Food News

Culture, Preserved

Brown scholar’s exhibition Memory Dishes explores contemporary Providence families’ cooking traditions


In Disney’s Ratatouille, Anton Ego, the merciless food critic of Paris, takes one bite of rat chef Remy’s ratatouille and is instantly brought back to his childhood. The movie flashes back to a scene in which his mother made him a rustic version of the classic French vegetable stew, and it made him feel comforted and loved. This is what food can do. It can bring you back in time, connect you with loved ones, and sustain cultural traditions throughout generations. In her new exhibition Memory Dishes, Brown University Fellow Johanna Obenda seeks to explore this very phenomenon through the cooking practices and shared histories of several local families in Providence.

Inspiration for the exhibition was born out of happenstance when Johanna read High on The Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America by Jessica Harris for her graduate capstone. This work eventually became a jumping-off point for her own research. From there, Johanna spent time with several local families in the Providence area who have different African diasporic backgrounds to learn about their contemporary cooking practices. What she found was that women are central to the propagation of cooking culture, knowledge, and tradition.

“When I first started this, I was really focused on the foods, but as I started to get to know the families, something that came out were these intergenerational connections, particularly the ways that cooking histories are passed down through women in families” says Johanna.

In her work displayed at the Center for The Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University, Johanna explores the fruits of her research through various modes of interactive media. A major focus of the presentation is the kitchen. The scholar sought to evoke all aspects of the kitchen through video, paneled pictures, cookbooks, a small herb garden, and various kitchen tools. If there’s one thing that the curator wants her audience to take away, it’s to get them thinking about their own culinary histories and the way that food and family have shaped their identities through everyday interaction. “I really hope we are highlighting the every day as a space where information is made, history is shared – just as a very significant space.”

Memory Dishes is on display at Brown University’s Center for The Study of Slavery and Justice from now until the end of the summer. 94 Waterman Street