The Pike Place Market, salmon, and Tom Douglas make up some of the most visible and well-known components of Seattle’s food scene, but putting together the Museum of History and Industry’s Edible City exhibit (opening November 19) needed someone who could dig deeper and uncover the city’s most delicious secrets. So they tapped former Seattle Post-Intelligencer restaurant critic and current Seattle Times contributor, and James Beard Award-winner, Rebekah Denn to unearth the foods, people, and unique traits that shape Seattle’s culinary sphere.
“I could have done an entire exhibit just on the Pike Place Market,” Denn says, explaining that her biggest challenge in putting together the exhibits was simply winnowing down the huge number of artifacts to create a cohesive, exciting display.
When MOHAI originally contacted her two years ago, it charged Denn with the mission to define what food in Seattle is and how it got here. She accepted the job and let them know what she wanted to make sure came across in the exhibit. “I hope people walk away knowing they live in a unique area,” she says, commenting on Seattle’s tendency to have an inferiority complex—one, she notes, she found evidence of going back to Seattle’s early history. Seattle’s special food culture happened because it’s unique and because the city is not New York, Denn emphasizes. So she geared her work to underline the creative, personal things that Seattleites created, such as Bob Kramer’s knives, that she says wouldn’t have been possible anywhere else.
Flipping through the art of the exhibit, Denn pauses on a card displaying 21 Native American words for salmon. “Is salmon all that?” she asked herself as she researched, before deciding it, along with many other types of seafood, were legitimate answers to the question of what Seattle food is. She collected letters from halibut fishermen’s wives and artifacts from the many seafood canneries and processing plants that used to pepper the shoreline.
While seafood’s ties to Seattle are apparent, she also chose less obvious local foods to be a part of the exhibit. Visitors can see the cash register from Manca’s, a restaurant that opened in the late 1800s and debatably invented the Dutch baby (but certainly made the pancake famous), they can see a homemade mushroom dehydrator from the founder of the Puget Sound Mycological Society, and they can read the original cinnamon tasting notes from Jerilyn Brusseau, the founder of Cinnabon.
“I looked for what makes Seattle Seattle,” Denn says, including the co-ops, the city’s involvement in everything from P-Patches to the Beacon Food Forest, and even some of its darker moments. “Around World War II, I started to see an abrupt stop” to so much in Seattle’s vibrant Japanese community. Denn wonders what the Japanese culture, business owners, and entrepreneurs might have been able to do, had the internment not happened. Instead, she found herself trying to highlight what survived—including all the tools and a sign from longtime Japanese confectioner Sagamiya.
Those, like many of the exhibits, came from MOHAI’s own collection. Further materials came from the Seattle Public Library’s archives. But Denn was also shocked at the generosity of the people and families of people who shaped Seattle’s food history. The most generous loan, she says, was the original Monorail Espresso cart, which La Marzocco outfitted with the type of machine that would have been on it. The family of Angelo Pellegrini, the Italian immigrant, UW professor, and author whose slow-food philosophies were a half-century ahead of the rest of the country’s, donated his risotto stirrer. It’s reinforced with racket tape, Denn explains, because Pellegrini didn’t believe in wasting anything salvageable—a belief that showed in his recipes and in the legacy he left for future chefs.
Chefs like Kathy Casey, who was in the first class of Food & Wine Best New Chefs—along with Emeril—and Monique Barbeau, one of many women who made it known in the ‘90s that women can head up great kitchens such as that of Fuller’s, and the late Christina Choi, who, though she died far too young to have found the fame she deserved, Denn calls “the definitive Northwest chef.”
If you are asking yourself, “Christina who?” that might be exactly why you need to make your way to the Edible City exhibit when it opens on November 19. And if you already know who she is, it’s unlikely you’ve made it this far without already making plans to check it out.