Perkins researching what gives South Jersey its flavor

Perkins Center for the Arts is gathering stories and artifacts about food cultures from around the tri-county area.

Perkins Center for the Arts is taking a look at the ways in which food has shaped cultures. A pair of grants is enabling Perkins to research food traditions in Burlington, Gloucester and Camden counties.

Perkins Center for the Arts has received a $12,000 National Endowment for the Humanities Common Heritage Grant and a $5,000 New Jersey Council for the Humanities Incubation grant for its “Tastefully South Jersey” exhibition and workshop. Folklife Center Director Karen Abdul-Malik said both grants will help Perkins to delve deeper into its research.

Abdul-Malik said “Tastefully South Jersey” is a project through which Perkins hopes to connect people in South Jersey communities by celebrating the foodways, or traditions/practices related to foods, of African American, Eastern European, Latin and Caribbean cultures. Abdul-Malik is conducting research throughout South Jersey in preparation for the exhibition, which will take place at Perkin’s Collingswood location this July and August.

“We hope to interview [residents] that carry forth traditions under the banner of South Jersey’s own, such as the producers of the Moorestown Blueberry Festival, as well as discovering foodway culture keepers,” Abdul-Malik said.

Through word-of-mouth, Abdul-Malik has been doing field work to identify these culture keepers. She said she’s learned food traditions are closely tied to the history of certain cultures.

She said for instance, in interviewing someone who cooks traditional Polish food, she was told the story of a young Jewish girl who was being hidden by a non-Jewish family in Poland. When soldiers arrived looking to arrest Jews, the family vouched for the girl saying she was their cousin, but when the soldier observed her cutting potatoes he said, “arrest her.” Abdul-Malik said this was because the manner in which the girl was preparing the potatoes was in a traditionally Jewish fashion.

“It’s just intriguing the way food crosses into values, morals,” Abdul-Malik said. “It crosses into our history — what we identify with.”

Abdul-Malik said she’s also heard stories about how people use food to give back to the community. She said at Corinne’s Place, a soul food restaurant in Camden, she learned the owner uses the restaurant to train young girls in etiquette, self-esteem and values all while teaching them about soul food.

Abdul-Malik said her research has led her from one interesting story to the next.

“We don’t want to just say I’ve interviewed people in the community,” Abdul-Malik said. “We want their voices to be part to the exhibition.”

The culminating exhibition will have paintings, photography, pottery, tools, West African fashion, recipes, newspaper articles, glassware sculptures and digital displays all relating to food and foodways. She said the exhibition will be hands on, and there will also be food demonstrations, oral history video booths, storytelling, dance and other art forms that accentuate food culture.

Prior to the exhibition, Perkins will host at least three Heritage Preservation Days in the tri-county area. During the preservation days, residents are invited to bring in photographs, dishware, cooking instruments and other artifacts related to their family’s foodways.

Staff at Perkins’ Moorestown location are being trained to digitize artifacts. Abdul-Malik said this could be anything from scanning an old recipe to photographing family heirlooms. Anyone who brings something in will leave with a CD or DVD, to digitally preserve their artifact. The goal is to create an archival history of South Jersey’s foodways, Abdul-Malik said.

“I encourage people to scrounge up their artifacts and be ready to bring them,” Abdul-Malik said.

Abdul-Malik said Perkins is looking for food tradition keepers to share their stories as well as volunteers to participate in the digitization training to help at the preservation days. To get involved, email Abdul-Malik at kabdul@perkinscenter.org.