Family recipes, whether invented on the fly or handed down through generations, often become treasured heirlooms, offering a window into the private lives, flavors and histories of one’s ancestors. Now, the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) is giving the public a chance to share their relatives’ beloved recipes with a broader audience.
The Washington, D.C. institution—the only major museum dedicated exclusively to women artists—is currently accepting submissions for an online exhibition, “Reclamation: Recipes, Remedies, and Ritual,” slated to open on January 18. Participants are encouraged to share their family recipes, as well as pictures of the dish, anecdotes and reflections on its significance, through an online form.
The program is part of the museum’s “Women, Arts, and Social Change” initiative, which seeks to highlight “the power of women and the arts as catalysts for change.” Per a statement, community recipe submissions will feature in the museum’s first-ever exclusively online, interactive exhibition alongside creations by nine artists.
“[Recipes] will be layered with the artists’ work, creating a dynamic portal for exploring the interconnectedness of food and the communal nature of nourishing and curing the body,” the statement notes. “In this way, both artists and viewers will use those materials to honor women’s roles in the practices and traditions surrounding food.”
Melani N. Douglass, public programs coordinator at the museum, curated the exhibition and selected eight artists to participate in the project, reports DCist’s Sarah Cooke. The roster includes chefs Jenny Dorsey and Lauren Von Der Pool, dancers Sharayna Ashanti Christmas and Djassi DaCosta Johnson, community artist Aletheia Hyun-Jin Shin, performance artists Tsedaye Makonnen and Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz, designer Maggie Pate, and Douglass herself.
“Wherever [the artists] eat or however they choose to prepare their food is their gallery, their own museum,” Douglass tells DCist. “The one thing that ties everyone together is that there is something about the act of ‘reclaiming’ in each of their practices, something about how and why they reclaim that pushes their work forward.”
Each artist was tasked with creating a work of art that responds to 25 questions about food, Douglass says. The resulting exhibition will prompt viewers to consider the complex politics and history of cooking, which has traditionally been the unpaid domestic responsibility of women, as Aimee Levitt writes for the Takeout.
Though they were long excluded from the male-dominated food industry, women chefs have defined how people eat and share recipes for centuries. Chefs such as Edna Lewis (The Taste of Country Cooking) and Julia Child (Mastering the Art of French Cooking) produced definitive cookbooks that introduced huge numbers to different cuisines—American Southern food and French food, respectively—and helped reshape home cooking.
“[F]emale cooks’ style transformed the kitchen,” wrote Lily Katzman for Smithsonian magazine in August. “[T]heir dishes required less expensive ingredients, simpler tools and included step-by-step instructions. These personable recipes both influenced family tastes and encouraged the passing down of knowledge to aspiring cooks.”
The NMWA’s exhibition will respond to widespread racism in food media by encouraging people to consider the histories of appropriation and colonization that are bound up in the histories of their recipes, Douglass tells DCist.
She points to tomatoes as an example of this dynamic: Though many contemporary observers associate them with Italian pastas and pizzas, the fruits actually originated in Central and South America. Tomatoes featured in Aztec cuisine long before they began appearing in European dishes; the word itself comes from the Nahuatl “tomatl.”
“Reclaiming our food histories is key to reclaiming the cultures that we are part of,” Douglass says. “I hope that people see themselves in the show and in the museum.”