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


Update from the Oven Team

The last couple of days have been a roller coaster ride of creative ideas. Sometimes it seemed like we had a thousand different ideas on what to do or how to execute this project. The beginning of this project was definitely an overwhelming feeling that was hard to overcome but the next minute the creative spring had completely dried up. The cause of all our anguish was revolved around the idea that what the Kitchen Lab really needed was a functional kitchen component.

The trouble started as we debated what sort of cooking we would like to include, as that would dictate the kind of materials we would need to develop for inside the module. During the brainstorming session, we had numerous ideas that each member brought. One of the ideas that were brought up was a solar oven which would be the best option for Open Field, as the area is usually quite sunny and doesn’t lack for direct sunlight, so it just became a matter of harnessing the power of the sun to use as an education source for kids and adults as an environmental safe to cook food.

After some initial researching on the internet, we had a basic idea of the construction of the box and the materials we would need.  Diving into the prototyping phase, we constructed a couple different small boxes using the different techniques we had learned such as a cone shaped box, or just a regular box shaped solar oven.

It wasn’t until a particularly inspired trip to the Home Depot that we managed to find the perfect material for creating a reflective surface for the oven.  It was a reflective insulating material and an aluminum tape used in houses which was an absolute great material to use for the solar oven.  It became clear, even during the construction of the box, that this was exactly the material that we needed to have for our solar oven.  Our eyes blinded, as we stared into the box, we witnessed the first signs of success as a couple practice s’mores melted into mouth watering gooeyness.

Now comes the difficult part, the programming of the event for the Open Field.  We’ve thrown a lot of ideas around, but it looks like that we’re going to try making a fondue. We felt that fondue will be a great recipe because it was definitely a relationship with the hearth and our relationship to the hearth as a community by engaging one another.  We’ve never known for certain the highest temperature that our solar oven can reach, but we do know that it can melt things.  We’re thinking of gearing our programming around the communal aspect of different varieties of fondue, but perhaps having questions wrapped around the utensils that spark conversations around our solar hearth. This will be a great start of event to engage one another as well as educating the community by using the sun as natural resources. 

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





Wednesday, June 20th 2012 – Smelling Mammaw’s Creole

GumboBlogimage One of my cousins sent this recipe around last year just after my grandmother died.

Nora Mae (Garbarino) Cart was my Mammaw, and despite the Italian and English sounding name she was Cajun. She spoke Cajun French before she spoke English. At a young age she married a man from a few towns away and went to live there for the remainder of her life. It was in this town, Iota, Louisiana, that she raised 12 kids on big pots of Shrimp Creole, Jambalaya, and Crawfish Etouffee.

When I think of these foods, when I taste them, or when I stir my roux in a cast iron pot, I think of Iota, my mother (who was considered to be the best cook in the family) and what it means to own this odd ethnicity. I mean just stirring some fat and flour – a simple but tedious task – makes my kitchen smell just like Mammaw’s. Those smells make me think of that humid little town where, from my childhood view, the men always had a beer in hand and the women were always cooking and cleaning. It isn’t all warm and fuzzy nostalgia. Like anyone’s memories of a big family, some are funny or sweet and others are still infuriating.

I was reminded of this recipe because one of the projects that the Kitchen Lab is developing is focused on the smells of the kitchen. To me the smells of the kitchen are so specific in ethnic foods – they are things that become such a part of your life that you don’t even note them until you loose them for a while and then they come back. In this way the power of smell is stealth. I hope the project becomes something that brings back these kind of strong memories for the participants. Connecting to art is as much about memories and histories we bring to the work as it is about the artist intention. Because of this, smell seems like a perfect provocateur.

Tuesday, June 19th 2012 (Day Two) Participation not Learning: Who, What, and How Much?

I have been working on and thinking about learning in museums since I was lucky enough to part of the UPCLOSE Lab at the University of Pittsburgh in 2004.  One of the things that always struck me as challenging is that, while my intuition tells me that museums are wonderful spaces for learning, it is difficult to assess the learning that takes place in a museum.  This is for a whole host of reasons including:

  • The short length and sporadic nature of museum visits
  • Not having a measure of what people know before they come into a museum
  • Difficulty tracking changes in visitors knowledge over time
  • The inability to use our traditional assessment tools like test or projects
  • Undefined learning goals

The learning goals in contemporary art museums seem to be particularly difficult to define. Are we hoping that visitors walk away with a greater knowledge of the art world, studio practices, issues in contemporary society or all of these things?

Being part of the Kitchen Lab at the Walker Art Center this summer has enabled me to think about this issues from a new perspective. My art practice has frequently focused on engaging the public and my research practice is focused on understanding how people learn. This is the first time I have brought these two aspects of my work together. 

As I started to explore how I could assess my own role in the museum as an artist I began looking at literature that talked about participation in the museum rather than learning in the museum. A short paper by Matusov and Rogoff summarized an approach to treat learning in a museum as participation in a community of learners rather than just acquisition or transmission of knowledge. To important points jump out at me from this approach that are especially applicable to the Kitchen Lab:

  • First, the community of learners is not just a visitor to the museum – it may includes members of the museum such as curators, education staff, tour guides, guards, and  gift shop staff. There are other people who are part of the community of learners in a museum such as the friend, parents, grandparents, siblings, and of course the artist. (in the case of the Kitchen Lab this includes all of the collaborative including students and visiting speakers too!)
  • Assessment is based upon changes in participation not changes in the acquisition of knowledge.

For assessing the Kitchen Lab we need to focus on mapping the ecology of learners involved and then observing how their participation changed. Simpler said than done, but a first step in defining what our goals are with the Kitchen Lab.


Monday, June 18th 2012 (Day One!!!)

After months of planning and preparations – we begin!

Welcome to the Walker Kitchen Lab!

The day began with donuts. Appropriately enough.

Then it was introductions around the collective. We are composed of designers, landscape architects, mechanical engineers, artists, and educators. An eclectic collective.

Then an introduction to the project as a research project: the Walker Kitchen Lab as a platform for experimentation. What are we experimenting with? Two things: new forms of design and new forms of learning. These “new forms” might be called social design or social practice, learning ecologies or communities of learners. They are characterized by three qualities: they are public, they are collaborative, and they have an agenda. One of the tasks of the research, then, is to develop markers of these qualities, so that we might better understand, describe, critique, and inform these practices.

So what is going to be created? How will the Walker Kitchen Lab take form?

The basis for the physical components of the Kitchen Lab are a set of boxes. These boxes stack, they can be transported by being carried or with a bike cart, they have a shelf to hold trays within them, and beyond that, they are open to interpretation.

Later in the afternoon, our first guest collaborator joined us: Barry Kudrowitz. Barry has a background in engineering and toy design, and he led us through a series of games and activities, to prepare us for collaboration in brainstorming and design. This was followed by our initial brainstorming, through which we identified key activities, objects, and issues of the kitchen. Finally, we documented and shared our perspectives on what makes Minneapolis and St. Paul distinctive — these ideas and issues will be what shapes the objects and events of the Walker Kitchen Lab into forms that have social relevance and local salience.