Exploring Community Culinary Heritage in New Jersey
With the help of an NEH grant, the Perkins Center for the Arts celebrated the extensive array of culinary traditions practiced and preserved in Burlington, Gloucester, and Camden counties through its Tastefully South Jersey program. One respondent to a program evaluation survey called it a “great cultural party bringing community together” and another expressed deep appreciation for how it “show[ed] our common humanity through food.”
NEH funding enabled the Perkins Center to invite all members of the community to take part in preserving local heritage. Through a series of Heritage Preservation days held at five sites throughout the region, community members were invited to digitize cherished items related to food. Participants digitized their recipes, cookware, photos, and scrapbooks and recorded 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.
Some contributions made through the Heritage Preservation days were incorporated into the Tastefully South Jersey exhibition at the Perkins Center, enhancing the community-building impact of the exhibition by inviting all members of the community to play a part in the representation of its cultural heritage. And all of the materials curated for the exhibition were preserved digitally as well. The exhibition, which received additional support from the National Endowment for the Arts and New Jersey’s state councils for the arts and humanities, was organized around themes such as Sharing the Bounty, Keeping the Tradition, Food and Well-Being and Cookin’ on Canvas. Over three-quarters of respondents to a survey “strongly agreed” that it was interesting, informative, attractive, easy to understand, and well organized.
The NEH grant also helped the Perkins Center for the Arts provide engaging public programming as part of Tastefully South Jersey. For “A Taste of Mexico and Peru,” members of South Jersey’s Latino community were invited (in Spanish and English) to bring their culinary artifacts to be digitized, describe their significance, and, if they chose, contribute them to the public archive and exhibition. “Becoming American: It’s Not a Melting Pot, It’s Pot Luck” encouraged community members from various backgrounds to digitize their recipes. Participants viewed a documentary about the program and, in the discussion that followed, shared insights about cultural diversity and national identity gleaned from the sharing of culinary traditions. NEH funding helped ensure that the breadth and depth of cultural heritage surveyed through Tastefully South Jersey will be preserved for generations to come.