For me, food is part and parcel of personal history. My memory of food is just as strong as my visual memory—and maybe even bigger and broader. I learned to bake bread at my grandmother’s side: a beautiful artisan loaf still conjures up an image in my mind of the 1950s brownish tile on her kitchen counter, the sunlight streaming through the curtains, and a vivid flashback of her voice and of her hands coaxing the dough with a loving, lyrical flare. (How do you know when you’ve kneaded it long enough? When it bounces like a baby’s bottom.)
When I was twelve, my friends and I spent an entire day baking a fancy cake for my mother’s surprise fortieth-birthday party, only to have our very clever basset hound telescope his low length miraculously upward to eat half of it off of the dining room table while everyone partied outside. His feat became neighborhood legend, laughed about still.
We grew raspberries in our Midwestern sandlot of a backyard, against all odds, and fought giant mosquitoes to pick them. We marveled at the scientific and artistic magic of 1-2-3 Jell-O and made many strange things with canned mushroom soup and Betty Crocker’s Cook Book for Boys and Girls. My mother brewed chicken soup; my friend’s mother made pasticcio; another treated us to chocolate-chip pancakes for lunch and sent us walking back to elementary school in hyperdrive.
The kitchen is command central in my extended family. Food is love—be it an all-hands-on-deck holiday meal or the after-work comfort of homey beans, rice, and greens prepared to please someone. I habitually make heaps of garlic mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving; collards on New Year’s Day; black-eyed peas cooked with a little kombu during family bouts of chemotherapy; and ginger tea for anyone feeling a cold coming on. As people encounter the various ills of aging, food has become my standard offering of homespun healing and a newly challenging outlet for artistry: low glycemic, low salt, low potassium, high iron, anti-inflammatory—whatever is called for. I am a true believer in the powers of food.
Around the Table: food, creativity, community is thus a project that is especially close to my heart. Food, like art, offers a path of creative self-expression for the cook and consumer alike. Several years ago, the curators and I began to notice that more and more artists were taking on the topic of food and reaching across disciplines in wild and fascinating ways. Ideas began to take shape for an expansive and inclusive exhibition about food—one that advanced a very different way of working for SJMA’s curators, dovetailed with regional history, and fostered socially engaged artistic processes. The project snowballed: thirty-eight partners joined in, from cultural organizations to farming associations to social-service agencies. As a result of this enthusiastic, wonderfully generous, and wide-ranging participation, Around the Table has sparked both a rambling feast of ideas and lively community dialogue.
Amid the orchards, vineyards, extraordinary farmers’ markets, and culinary havens of California, food is a widely shared enthusiasm—and a deep civic concern. Despite such abundance, there remains great want. The subject raises a swirl of urgent questions about food equity; economic development and environmental sustainability; hunger, health, and well-being; land use; and cultural identity.
Around the Table: food, creativity, community encourages viewers to take a panoramic look at the subject, via artistic perspectives that range from intensely personal to intensely political. As the great food writer M.F.K Fisher wrote in The Art of Eating, “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.” Come see what you think.
Oshman Executive Director
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