Local Treasure: Johnson & Wales' Culinary Arts Museum
No phrase is disliked more by historians than “from the dawn of history.” Human civilization has been so diverse over the ages that there’s almost nothing you can write after that phrase that’ll make an accurate sentence. Intriguingly, the Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, is dedicated to one of the few historical generalities that’s actually true: From the dawn of history, man has eaten. And judging from the museum’s collection, man has eaten well.
Over the course of human history, cooking has been viewed as both a science and an art. Food simultaneously defines the most basic element of human survival and its most decadent excess. It has been man’s constant companion, present every day in every civilization that has ever existed. Yet, according to Richard J. S. Gutman, the museum’s director and curator, despite food’s ubiquitous nature, it isn’t the easiest thing to build a museum around. “Generally speaking,” he explains, “the idea of a cook or a chef is to make something that is wonderful, but then is gone a few minutes later.”
Instead of food itself, many of the museum’s artifacts are the tools that have adorned mankind’s kitchens over the ages–from a pair of bronze Scythian knives dating to the third millennium b.c. to the modern stand mixer. The museum also collects places where man has enjoyed food; within its walls are a Worcester Lunch Car, a reconstructed 19th-century New Hampshire tavern, and, soon to be displayed, a circa-1956 pink-and-turquoise American kitchen.
Perhaps the museum’s finest artifacts, however, are its cookbooks: more than 60,000 volumes, the oldest dating back to the 16th century. While any food researcher is welcome to comb this bounty of historic recipes (terrapin soup, anyone?), Gutman sees the collection primarily as a resource for the university’s students. There are 50 courses in Johnson & Wales’ culinary-arts program, and another 34 in baking and pastry. The fundamentals come first. “Students here begin by learning the basics of Continental and French cuisine,” Gutman says. “We have the books by the people who invented it.”
The museum draws a clear line connecting cooking’s past and present: Mankind may enjoy no clearer link to his ancestors than when he’s in the kitchen. The goal of cooking today is the same as it ever was: to produce something edible and, when possible, delicious. Likewise, the ingredients haven’t changed much over the ages. Gutman argues that each generation’s contribution to cooking is just a slight tweak or reinvention of a culinary tradition millennia old. After all, he points out, there are only so many ways to cook a chicken.
315 Harborside Blvd., Providence, RI. 401-598-2805; culinary.org