The City Pantry: A Cabinet of Scents and Memories

Our Kitchen Lab project, the City Pantry: A Cabinet of Scents and Memories, is wading its way into thick description. We’re in the midst of smell. Collecting it, translating it, containing it, writing around it. In the last three days, we’ve gone to dozens of yard sales, chain supermarkets, co-ops, ethnic food markets, and hardware stores on the search for canning jars, peg board, bungee cords, scents and memories. We’ve concocted smells ranging from the backyard to the river, to the gas station. We’ve also invited friends and strangers to collaborate in the process of writing the city through its scents.

Wednesday, my collaborators Sara N. and Jimmy went to two St. Paul landmarks—Candyland andMidway Bookstore. The guy at the bookstore told them that he couldn’t smell the books. What he did smell was asphalt, the exhaust, tar, cigarettes, and the busy intersection.

The City Pantry’s internal architecture, waiting to be filled with scents and memories

Friday, Sara and I went back to St. Paul, first to Ax-Man with Jimmy, then to Grand Avenue. Stogies on Grand was to be the first of several stops, but was as far as we made it. Sara’s friend Jessica was working that day. She unscrewed almost every jar in the store in the process of walking us through tobacco and memory.  Over the bridge of her glasses, Jessica schooled us: “You take a cigar like you take your coffee. If you like it black, you’ll like it more intense.” Some of the tobacco bites with fermentation. It’s peaty—a deep scotch undertone that gets to your gut.

Jessica pinched a ½ teaspoon into her left palm, rubbed it with her right palm, and bruised the tobacco as if muddling herbs.  She told us the first time she smelled cherry tobacco she couldn’t stand it. Then someone bought some and took it into the smoking room. As he lit his pipe, Jessica was transported to memories of her grandfather. This was his smell.

Each story about smell calls up other smells.

Jessica’s memory called up one of my own—the first time I smelled pipe tobacco in a schoolmate’s house in the middle of Pennsylvania. The estate was filled with opulence and middle-school awkwardness. The smell was grounding—a soft, round olfactory cushion.

Fresh scents from the garden

I find myself increasingly attuned to smell, and brainstorming the olfactory.
How do we recreate the scents of
Spring rain
Hot asphalt
Garlic when it seeps through the walls
First love
Pollen in the spring. Honeysuckle.
Grandma’s house.

Jimmy and Sara stopped at the co-op to buy spices in bulk.  Among the teas were tiny dried tea roses. Saccharine, pungent and reminiscent of Victorian parlors.  Upon return to the studio Jimmy paged through a musty old book, Sara unwound a rope of black licorice, and the roses seeped through the plastic bag.  Out of these actions, the smells mingled to evoke a Midwestern grandma’s house. After that, for each member of the collective, they fanned the book, and held out the tea roses and licorice while participants waved their noses before the objects.  For most of the collective, it was uncanny.

What memories/places/people/times might these scents evoke?

Yet it’s interesting that not all scents are universal; in fact, they call up uniquely personal and evocative recollections.  Thinking about grandma’s house, I remember my paternal grandmother’s house in Mexico City. Abue’s house was the smell of moth balls, tomato and onion simmering on the stove, overripe fruit, and wood. Later, the tenants.

Come on down to Walker Open FieldThursday night from 6-9 pm for “Kitchen Lab: an Unveiling” and play with the City Pantry as well as all of the other Kitchen Lab projects that explore ideas such as heat, water, and curiosity. Hang around for an Acoustic Campfire performance by Mixed Precipitation’s cast of Picnic Operetta!  As a collective theWalker Kitchen Lab has been researching, developing, prototyping, discovering, exploring, questioning and philosophizing what a kitchen is and what it can be. What would you put in your Kitchen Lab.  

by Susy Bielak, Sara Nichol and James Lynch


Reflections on the Amuse Bouche Event

The first of the Walker Kitchen Lab public projects took place last Thursday evening. (June 21, 2012) In restaurants, an amuse bouche, or mouth amuser, is a one bite meal that allows the chef to demonstrate their approach to food. The Kitchen Lab Amuse Bouche invited people at the Walker Art Center’s Target Free Thursday Night (TFTN) to create their own one bite meal that represented a little bit of Minnesota.

The project was developed by Carl and Betsy DiSalvo to engage the public in thinking about representations of ideas in different sensory food experiences, and to reflect on their community.  It also served as a prototype and model for Kitchen Lab collective that is building a series of kitchen experiences for the Walker Open Field.

Dryness and sweet taste profiles were used to help recreate the feeling of the 9 PM Minnesota summer sunset.

Participating was a little like playing a food game. With a placemat, or game board, in hand each player selected two “taste cards” and one “phrase card”. The taste cards had one word description of taste like sweet, sour, or umami. The phrase cards had short phrases that would hold special relevance to Twin City residents, such as “Fireflies in a jar”, “Algae on a lake”, “Slush in your boot” and, of course, “Minnesota nice”.  A wide variety of food and taste were provided and visitors brought their own to share.

They then selected ingredients from their two taste profiles and created a new one- bite meal that represented their phrase.  After finding the perfect recipe we asked them to make three, two to share and one to add to the artist collection along with their recipe. 

One family, including mom, dad and two children, spent over 30 minutes making their one bite meals. Mom’s final product recreated the feeling of the first day for shorts after the long Minnesota winter, using skewering tofu, mint, raspberry, and lemon after marinating each layer.

At the end of the evening I meet a mother and her teen daughter and friends. They were sitting at the artist collection table reading each label. I told them to go ahead and try what every they wanted and they were there for 30 min sampling and laughing. The mother complemented the event and I asked her how she heard about it. She said it was on an email blast she gets and it sounded really “intriguing and fun”. I asked her if they come to the Thursday night events very often. She told me that her daughter had been to the Walker one time before when her grandmother took her to a film last year, and she loved it so she wanted to bring her again. They live in Ham Lake and it was a one-hour drive to come to Amuse Bouche.  They had to wait when they first arrived at 7:00 because things we so busy at the Amuse Bouche table, so they walked around the neighborhood and in the sculpture garden. When they came back at 8:00 they made their meals and wrote up their recipes then just read over the other recipes until I came up at 9:00.

We currently have 4 more Walker Kitchen Labs that will be ready to prototype on Thursday night – you are all welcome to come. The currently named Oven, Water, Tea, and Smell labs will be ready for you to try out and play with.


Kitchen Lab at the Target Free Thursday Night

Walker Art Center Open Field

Thursday, June 28 6 PM – 9 Pm