Tonawanda News

July 29, 2013

Castellani exhibit highlights cultural uses of food

By Danielle Haynes
The Tonawanda News

LEWISTON — The biggest challenge of putting together an art exhibit about food is — well — the fact that it’s food.

Carrie Hertz, the curator of folk arts at the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University, said she was unusually worried about the possibility of flies being among the visitors to the museum’s latest show, “(Almost) Too Good to Eat: Marking Life Transitions with Food,” which is being paired with a photography exhibit by Lukia Costello called “Newcomers: Transitions to New Lives.”

Don’t worry, they’ve got the fly situation under wraps by making use of plexiglass compartments to cover anything that might be considered appealing to the wrong kind of guests.

”This has been the hardest part of the show ... figuring out how to make these things that aren’t meant to be on long-term display be on view,” she said while standing before large photographs from a Bhutanese wedding, complete with a banana with a coin shoved into it.

The exhibit features a variety of foods and the way they’re used uniquely across cultures. 

In an exhibit on the Jewish Passover Seder, the traditional plate and a box of matza is on view. Highly perishable items — like the Bhutanese banana — are displayed through photographs alone.

Hertz said she was inspired to put together the exhibit after doing research for a separate purpose on the bridal clothes from different cultures. She said she attended many different types of weddings and noticed the interesting way in which food played a cultural or religious significance.

Speaking of the Bhutanese Hindu wedding — which featured a refugee couple living in Western New York — she explained how it takes all day to prepare the food, which is then integral to the ceremony. For instance, a bright red paste is made of up rice — a significant, staple food in much of Asia — yogurt and vermillion powder. The paste is then applied to the foreheads of the bride and groom by the guests until by the end of the ceremony, their foreheads are caked in the vibrant mixture.

”A lot of the food is symbolic and it’s not meant to be eaten,” Hertz said of much of the food items in the exhibit.

”This show is looking at both foods prepared to be eaten but also others that, because they could be eaten but aren’t, they have all these symbolic associations with fertility, vitality, life, abundance and wealth ... all these things we want,” she said.

The Mexican Dia de los Muertos — or Day of the Dead — altar, for example, is filled a variety of items meant solely for the dead.

The altar filled with food, drink, incense and candles is an “offering to past ancestors and a way to entice them to visit. Everything on the altar is meant to help them ... it’s covered withe enticing foods, especially the favorite foods of that person when they were living,” Hertz said.

”Chocolate, mole, tequila, sugary soda, beer ... all the things that if you had been dead for a long time you would really miss,” she added with a laugh.

The “Almost Too Good to Eat” exhibit doesn’t just feature food items significant to cultures considered foreign to Western New Yorkers. Even the traditional Western wedding cake is on view with a display by the bakers at Muscoreil’s Fine Desserts in North Tonawanda.

A few display wedding cakes uniquely decorated with icing and colorful fondant are featured as well as butter-lamb style cakes from Melanie’s Sweets Unlimited, a mainstay at the Broadway Market.

”So many people in America forget that European is an ethnicity. White people are ethnics too, it’s just so unmarked in our culture here ... it’s the default,” Hertz said. 

For instance, one might notice that some cultures perhaps favor brighter, vibrant colors when it comes to their wedding or religious ceremonies. A Bhutanese wedding places particular emphasis on brights greens and reds, but a Western bride is meant to wear pure white.

These ideals may seem to reflect opposite values, but to a certain extent, there might be similar motivations, Hertz said.

”For many cultures bright colors are the sign of life and they’re so hard to achieve with expensive tints and dyes,” she said.

White wedding cakes became the the ideal for Western weddings because the ability to have expensive, highly processed, white sugar was highly valued when it was first available, Hertz said.

”So you didn’t want to tint your white icing. It was a status-symbol because you could afford this really expensive sugar,” she said. 

Pure white and bright colors, while on opposite ends of the spectrum, are difficult to achieve.

”Part of what I’m trying to achieve is to make the familiar exotic and the exotic familiar. We as humans are more similar than dissimilar,” Hertz said.

The wedding cakes, altars and other displays will be on view at the Castellani through Dec. 8

Contact Sunday Lifestyle editor Danielle Haynes at 693-1000, ext. 4116 or follow her on Twitter at @DanielleHaynes1.

IF YOU GO

• WHAT: "(Almost) Too Good to Eat: Marking Life Transitions with Food" and "Newcomers: Transitions to New Lives"

• WHEN: Through Dec. 8

• WHERE: Castellani Art Museum at Niagara University

• MORE INFORMATION: Call 286-8200 www.castellaniartmuseum.org