve been calling myself a ‘theatre chef’ lately, maybe we can invent something just as suited to a museum… Curator of food? I’ll take suggestions in the comments!
My tenure as the museum’s resident food artist (another viable option maybe, though I fear people would start thinking of me as a cheap version of Madame Zucchini…!) started in April where I revived my “pop-up restaurant” Le Bistro and served food to attendees of the Cheetham Hill Spring Fling (at the local Ukrainian Community Cent in exchange for recipes. Over the course of the day, I collected over 40 recipes which say as much about the event as they say about what is thought to be ‘the most diverse street in the UK’.
I received notably:
An illustrated brownie recipe; A 4-ingredient Ukrainian borsch; A 6-step Thai Green Curry;Okra stew; Courgettes full of themselves, courtesy of the lovely Avital Raz; Beef brisket; Many varieties of lentil soup; Polish cucumber soup; Pashka, a Ukrainian Easter bread; Instructions of how to make the best of packet noodles; A hosting tip suggesting I make a note of what I serve guests so that when they come back, I do not cook the same thing again…
Having confirmed there was an appetite from the museum, its visitors, participants and neighbours to explore the relationship between food and the Museum, I worked with Creative Producer Laura and Head of Programmes Gareth to come up with a series of experiments, each of which will go on to inform the next.
Our 2nd event has just taken place and saw a group of foodie artists and a food charity worker join forces to cook from ‘secret ingredients’ each of them had brought. I had only worked with this “ready, steady, cook” workshop format once before with a group of students and it wasn’t entirely clear how it would turn out…
I am pleased to say that with the support of gorgeous prints from Samin Nosrat’s book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat to guide our choice of flavours, the two teams cooked up a storm. Conversation flowed throughout the evening, revolving (mostly) around the question: ‘What should a museum do with food?’
The evening was a success in the sense that we tested a new format which could be reproduced in other contexts and to explore other questions. It also meant a number of local artists found out more about our plans and that the Museum’s team could get to know other practitioners interested in the meeting points of food and artistic practice.
However, while the event had been designed to bring together artists, food producers and the museum’s neighbours and “users” (for lack of a better expression!), the people who managed to make it to the event were largely arts professionals. This suggests there’s a lot more for us to think about and do to make sure this strand of work is as accessible as it ought to be.
Having now delivered a couple of events away from the Museum and its collection, I’ll be spending a bit of time over the Summer exploring the artefacts and food histories which might inform the next period of activity. This Summer we will also support another artist to develop a ‘food intervention’ to be presented as we head back to school with the Cheetham Festival in September.
I am immensely grateful to be beginning this uniquely long-term and forward-thinking relationship with an arts organisation which has made the choice to let food, community building and an independent artist drive part of its programme. It’s early days for this pilot project, and I cannot wait to see what we will discover.