Food history project to get rolling

Researchers inviting people to cook family recipes, share stories of sentimental dishes


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If you’re cooking, they’re coming.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/05/2018 (1657 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

If you’re cooking, they’re coming.

Researchers at the University of Winnipeg are hitting the road this summer in a new food truck, inviting Manitobans to hop on board, cook family recipes and be interviewed about the process.

“We have people coming aboard the food truck to cook a dish that has meaning to them, and to interview them about their life stories. And we’re also going off the food truck and interviewing business owners and workers of long-standing food production facilities and food businesses,” said Sarah Story, an archivist involved with the Manitoba Food History Project.

SUPPLIED Janis Thiessen and Sarah Story are rolling across the province and gathering stories as part of the Manitoba Food History Project.

Principal investigator Janis Thiessen, who’s an associate professor of history at U of W and associate director of the school’s Oral History Centre, emphasized the recipes don’t need to be Michelin-worthy.

“It doesn’t have to be a good recipe. We’re not asking for your tastiest. We want one that’s memorable. And one that’s memorable may not taste good and we’re good with that. What we want is food as a trigger for memories and people’s life stories,” Thiessen said.

The food history project comes on the heels of Thiessen’s book, Snacks: A Canadian Food History, published in 2017. There, she delved into the makings of iconic grub like Old Dutch Potato Chips, Hawkins Cheezies and Ganong chocolate, and asked why Canadians are loyal to their favourite junk food brands.

A deep-dive into Manitoba’s token foods — perogies, Greek chili burgers and grainy goods among them — was a natural next step, she said.

Thiessen hopes the project will appeal to folks who aren’t normally gung-ho when it comes to learning about history. The group’s website will feature digital storyboards and links to podcast interviews they’ve done, among other research that’s hopefully not stale.

“We wanted to reach those folks and have them accidentally ingest some history and discover that it’s more nuanced than perhaps they’ve been led to believe, and more interesting and more complicated,” Thiessen said.

“Food is really the hook. We certainly are interested in food — don’t get me wrong. But even learning about the history of the food, you can also learn about immigration history, government policy, ethnic identity and so many other aspects of history.”

One of the first podcasts produced (which will go online in the coming weeks) is focused on a local salsa-maker, who makes myriad varieties in his home.

On the surface, the podcast is about a very delicious condiment, but as the interview goes on, the story runs deeper. The salsa-maker delves into his story of migration, fleeing El Salvador during its civil war, bouncing around the United States, then trying to make a home in Winnipeg.

“It’s about salsa, but it’s also not about salsa,” Thiessen said. “It’s a story of how do you still (feel) ostensibly or physically safe, but (also) how do you now create a home for yourself? And how do you become Canadian while remaining Salvadoran and navigate all those complexities? It’s a great story, beautifully told.”

Story, the archivist, got involved after taking a food history class with Thiessen a few years back. While studying, she began interviewing perogy producers and is now creating a book based on the history of the delicious dumplings in Manitoba.

“Food history is personal and it’s linked to everything, right? From labour and industry, environment and culture. It is fascinating. And so ever since I took that food history course, I delved right in,” she said.

Story grew up on a family grain farm in Grandview and is excited to head back to the Parkland region to hear more of its food history this summer.

The crew will also visit events in Winnipeg and Steinbach in the coming months. Their first scheduled stop is at the Mennonite Heritage Village from June 17-July 8 in Steinbach. To register to share your food story, visit their website:

Thiessen expects the project to last at least four years and have all its interviews made available to the public through the U of W’s Oral History Centre.

“Our hope is to have everything in a central location so folks doing this kind of research — whether they be scholars, or whether they be members of the general public with a personal interest, or whether they’re folks in the industry who have a reason for understanding and knowing — that this is material available to them,” she said.

jessica.botelho@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @_jessbu


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