Explore the culinary traditions of Asian Pacific Islanders in the newly opened food exhibit at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. Entitled “From Fields to Family,” the exhibit investigates the process of food-making in the API community, from growing and gathering ingredients in the field to preparing the food for consumption.
Jessica Rubenacker, an exhibit specialist at Wing Luke, describes the exhibit as “interactive for children and adults. It’s a multisensory exhibit that plays into touch, sound, and taste. We also talk about the many contributions that APIs have made to the Pacific Northwest.”
In line with the museum’s unique community-based vision, the exhibit draws from local food producers and restaurants, showcasing their individual stories and their place in the history of the region. The process of creating the exhibit, Rubenacker notes, was a community effort:
“Here at the museum we have 26 ethnic groups, and so for a topic such as this, we wanted evenly distributed representation. We were keeping in mind different ethnic groups when gathering materials and oral histories. We also drew from pre-existing connections, restaurants we worked with and key community members.”
The exhibit itself is divided into numerous sections, each highlighting a particular aspect of food-making for APIs. The opening section fittingly features rice as its central theme. The ubiquity of rice in API culture makes it a prime candidate for introducing the exhibit, not only because it is eaten in virtually all API cultures but also because of the diverse ways in which APIs prepare and consume the rice. Korean, Japanese, Indonesian, Chinese, and other cultures are represented in the opening section, which focuses on the different utensils and materials that are used in preparing this staple.
The theme of the exhibit, “From Fields to Family,” was originally conceived because of the universal appeal that food has on all people, regardless of ethnicity. Rubenacker, who participated in the planning and creation of the exhibit, said, “’From Fields to Family’ was a title that our community advisory committee came up with. APIs have made significant contributions in farming, food processing, and serving restaurants in the region. Also key to the API experience is the family, different food traditions and ceremonies.”
As part of the exhibit’s emphasis on local history, several restaurants are featured that were either ground-breaking for APIs or central to community history. Kauai Family Restaurant, an eatery that specializes in Hawaiian cuisine, as well as Phnom Penh Noodle House, a Cambodian restaurant, are two highlights in the exhibit. The owners’ stories of building their respective businesses are inspiring and add a poignant personal touch to the exhibit.
“From Fields to Family” also includes interactive spaces where people can engage various aspects of making and consuming food. One such space challenges the person to move objects from one location to another using chopsticks—timing oneself in the process. Menus of signature dishes such as kimchi and star tofu pepper the various sections of the exhibit to add authentic flavor to the site. And finally, near the end of the exhibit, viewers are invited to taste the treats of different cultures, including a ginseng-based candy prevalent in Chinese culture.
Rubenacker is quick to note the work of three photographers who contributed to the visual portions of the exhibit—Barry Wong, Rick Wong, and Joysha Fajardo.
“Their work really adds to the exhibit. It’s not an art exhibit, it’s not just a history. It’s a bit of everything. Barry Wong does clean and simple food still-lifes. Rick Wong worked on the Chop Suey series. He received a grant and traveled around the West Coast photographing different chop suey signs. Joysha Fajardo—she photographed different families from different ethnic backgrounds cooking their food and enjoying the food together in the family section.”
For Rubenacker, the exhibit is a celebration of not just the cultural solidarity among API cultures but also the ways in which cultures express the unique traditions that distinguish them from each other. Whether they be Chinese, Japanese, or Vietnamese, each culture brings with it a collective and specific food tradition that adds to the diverse mosaic of API culture in the U.S., especially in the Pacific Northwest. Visiting “From Fields to Family” will leave your mouth watering for more, and not just in the gustatory sense.