The Tennessee State Museum digs into the rich cultural history of food

Sep 18 2019
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The Tennessee State Museum digs into the rich cultural history of food

By: Amanda Haggard

In an exhibition that will run through Feb. 2, the Tennessee State Museum is exploring the “rich and diverse history of Tennessee’s food” in Let’s Eat! Origins and Evolutions of Tennessee Food.

“Whether barbecued, fried, roasted, pickled, or chilled, the food of Tennessee, and the southern United States, is a meeting of Southeastern Indian, West European and West African cultural groups,” says Rob DeHart, the exhibition’s curator. “Many cooks, who were primarily women, took the proteins, vegetables, and cooking traditions of each group, then experimented, taste-tested, and created delicious meals. The evolution of Tennessee food continues as foreign-born recent arrivals inspire new flavors.”

All pieces of the exhibition are complemented by artifacts from the museum’s collection, digital storytelling, graphics and location photography, according to a release from the museum. Authors and university professors Alice Randall of Vanderbilt University, Fred Sauceman of East Tennessee State University and Micah Trapp of The University of Memphis, contributed to the research and development of the exhibit.

“The Three Sisters” starts with the story of how Southeastern Indians cultivated crops during the Woodland Cultural Period, planting beans, corn and squash together, which came to be known as the “three sisters.”

This section of the exhibition also looks at how strawberries and corn played a role in Native American traditions and it tells the story of the state’s Strawberry Festivals and highlights South Pittsburg, Tenn., site of Lodge Cast Iron’s headquarters and the National Cornbread Festival. 

“The Buckle of the Barbecue Belt” looks at West European influences on Tennessee Food  – the introduction of cattle, pigs and chickens to North America – with visits to Ridgewood Barbecue, Memphis in May and the Kosher BBQ Fest.

In “A Love for Spices,” West African influences on the state are explored, along with the foods prepared by enslaved persons at the Hermitage. Visitors will be introduced — or re-introduced — to Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville and the Four-Way Soul Food Restaurant in Memphis.

“Through picnics and barbecues, Tennesseans have come together at the table, but it is also where they have been divided,” adds DeHart. “For generations, the injustice of slavery and later Jim Crow laws that limited employment opportunities forced some African American women and men to do the cooking in the homes of middle- and upper-class whites. This is how much of Tennessee cuisine developed.”

The “Making Do” part of the exhibition looks at some of the dishes that emerged when Tennesseans had to feed their families from limited resources in their kitchens. Their stories live on in many foods we eat today. Visitors will learn about Florence Mathai and beaten biscuits, festivals that celebrate the pungent wild ramp, “slugburgers” from Pat’s Café in Selmer and renowned fermenter, Sandor Katz. In “Cooking for Others,” the exhibition also looks at significant Tennessee cooks Melinda Russell and Rufus Estes and boarding house operator Mary Bobo. 

In the “Immigration and Tennessee Food” section, the museum takes visitors to several significant locations in Tennessee, including the Swiss Colony of Gruetli, the Hola Hora Latina Festival in Knoxville, the Global Café in Memphis, Varallo’s Chili and the Conexión Américas Communal Kitchen in Nashville.

And “Preserving Tennessee Food Traditions” introduces visitors to several, including Muddy Pond Sorghum, Helen’s Barbecue, Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams, Boyette’s Dining Room, Vegan Soy Dairy and Book Publishing at The Farm and Cruze Farms Buttermilk. 


Q&A with Rob DeHart, curator of the Tennessee State Museum’s ‘Let’s Eat!’ 


Can you tell me a small bit about each of the eight sections of the exhibit? 

The exhibition opens with an exploration of the Southeastern Indian, West African, and West European influences on the cuisine of early Tennesseans. Cornbread, okra, and barbecued pork are just a few examples of dishes that resulted from these early cultural interactions. Then the exhibition looks at how Tennessee food has evolved. One section looks at how “making do” with limited resources has led to innovative recipes. Another acknowledges how people, who out of economic necessity had to cook at restaurants, boarding houses, or for families other than their own, helped spread the recipes and techniques associated with Tennessee food. The importance of immigration for inspiring new flavors is the subject of another section. Preserving the state’s food traditions looks at current food producers who are using tried and true methods of the past. Finally a section on the state’s food festivals sums up the diversity of fare celebrated by the Volunteer State. 


When I talked to the curator of the quilting exhibit, she mentioned that it could be difficult to represent the whole state. Did you encounter that while curating Let’s Eat!? 

We had no problems covering the entire state in Let’s Eat because interest in food is so universal. Each region of the state has its own unique food stories to tell.


Tell me a little bit about what visitors can expect from your Lunch & Learn on Sept. 18.

For this exhibit, museum staff traveled across the state collecting stories, images, and artifacts to help define “Tennessee food.” Much of this fieldwork is revealed in the exhibit, and the Lunch & Learn will provide a more in-depth treatment of this culinary journey. And as a bonus Cruze Farm Dairy is coming from Knoxville to provide attendees with free samples of their delicious ice cream! Cruze is featured in the exhibition and is a good example of how a family dairy farm found a way to be successful in the 21st century.


What was the most surprising thing you found while curating for the exhibit?

Conversations about food always shifted into conversations about family and community. Taste is a sense that can stir powerful memories. It was pretty common for people to talk about their parents or grandparents when discussing certain recipes. Community memories such as church picnics, reunions, and even Civil Rights strategy meetings came to light. It surprised me how an exhibition about food really became an exhibition about people.


Why do you think it’s important to document the role of food in culture?

I hope visitors to the exhibition recognize that Tennessee foodways are the product of cultural interactions between many different people of diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Some of these interactions occurred hundreds of years ago while some are occurring today. 


What’s your favorite local food item?

Oh, that’s really tough! I’d have to say it’s the prevalence of “meat and threes” in Nashville. You don’t see a lot of those in other parts of the country.  

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