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The Smithsonian's 'Key Ingredients' exhibit comes to Wisconsin
Why we eat the way we do

Archival photos illustrate the nation's culinary traditions.
Archival photos illustrate the nation's culinary traditions.
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The Smithsonian Institute has arrived in Wisconsin - in the form of a traveling exhibit called "Key Ingredients: America by Food." Curated by American foodways expert Charles Camp, the exhibit examines the nation's culinary traditions and what they tell us about ourselves and our nation.

Six towns are slated to be on the prestigious tour, which was launched last weekend in Reedsburg and will continue through August of next year, with stops in Rhinelander, River Falls, Westfield, Brodhead and Osseo. During each town's multi-week exhibit schedule, the community will also host regionally focused exhibits and events to celebrate local food culture and to complement the Smithsonian show.

If Reedsburg's six-week lineup of activities - collectively called the Reedsburg Fermentation Fest - is any indication, then the tour is simply not to be missed. Organizers have cooked up baking and canning classes, brewing workshops, farm tours, community dinners and much more.

Last Saturday's festival kickoff speech by author-humorist Michael Perry left me with aching face muscles (from laughing so much), and the exhibits provided much, well, food for thought. The Smithsonian exhibit is arranged in five kiosks of photographs and artifacts that illustrate how the nation's culinary traditions have been shaped by diverse immigration, innovations in food technology, and an evolving array of key ingredients. The Reedsburg exhibit relays local stories about butter battles, Ho Chunk traditional foods and the area's connection to the Oscar Mayer wiener jingle, among others.

But the festival's main emphasis is fermented foods. That's because they have both culinary and cultural significance for the area. "This is a strong German region, with a history of growing hops and cultural connections to fermented foods like sauerkraut, cheese and beer," says Donna Neuwirth, project coordinator for the Smithsonian exhibit and the festival. "It's very much an agricultural region, and people around here still do pickling and canning for cold-weather storage. And we have the local foods movement happening here, too, with young, hip DIY cooks rediscovering things like baking bread and making your own yogurt.

"Our area has rich food traditions alive and well in church basements, farms and kitchens," adds Neuwirth, who is also executive director of the Wormfarm Institute, a nonprofit organization whose initiatives blend sustainable agriculture and art.

One of Wormfarm's "roadside culture stands" was on display during the festival's opening weekend. The whimsically designed mobile farm stands display and sell local produce as well as the work of local artists. Other festival projects include the publication of a community cookbook and "hot dish trading cards" that pay homage to local cooks.

The hope is that the Fermentation Fest will become an annual event. "It's all about celebrating our living history," say Neuwirth. "It's about using food to make meaningful connections to build a thriving rural community."

Reedsburg's Woolen Mill Gallery, 26 E. Main Street, is housing the Smithsonian exhibit through Dec. 3. For more info about the events in Reedsburg, see here. For a schedule of the Key Ingredients tour across the state, see here.

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