Green Mormon Jell-O
Henri goes to Paradise and learns something about food
Henri took a road trip last week. Packed a lunch (pan-roasted turkey sandwich on focaccia and a small jar of Kalamata olives), poured a half-liter of Beaujolais into a Thermos, and hit le route. Though tempted to stop at Gottschalks for its pre-season sales on Polo and Tommy, I kept driving and before long was deep in the wilderness and heading into the mountains. Great rolling forests punctuated by steep, rock-walled canyons stretched out for miles before me. Yes, this is America, I thought.
Soon I approached civilization, evidenced by a sign welcoming me to Paradise, Calif.
I stopped at a gas station and got out to stretch my legs. I was looking around for a place to picnic when an elderly gentleman drove up in large white American car and rolled to a stop just before hitting a gas pump. He woke up, shook his head, rolled down his window and motioned me over. Quoi? I told him that even if I did know how to “fill ‘er up” and check his oil that I would do no such thing!
I got back in my car and decided to explore Paradise, Calif., a bit.
Henri had driven no more than a couple of miles when he came across something right up his ruell: Key Ingredients: America by Food, a traveling Smithsonian exhibit at the quaint little Gold Nugget Museum.
Now, despite what you probably think, Henri does not know everything there is to know about food and cooking. In fact, once every couple of months, sometimes even more often, I stumble across something about which I had no clue whatsoever—for example which state consumes more green Jell-O than any other state in the country and is proud of the fact.
Central to the exhibit is food as metaphor—how immigrants’ culinary contributions shaped the country: Spanish and Portuguese sugarcane, German sauerbraten and spaetzle and Mideastern shish kabobs and baba ganoush—as well as, of course, native American corn. There are also displays of regional foods, including Georgia peaches and Chesapeake Bay blue clams, and—apparently—you can even try on an authentic Wisconsin cheesehead.
The exhibit also includes a look at the history of food preservation, from the first iceboxes of the early 1800s and Clarence Birdseye’s first frozen foods in 1925 (which he invented after watching Labrador Eskimos freeze fish by burying them in the snow), to the first TV dinners of 1954.
You can also read about the history of cookbooks, beginning with 17th-century “household manuals” and including such iconic Americana as Fannie Farmer’s The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook (1896) and Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking (1943).
In addition to the Smithsonian Key Ingredients exhibit, the museum is featuring special outdoor exhibits on weekends through closing, Aug. 29. Coming up: The food and cooking of the California gold miners (July 31 and Aug. 1); a look at logging in Butte County and the Northstate (Aug. 7 and 8); a history of agriculture in the area, including the 1916 formation of the Paradise Irrigation District (Aug. 14 and 15); an examination of the Depression, WWII and post-war prosperity (Aug. 21 and 22); “A Taste of Northern California” (with samplings from restaurants from Chico, Paradise and Oroville, as well a classic-car show (Aug. 28, beginning at 5 p.m.); and a Paradise old-timers’ potluck picnic (Aug. 29, beginning at 1 p.m.).
Keep in mind that the Key Ingredients exhibit is limited in its depth—rarely more than a sentence or two about each display item—but will provide a decent overview of the American culinary experience as well as introductions to topics for anyone who’d like to learn more.
Oh, and the state that eats the most green Jell-O? Utah—a state that, we learn, is also proud of its "fry sauce," a mixture of ketchup and mayonnaise. I ate my Kalamatas plain.