Bland fare in High Point Museum food exhibit

by Jordan Green

With the summer heat slowing the pace of life, gardens thriving and the season encouraging recreation and sensual appreciation for the finer things, it would seem an opportune time to reflect on local food ways. Add the curveball of vibrant new southeast Asian and Latino communities flourishing throughout the Piedmont, and it makes perfect sense to show off an exhibit on food in High Point.

The staff at the High Point Museum seems to have thought so too when they started organizing the “What’s Cookin’? Two Centuries of American Foodways” exhibit in the spring. Since the exhibit opened on May 13, the museum has hosted two cooking demonstrations and a lecture by National Public Radio syndicated host Michael Lasser about the use of cooking imagery in love songs.

And a week before “What’s Cookin’?” comes down on Aug. 26, the museum’s downstairs conference room will be opened for a special tea for mothers and daughters. The event will be a collaboration between the museum and the Junior League of High Point, and will honor socialite Ruth Briles, from whom it was considered an honor to receive an invitation to the 4 p.m. tea held at her house on North Main Street until her death in 2002.

“There was already an exhibit we were designing called ‘Beyond the Pulpit: Faith and Community Action in High Point,'” says Kristen Conn, the museum’s director of community affairs. “[The staff] wanted to put something in that would fill the other side of the room. There are catalogues of traveling exhibits. We had items that would fit well with that. I think mainly they thought it would be an interesting topic. Food is something everyone can relate to.”

The exhibit coheres around 12 narrative and photographic panels created by the Rogers Historical Museum in Arkansas, and includes five display cases of objects owned by the High Point Museum that are loosely related to the theme, not to mention a collection of cookbook flats and a basket of cooking utensils. The story told by “What’s Cookin’?” is mildly entertaining, but the bland generalities of its boiled-down particulars leave an un-satiated hunger for the deeper implications and wild variety of American cuisine.

From the beginning, the narrative conveys an aesthetically grim picture of food as an experience more utilitarian than pleasurable: “The early American diet was influenced by the English heritage of most colonists. The English loved beef, wheat bread, cream and butter, and took pride in the simplicity of their cooking. They feared raw fruits as sources of disease and viewed vegetables as mere accompaniments to meat.”

It gets even less appetizing with this personal testimonial by an English visitor to the Arkansas frontier: “The breakfast at seven, dinner at noon, and supper at six, consisted of pretty much the same kind of dishes, except that there was good coffee at the first meal, and plenty of good milk at the last. The rest mainly consisted of boiled or fried pork, and beans, and corn scones.”

One has to ask: Where is the account of the barbecue wars raging to this day from the Carolinas to Texas? Where is the burgoo of Kentucky? Or its Virginia-Carolina equivalent, Brunswick Stew, with its historical role in shoring up backwoods support for populist Democratic president Andrew Jackson? Or the significance of hush puppies – the South’s version of fried corn bread – in the narratives of escaped slaves? Where are the stories of prisoners fashioning aluminum foil ovens, and producing exquisite pralines from scavenged pecans and emptied sugar packets? What about the sweet and fiery green chilies so revered in New Mexico?

About as much as we get on the particular delights of regional cuisine is this observation: “In New Orleans the French influence was as apparent in the intense appreciation of good food as in the food itself.”

The objects in the High Point Museum’s own collection add little local detail to the larger national story – itself a leitmotif of unstoppable progress beginning from humble culinary roots marching towards mass marketing and standardization. The local objects might have benefited from a textual element that would contextualize them as part of a social experience and describe the particular cultural flavor of the North Carolina Piedmont.

An iron pig carcass meat hook at least hints at the region’s affinity with barbecue, but the bone china teacup and saucer, and the copper coffee server merely seem like fancy stuff collected by the local moneyed class. A four-legged cast-iron cherry pitter with a hand crank from around 1900 is a curiosity, but conveys little about life around High Point in its period.

Despite its shortcomings on the local angle, the High Point collection makes a significant contribution to the national story with a page pulled from a 1943 Betty Crocker cookbook entitled, “Stretching Meat.” Betty Crocker, a fiction of General Mills, was enlisted to educate women on adhering to the US government’s wartime rationing program. A recipe for “nutburgers” seems ahead of its time, like something that might be available today from the Morningstar Farms line in the frozen food section of the grocery store. It shows how to make patties from ground pecans, soft bread crumbs, beaten eggs, chopped onion, parsley, salt and milk. An “emergency steak” comes from a pound of ground beef “extended” with milk, Wheaties and chopped onion, and fashioned into the shape of a T-bone steak.

The page is studded with little pep talks, one of which might serve as a fitting epigram for the exhibit’s joyless rumination on the American culinary experience: “Watch your P’s (points) and Q’s (quantities). Ask for bones and trimmings. Put into a soup kettle with bits of vegetables. Simmer for soup.”

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