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New Edible City Exhibit At MOHAI Charts History Of Seattle’s Food Culture

You are what you eat, or so the saying goes. Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry explores that idea in depth with a new exhibition that opened over the weekend. Called "Edible City," it charts more than 100 years of Seattle’s evolving food culture.

The show tells Seattle’s food history by exploring several basic themes. It starts with the raw ingredients that provide the foundation for our culture. From foraged foods such as mushrooms and berries to farmed landscapes and how they’ve evolved, the galleries are filled with artifacts, photos and recordings. Among the highlights is how seafood has always been a huge source of Seattle’s sustenance, especially for indigenous peoples. One display lists 21 different terms for salmon in Puget Sound Salish.

“Whether it’s dried or salted, fresh salmon, the different salmon species,” says Dave Unger, one of MOHAI’s curators, “that it’s a big part of the culture — as it still is today.”  

Unger is new to Seattle and says this exhibition has provided him with a crash course in local culture and customs, as well as innovations that tell all kinds of stories.

“The Cinnabon is a great example,” he says. “It’s something that I think a lot of people don’t realize comes from Seattle — it’s just in the mall.”

Credit Bellamy Pailthorp / knkx

But it was actually invented by a Seattle company that noticed how mall culture was taking off in the 1980s, so they sought to create a tempting snack. Restaurants Unlimited collaborated with a local baker and a Seattle spice importer, Crescent Foods.

“And so we have these notes, trying to figure out what’s the right combination of cinnamon in the Cinnabon, to make it that irresistible smell,” Unger says, pointing to handwriting on a piece of company stationery inside a display case.

About a third of the exhibition is devoted to Seattle’s restaurant scene and all the local chefs that made it happen. A highlight is a recreation of table number 1 at Canlis, complete with earthy carpeting, wood panel walls, a view of Lake Union at dusk and elegant evening wear from its heyday.  

“Our clothing curator was looking through the collection to find something that might have been worn at Canlis,” Unger says. “She found this and actually found a mint from Canlis in the pocket – of this dress that has been in our collection for 10 years or more that we didn’t know about.”  

The dress looks like it might be from the 1950s and is flanked by a kimono and an emerald green floor-length gown.

Credit Bellamy Pailthorp / knkx

Artifacts from Seattle’s coffee culture also fill the galleries, as well as a big section on the Pike Place Market, pea patches, DIY phenomena and the influence of high tech.

The show continues through September.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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