BURLINGTON — Humans’ physical body, psyche and spiritual being are sustained and nurtured by what they eat, whom they eat with and within what context they eat.
The relationship between people and food is explored in “EAT: The Social Life of Food,” a Fleming Museum exhibition at the University of Vermont.
The exhibit, curated by UVM Honors College students in HCOL 186A: Introduction to Museum Studies, gives a global perspective of food’s importance every day and on sacred occasions.
“We were given the topic of food for the class,” said Cole Burton, a junior and history major.
“Over the semester, we developed the idea that we wanted to focus on the social aspect of food and the many ways it pertains to humans and their lives.”
There are four main areas in the exhibit: “Before Eating” focuses on preparation and production of food products; “Everyday Eating” focuses on how important food is to our everyday lives; “Elevated Eating” focuses on ceremonial aspects of food and also class hierarchy that can be found in food objects; and “Beyond Eating” moves into very theoretical areas, the spiritual connotations around food.
“For example, an Egyptian offering slab that’s supposed to feed the spirit after the person has already passed away in the afterlife,” Burton said.
“Eat,” a vibrant print by Robert Indiana, stands at the entrance to the exhibit.
“It’s Pop Art in nature and shows how Americans really classify food and publicize it. Fast food has really gone into this whole global aspect of eating now with McDonald’s being in China and things like that.”
The “Before Eating” section includes a large rice measure, a saropan gantang, from the Maranao people of the Philippine Islands.
The early 20th century utensil is very large and reflects rice’s ranking as a staple food of the Maranao and the importance of communal meals within Maranao life.
This section also includes a shrimp basket, a hinai ō pae, used by women and children to catch shrimp and small fish in Hawaii. A rare, cobalt-blue butter churn adorned with deer was made by the Ballard Brothers on Pearl Street in 19th century Vermont.
In one display case, a sterling-silver dinner bell is juxtaposed with a square, black-plastic buzzer used in many restaurants to signal seating for waiting patrons.
“Here, it’s used to actually signal when your food is actually done because they have this innovative touch-screen system of ordering your meals at the Redstone Dining Hall,” Burton said.
“Everyday Eating” highlights include carbonized kernels from a pre-contact cook site in Alburgh, Vt.
“This is maize and other plant fibers that were burnt in the cooking process, which is very interesting. It’s almost minimalist in nature in the exhibit. We have a lot of ethnographic pieces like this bentwood serving dish (Alaskan Inuit), Zuni maize bowl and Vermont cake mold. These are all objects that could be used in everyday settings for making and serving food.”
“Eat” features two interactive portals, one where museumgoers can type in their food memories and another display that cycles through uploaded food images.
“This man right here is typing in a food story that will be incorporated within this screen through a Wordle image. It’s this online website that compiles common phrases and words from all these stories that we plug in, and then based on how often they appear in all the stories, they are either larger or smaller. And, that is very neat. This interactive is featuring things that have been digitized from the Fleming’s archives and the UVM Library’s collections, but it also allows people to send in pictures of food to the museum through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. It really lets you put a personal touch to this exhibit that you can’t find elsewhere.”
A red Samurai picnic box is one of the “Elevated Eating” highlights.
“This is from the Edo Period,” Burton said. “It’s just beautiful, and it allows you to get a glimpse into the social aspect of food and how this would be carried by a lower-class-peasant porter for, in the case of the label here, he’s going out to watch the cherry blossoms in the spring. That shows the distinctions that food can bring out in society that you don’t normally think about.”
“Beyond Eating” features a group of disparate objects such as the Egyptian offering slab and a piece of hardtack that a Civil War soldier inscribed as a message home to assure his loved ones home in Vermont of his well-being.
“A kava cup is used before a meal in Oceanic cultures,” Burton said. “Kava is a drink made from a certain root (pepper plant). It’s supposed to bring one closer to spirits and ancestors of these people and really make them think about these things right before a meal. It kind of connects all that together.”
Email Robin Caudell:firstname.lastname@example.org
IF YOU GO
WHAT: "EAT: The Social Life of Food," an exhibition curated by UVM students. WHEN: Through May 2014.
WHERE: Wilbur Room, Fleming Museum, University of Vermont, 61 Colchester Ave. Burlington, Vt.
HOURS: Monday closed. Tuesday 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursday 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday & Sunday Noon-4 p.m.
ADMISSION:$5 adults, $10 family and $3 students and seniors
PHONE: (802) 656-2090 or 656-0750.