Inside the Demonstration Kitchen: A new way of exploring food history

Our American Food History Project recently introduced Food Fridaysa new cooking demonstration series on the Wallace H. Coulter Performance Plaza. Read on for a peek behin the scenes.

What are Food Fridays like? 
Every week, the Food Fridays team answers this question: What's the history behind the food we eat? The kitchen is part of an interactive learning space for dynamic, sensory-learning experiences, and we're looking forward to sharing our discoveries about food history with the public (and, in the future, via our website!). Each week, we'll fire up the gas range on our movable kitchen island, bring out our shiny new pots and pans, and invite a guest chef, home cook, or food innovator to join us as we cook and talk about food—and American history.

Two people stand in a kitchen. The man holds a steaming pot. The woman looks into it and an expression that says "oooh, yum." On the kitchen counter are watermelon, mustard, kitchen implements.

Why build a demonstration kitchen in a history museum? 
We've learned that as our visitors peek inside Julia Child's kitchen, or explore our exhibition FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000, they discover that food is an essential expression of American culture, innovation, and history, but there's always something missing when you can't exhibit the food itself. Certainly our objects tell powerful parts of that story—when you can see Julia's whisk and copper bowl right next to her stand mixer, you are seeing the story of dramatic changes in food technology, and the place for both old and new tools in the modern kitchen. When we decide to display a drive-thru burger menu just a few feet away from Alice Waters' bouillabaisse cauldron, visitors can see how food has been made both fast and slow, for the on-the-go diner and the gourmand. We place wagons that transported the first machine-harvested lettuce adjacent to the first microwave oven for the home, to show how food gets from the field, to the market, and to our dinner tables.

But where, in all of this, is the food itself? By building a demonstration kitchen into the heart of the first floor of the museum's West Wing, we're able to tell a live, sizzling story about food's place in American history, and tell the story of the people and places that have shaped the way we experience food. This kitchen is a new space for special guests from the food world—chefs, home cooks, farmers, authors, and food innovators—to share their knowledge about food history with our visitors, as well as during ticketed after-hours programs.

A chef in red holds up a dish in the demonstration kitchen.

So what's cooking? 
Our focus in July is summertime cooking traditions in America. All around the country, summer's warm weather and sunshine-filled days mean food-centric social gatherings. Backyard parties centered on the family grill, church picnics, state fairs, and seafood cookouts on the beach have become signature culinary events of summertime in America, and different parts of the country have their own signature summer foods.

Box containing Cook-Eroo Grill. Image shows little boy and little girl with dog squatting on grass, grilling a meal. Under a tree.

But each celebration has a story to tell, and prompts lots of questions that we want to answer. For example, how did potato salad, a German dish made with a vegetable that originated in Peru, become an American favorite? How did suburbs created after World War II lead to the backyard barbecue, and why was meat such an important part of that celebration? How does a Maine lobsterman trap the crustaceans that become the key ingredient in the state's signature roll? The questions that we're exploring here aren't just about what to eat—they're about where the food comes from, how it becomes part of the American diet, and why what we eat today reflects shared memory and history.

On a kitchen counter, containers of ingredients sit organized on trays. First tray includes green herbs, sliced lemons, chunks of chicken, cabbage, onion, and sauces. Second tray includes cucumbers and tomato. A tray in the distance is covered in spice jars.

How do Food Fridays connect with the museum's collections and exhibitions?
As we discover and share these stories, we'll bring out objects from the museum's collections that reflect our changing experiences of food. Each demonstration will inspire visitors to explore all the museum's exhibitions in search of food knowledge—to seek out the model of the Dauntless fishing schooners in On the Water, to learn the story of home canning in Within These Walls, and of course to see the major changes over the last half century in FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000. One bite of the Food Fridays program, and soon you'll be devouring many other parts of American history at the Smithsonian.

Wooden figure of man in boat. He stands, holding a net. Blue shirt, yellow hat.

Each week we'll be cooking up something different, and later share the recipes for the dishes we prepared on stage online, so you too can cook your way through American history. We hope you'll join us to discover the new demonstration kitchen, and to visit during one of our upcoming Food Fridays programs!

Woman in jeans leans over a kitchen drawer, which is open. She places a kitchen tool into the drawer. On the table, boxes sit to be unpacked.

For more information on the series, including individual program descriptions, check out our schedule. Jessica Carbone is the host of the upcoming Food Fridays program, and a project associate in the Division of Work and Industry, Food History Project. She's particularly looking forward to learning about Jamaican jerk chicken on July 24 and cold summertime dishes on July 31