Taking appropriation out of the recipe

gastropoetics explores the problems with cookbooks as cultural engagement

The cookbook is a fixture of the kitchen as much as any edible ingredient. A new exhibit at the PLATFORM Centre for Photographic and Digital Arts asks those who use the culinary tomes to engage with other cultures to consider their impact and authority.

“Cookbooks are a popular medium in which we engage with other cultures,” Noor Bhangu, curator of gastropoetics, an exhibition at PLATFORM Centre, says.

“We need to have more publicly critical engagement of these forms, because I don’t think they should be so easily consumed or seen as authorities. This exhibition is a way to have a public platform to talk about these issues from diverse vantage points.”

gastropoetics is the latest – and tastiest – exhibition at the PLATFORM Centre. The multimedia show runs until Feb. 24 and takes the unorthodox approach of featuring work from researcher-artists, allowing scholars to focus on creative expression. Among them are Alberta-based writer Areum Kim and anthropologist/queer feminist scholar Svati P. Shah of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

“Everybody that I invited is not a practicing artist,” Bhangu says. “That was intentional on my part to bring together thinkers who don’t have the opportunity to think in visual terms. Their work is to write or present lectures or make food about what they do.”

Each researcher-artist is given their own section of the gallery to showcase their research – the culmination of months of work and contemplation on various ethnic cookbooks aimed at Western audiences. The displays are comprised of photography, video and installations, including cultural artifacts.

“I’ve tried my best not only to bring the research aspect to the exhibition, but (to) also use it as a platform (for) artistic creation as much as I can,” Alireza Bayat, one of the four researcher-artists and a senior research assistant at the University of Winnipeg, says.

“Noor’s idea was so genuine. I can’t think of any similar exhibitions with this very approach,” he says.

Bhangu, who immigrated to Canada from India at 10 years old, was fascinated with food from her homeland.

“I have a lot of these old cookbooks I collected from thrift stores and library sales that, when I go back to today, are very troubling,” she says.

gastropoetics explores how other cultures appropriate traditional foods and how people meddle with traditional recipes for convenience.

“Through this research, I find that all these Eastern recipes are so time-consuming,” Bayat says.

“The recipes prepared to engage the Western audience always have that kind of U-turn, these hacks and tricks. Reaching the same texture, but by adding butternut squash, for example,” he says.

Bhangu asserts that the exhibition doesn’t frown upon innocuous changes like fusion foods but rather deliberate alterations that have greater cultural implications.

“Certain ingredients or practices are taken up by national authorities and claimed as their own. In doing this, you really erase the specificity of specific communities and specific cultures,” Bhangu says.

“The exhibition is still open to these kinds of cross-cultural entanglements, but there is still the question of for who, and for what purpose?” she says.

“I would call upon my fellow Winnipeggers to observe the potential that food has in terms of not only some physical thing we eat and consume, but the cultural importance it carries, the political importance it carries,” Bayat says.

Published in Volume 78, Number 15 of The Uniter (January 25, 2024)

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