When touring the Heritage Society Museum Gallery, I was suddenly reminded of the black eyed peas, cornbread and cabbage my grandmother prepares for New Year’s. She says it’s for “good luck,” which is a tradition my mom picked up, who is passing it down to me. There is a system that takes place between families like mine, where traditions are passed on—and, depending your family's social status, passed on to other families.
The current Heritage Society exhibition, Food & Family: A Houston Journey, talks about how culinary practice bubbles up from the bottom of the class pyramid. The roles of cooks, bakers, waiters, and farm workers were almost never filled by the elite, and this exhibit explores families who started their traditions in the kitchen, the family-based farm, the restaurant, and as the entrepreneur, the grocer, and the distributor. It’s a story of how race, religion and ethnicity borrow and innovate in the kitchen.
Inside, you’re greeted with beautiful pictures of Thai food with an excerpt next to it asserting that food is art. I’m inclined to agree. From the preparation to the array of colors on each plate, the result is a beautiful creation prepared with love and tradition. This focused my attention as I walked through the gallery: to not look at each family as people who are “just in the food industry,” but that what they create is their passion and their form of art, a lasting, multigenerational expression of identity.
This sets up the exhibit's spotlight of different New Year's celebrations. Because there are over 145 languages spoken in Houston, New Year's is celebrated differently based on your background, like my family who celebrates with cornbread and black eyed peas, or the Chinese New Year, which is celebrated later than New Year's in America. The exhibit explores the ways New Year's practices originated in Thailand, India, Judaism, and the American South and how those practices made their way to Houston.
The exhibit also includes an excerpt on how large families parlayed local markets into multiple locations and chains under different names—the intersection of business and food. And it all ends by exploring the different preparations of a common food found on most every kitchen table—bread.
Anyone else hungry?
Food & Family: A Houston Journey, thru Jan. 27. Free. The Heritage Society, 1100 Bagby St. 713-655- 1912. More info at heritagesociety.org.