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A Museum-Quality Feast at Seattle’s MOHAI

A food writer’s maiden voyage into exhibit curating.

November 22, 2016

It’s enough to give a gal indigestion. Yes, Rebekah Denn knows a lot about food in Seattle — she’s a two-time James Beard Award-winning food writer. But that did not fully prepare her for the goal of getting all of Seattle’s culinary history under one roof for MOHAI’s new exhibit, Edible City: A Delicious Journey.

The Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) had been chewing on the idea of highlighting Seattle’s food evolution for a long time.

“I didn’t have anything to do with the original idea,” Denn says. “MOHAI called and asked me if I would be interested in curating an exhibit on what food means in Seattle and how we got here.”

Rebekah Denn stands in the exhibit at MOHAI.

Foraging for artifacts

Denn signed up for that daunting mission, which began a multi-year project that would take her places she had never imagined — like the bowels of MOHAI’s vault, where she found a complete 1920s kitchen salvaged from the Camlin Hotel. Or the living room of Angelo Pellegrini’s daughter, where she accepted the loan of a knife used by the Tuscan-born University of Washington professor who brought pesto to America.

Angelo Pellegrini pouring wine, probably in Seattle, 1965. Image courtesy of MOHAI.

Unlike food writing, Denn discovered that museum exhibits require things visitors can see and touch. So she and MOHAI staff spent a lot of time hunting and gathering food flotsam and jetsam: Seattle-centric fishing gear, vintage menus, bottles of Starbucks’ failed Mazagran carbonated coffee, even the original Monorail Espresso cart.

In their zeal to gather all the good stuff, the Edible City team ended up with more material than a 5,000-square-foot space could digest. Then it was time for Denn’s toughest job — to cull the herd. That’s how Colonel Sanders ended up on the cutting room floor.

Vintage postcard featuring Clark’s restaurants.

The one that got away: “Mr. Restaurant” and the Colonel

“Walter Clark owned 55 restaurants between 1930 and 1970 — he was bigger than Tom Douglas,” Denn says. “He owned the Twin Teepees and he hired his friend Harland Sanders when he was down on his luck.”

While working in the kitchen, all Sanders wanted to do was fry chicken.

“He was interested in experimenting and he wasn’t doing his job,” says Denn. “Other workers said, ‘Get off the chicken already!’”

In their zeal to gather all the good stuff, the Edible City team ended up with more material than a 5,000-square-foot space could digest.... That’s how Colonel Sanders ended up on the cutting room floor.

Instead, Colonel Sanders went back to Kentucky and founded a fast-food empire.

There are many other delightful stories Denn reluctantly cut from the exhibit.  But, she says, she was forewarned.

“When I first talked to MOHAI, I asked, ‘What is my biggest problem going to be?’ And they told me that I was not going to be able to fit everything in. And that has absolutely been true.”

Let’s eat!

The other challenge with food and museums is that there isn’t any actual food allowed in museums. And, with all its tempting features — from buttery yellowtail sushi to equally buttery Dutch Baby pancakes — this exhibit will make you hungry! Denn has a couple of dining suggestions for experiencing food that’s featured in Edible City after attending the exhibit.

Canlis Restaurant at night, Seattle, 1958. Image courtesy of MOHAI.

“It’s a little-known fact that Canlis will recreate old-time favorites that aren’t on the menu anymore if you call and give them a 48-hours’ notice — like liver and onions. The Canlis Salad is an original that’s still on the menu — with mint — and beautifully put together.”

Dick’s in the 1950s.

For a lower price point, Denn suggests a Dick’s burger, a classic that’s survived every food fashion in Seattle since 1954.

Canlis waitresses originally wore kimonos. Image courtesy of MOHAI.

Denn says curating a museum exhibit was a deep-dive into Seattle’s culinary past that will change her writing moving forward.

“Food writers take everything in the moment,” says Denn. “With this experience, I’ve been able to step back so that I will be looking at things more big picture and less piecemeal in the future.”

Details

When: Edible City: A Delicious Journey will be on view until Sept. 10, 2017 at MOHAI, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily. For more info call 206-324-1126 or check out mohai.org.

Where: MOHAI, 860 Terry Ave. N. in the South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle.

Admission: Included with MOHAI admission of $19.95 for adults. Admission is $12 on the first Thursday of each month when the regular galleries are free.

 

 

 



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Jenny Cunningham

Jenny Cunningham’s favorite kind of story is the one she hasn’t done before. Whether it’s reporting for TV or writing for magazines, travel or tribulation, Cunningham likes discovering something new. At KCTS, Cunningham has covered everything from the history of Hanford’s race to build the atomic bomb to biodynamic wine to opera supernumeraries. Cunningham has been honored with television journalism's most prestigious awards including Emmy Awards and the Edward R. Murrow Award for Best News Series in America.

As a writer for magazines and newspapers Cunningham’s features have appeared in publications including the Irish Times, Sunset Magazine, Seattle Magazine, the Vancouver Sun, The Oregonian and Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Cunningham has a master’s degree in Broadcast Journalism from Northwestern University and she graduated cum laude from USC with a BA in Journalism and a BA in Theater

More stories by Jenny Cunningham

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