As food scholars called upon to defend their field of study frequently explain, "everybody eats." Every person on the planet daily grapples of the question of whether they'll eat today, what they'll eat, and how they'll eat it. And they daily come up with billions of different answers, which makes a single exhibit summarizing the culinary profile of a huge population an inherently risky endeavor.
"From Fields to Family: Asian Pacific Americans and Food", the exhibit opening tonight at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, doesn't shy away from the bigness of its subject. Its components include videos highlighting acculturation in the Asian-American restaurant industry; oral histories documenting labor struggles; and heavy, inscrutable objects from earlier centuries--such as a ceramic jar for preserving eggs and a Samoan mortar--meant to convey the Pacific Rim's gastronomic history.
There are terrifically spirited interactive stations where visitors can test their dexterity with chopsticks; practice wrapping fabric "spring rolls," and master their stir-frying technique by tossing washers in a wok. Much like the menus at neighboring International District restaurants, where rice dishes alone routinely number in the dozens, the scope is encyclopedic.
Having to subdue an unwieldy subject wasn't the only challenge facing the community advisory committee charged with envisioning the exhibit. "No food and drink" is an inviolable rule of museum-going, so there's no eating in an exhibit that's all about food. "We ask that you enjoy it after you have left the exhibit," a sign posted over a candy bowl instructs. Curators were also forced to confront the tension between unity and uniqueness: A panel explaining the primacy of rice in many Asian-Pacific cultures acknowledges that Polynesians are more apt to eat poi.
The museum's reluctance to resort to sweeping statements is admirable, as is the acknowledgement that food isn't all fun, family, and festivity. The exhibit candidly addresses the dangers associated with food production, most movingly in an altar space where visitors can kindle battery-powered candles in memory of laborers who lost their lives in fields, factories, and fishing boats.
Upon entering the exhibit space, visitors first see a round table set with a bowl of dried rice. The centerpiece is surrounded by various eating implements: There's a shiny stack of tiffins, Chinese-American soup bowls, and a dolsot. The table suggests conversation, which is at the core of "From Fields to Family." Recipes from Rachel Yang, detailed histories of now-closed Seattle restaurants and video footage from a fortune-cookie factory can't convey a comprehensive understanding of food in the region's diverse communities, but they can -- and do -- prod eaters to think harder about what appears on their plates.