This piece first appeared at History at the Table, as part of the NCPH Working Group on Public History and the Local Food Movement.
I’m standing in the basement of Bondir, the intimate, award-winning Cambridge restaurant, watching Chef Jason Bond dismantle a hindquarter of beef, removing fat from muscle and muscle from bone. As he drops each chunk into its designated plastic tub, he explains to me what it will be used for. Every bit of this 200 pounds of meat will be consumed. The steaks will dry-age for some months; the fat, brightly yellow because the cow was grazing on bright green grass, will be rendered and used for daily cooking; the tough muscles will be stews, cooked with the stock made from the bones. This one animal will feed hundreds of diners; it’s the only way for high-quality meat like this, Chef tells me, to be economic.
But I don’t think it’s just economy that drives Bond’s pursuit of a “snout-to-tail” approach to beef, or his painstaking efforts to remove different kinds of pollen from every dried blossom of a fennel bush, or his abiding affection for his long-lived sourdough starter. To show what I mean, here’s a reflection offered by Sous Chef Rachel Miller, as she prepped spiced kuri squash. “I like to read a lot of old cookbooks because they’re more resourceful….it’s more about ingredients and a process…different ways to utilize what grows here, because that’s what we’re going to have a lot of.”
“This is how we should be eating,” she said. Invoking the resourcefulness of their grandmothers or the historic cookbooks they pore through, Bond and Miller are interpreting a way of historical thinking through their food. They are not strict – when Bond wants figs he’ll use figs, he tells me, and the dish I watched Miller prepare was sweetened with Japanese black sugar – but their message about history-inspired eating is clear. We’re meant to use the products of our immediate environment, be frugal and resourceful. In doing so, we evoke the land and memory with every flavor. This is historical storytelling – not with language, but with flavor.
It’s this process that brought me to Bondir’s kitchen. I am working to understand how restaurants are participating in historic interpretation for their guests, acting as de-facto learning institutions in their communities and beyond. What causes them to seek this culinary connection to their past, whether personal, cultural, or imagined? What do their guests get from it? What can we learn from this sensory mode of storytelling, and what can we bring to it, to deepen the learning?
Of course, anyone who follows the local food movement (or the maker movement, or the historic preservation movement, or…) knows that historical language like that used at Bondir is surging through our everyday lives. “This is how our grandmothers ate,” “Let’s go back to basics,” “Bring back the victory garden,” someone always seems to be saying. But imagining the old days” isn’t the same thing as building historic understanding. We need nuance, stories, complexity, lived experience, context, context, context. If the kuri squash is from Rhode Island, what kind of imagination of New England agriculture does that evoke in a diner? If Chefs Bond and Martin are using a historic cookbook recipe to inspire a dish, what of that does the eater get? How can servers interpret more than cooking techniques and ingredients, so a dish, its culinary and agricultural origins, really come to life? So, I’m also interested in trying to figure out how people make this mode of historic interpretation effective.
Hospitality to me has the potential for facilitating deep learning, as the restaurant itself is designed for immersive experience, and smell and taste are such tangible evocations of place and memory. Not only that – every group of guests has their own guide through the experience, their server. Bondir hosts private events – the Burns Night, featuring poetry and the obligatory haggis, for example – that bring together a community of diners around punchbowls, song, instruction, and a thoughtful, informative menu that brings the flavors of Scotland to life. As at all dinners, the servers work ensure that guests are as comfortable, inquisitive, and informed as they desire. “Jason’s food is,” one told me, “very special…. I think he’s born to do this, and it’s my job to get that across…Answering questions and making them feel comfortable to ask questions.”
As a history-trained, museum and gallery veteran, former cooking class teacher and now urban planning student/scholar, I’m starting to experiment myself. For Mother’s Day 2012, I worked with the fantastic Cuisine en Locale to develop ONCE in Barre: the Culinary Heirloom Project , an event featuring recipes from a set of archival family cookbooks from Gilded Age central Massachusetts. And over the summer, I hosted a series of public dinner events at a specialty foods farmers market, with the goal of creating intimate experiences with neighbors and food professionals, a space for interpreting and experiencing local products. I am definitely, definitely still learning about how to make these events successful; experiments, I’ve found, illustrate where pitfalls and challenges lie more than they give me a sense of success. For example, as in any exhibition, not all diners at ONCE in Barre engaged with the interpretive materials beyond my basic tableside explanations. It takes “scaffolding,” to use the pedagogical term, to encourage even the most inquisitive eventgoer to go from enjoying a tea cake to deciphering an archival document, and getting something out of it.
This is where research comes in. I think if we start thinking about restaurants as part of the system of local learning institutions in our communities, we might start to build better tools to analyze and evaluate how they are interpreting and presenting matters of foodways and heritage. I want to write about and discuss these places in this way, to start helping the public history conversation intersect with the food movement conversation in terms of restaurants, markets, farms and forests, home kitchens and dinner tables. We can learn from them about how to engage every sense, how to facilitate comfort and curiosity, how to give guests the feeling of being “at home.” How to do historical storytelling with taste, smell, and imagination. As Chef Jason Bond told me, “the best meal is when your grandmother goes out to the backyard, picks some asparagus from the fence yard, and cooks it for you for dinner.” Where the fence yard is, how the grandmother lived, how the asparagus was grown and harvested, what her kitchen looked like – there’s so much story in every bite.