It’s National Arts and Humanities Month, and today we are joining forces with Americans for the Arts to illuminate the ways that the arts and humanities can work together to cultivate community. Tastefully South Jersey, a program that celebrated the diverse culinary traditions of Burlington, Gloucester, and Camden counties this past summer, is a perfect example of how the arts and humanities can help a community explore the breadth and depth of its cultural heritage. With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the National Endowment for the Arts, and New Jersey’s state councils for the arts and humanities, the Perkins Center for the Arts hosted an engaging temporary exhibition and extensive public programming.
The exhibit featured paintings, recipes, photographs, cooking tools, oral histories, and interactive elements, all highlighting the extensive array of culinary traditions practiced and preserved in the region. Over three-quarters of respondents to a survey “strongly agreed” that it was interesting, informative, attractive, easy to understand, and well organized. The exhibition was organized around themes—such as Sharing the Bounty, Keeping the Tradition, Food and Well-Being, and Cookin’ on Canvas—that illustrate how diverse foodways illuminate our common humanity.
A number of free special events throughout the summer-long program drew hundreds of visitors. Over 350 people attended an opening reception offering tastings from culinary artisans from 12 countries. “A Taste of Poland and Turkey” combined demonstrations of the two countries’ foodways with a performance by the Monique Legare International Dance Troupe, while “A Taste of Mexico” was enhanced by Latino music from Eco Del Sur. “Becoming American: It’s Not a Melting Pot, It’s Pot Luck” gathered community members to view a documentary of the program and share insights about cultural diversity and national identity gleaned from the sharing of culinary traditions. Participants expressed deep appreciation for what one called a “great cultural party bringing community together” that “shows our common humanity through food.” “I love the community building aspect—so needed,” said another.
Through an NEH Common Heritage grant, Tastefully South Jersey invited community members to contribute their own culinary heritage to the exhibition and public archives. Heritage Preservation Days were held at 5 sites throughout the region, including public libraries and schools. Community members were invited to digitize their recipes, cookware, photos, and scrapbooks and record oral histories documenting the cultural significance of the objects. With permission, these artifacts and stories will be preserved for posterity through New Jersey Library Digital Highway, with some selected to be incorporated into the exhibition or featured on the Perkins Center’s website. In this way, Tastefully South Jersey moved beyond offering a carefully curated cross-section of South Jersey's culinary arts to providing opportunities to welcome, celebrate, and preserve the traditions and foodways of all members of the community.
Thumbnail image: Photo courtesy of Karen Abdul Malik.
In text image: Photo courtesy of Karen Abdul Malik.