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Food history truck ready to roll

Researchers embark on unusual project to capture oral history of how food in Manitoba has been produced, sold, manufactured and consumed

Who developed the recipe for that perogy or pasta? What’s the tale that torte could tell?

A small group of history researchers from University of Winnipeg want to know, and will set out this spring to hear Manitobans tell their food-related stories.

It’s a team assembled by Janis Thiessen, a history professor at University of Winnipeg and associate director of the Oral History Centre.

Their goal is nothing less than to document a comprehensive food history of Manitoba, she explains. And basically ‘everybody’ is who they hope to talk to.

“We have a rich food history in this province and food is the gateway to talk about every other aspect of history,” she said.

“The hope is that even people who don’t care about history, or who at least don’t think they care, will nonetheless be attracted to the project because they do like food.”

Thiessen and her research team will roll into town driving their mini-kitchen on wheels, which they’ve dubbed the Manitoba Food History Truck.

It’s a departure from the usual way food-related history is captured, said Thiessen who is author of Snacks, A Canadian Food History that tells the story behind companies like Old Dutch Potato Chips and Hawkins Cheezies.

Most food history comes from written sources pieced together, but theirs is an oral storytelling project, she explains.

They hope all sorts of people who feed us, from home cooks to farmers, food company owners and local restaurant owners will contribute.

Thiessen has spent several months getting ready to roll, including securing funds and sorting out the logistics to equip and assembling her research crew.

She admits it’s a project as ambitious as it sounds.

They’ve set their sights on piecing together a comprehensive history of food manufacturing, production, retailing, and consumption in Manitoba from 1870 to present day.

Family recipes welcome

Their two driving questions will be, “How has food been produced, sold, and consumed in Manitoba?” and, “How has this changed over time?”

They hope visitors to the food truck will be those with a family recipe to share, and a willingness to be interviewed about it.

“This is an opportunity for people to share their home cooking without having to invite people in to their private space,” Thiessen said. “We’d ask you to cook us a small sample with us, and tell us about what makes that food important in your life and share the story of it.”

They also hope farmers, local restaurants and food businesses will visit — there are so many untold stories about food traditions, and loads of interesting food businesses to document, she said.

“We have places like Granny’s Poultry, for example, with its long history as part of the strong co-op movement here. We have all these really amazing family-owned multi-generational businesses. To be able to capture all this diversity and all these strengths is something that I think we need to do. So many of those stories will otherwise just vanish.”

Willing subjects will have their oral histories included in a podcast series, featured in pop-up exhibits and events and on a website of digital stories and maps. There are plans to eventually produce a food truck cookbook. This is a project that will last long after the research is done and remain widely accessible to all Manitobans, Thiessen said.

And a better understanding of Manitoba’s food history will ultimately help inform us of our business, labour, ethnic, Indigenous, and local histories.

This summer’s schedule

The Manitoba Food History Truck will visit three regions this year, first rolling into Steinbach’s Mennonite Heritage Village Museum from June 17 to July 7. It will also visit Winnipeg and Grandview.

They’ll always advertise before arrival wherever they take the truck, and ask people who’d like to cook on it to register ahead.

The idea behind a truck is to reach as many people as they can.

“We think it’s hopefully an opportunity to talk to a lot of folks who otherwise wouldn’t have interest in, or a chance to speak to us about their food history,” Thiessen said.

The four-year project is funded through a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and done in a partnership with Diversity Foods, a Winnipeg food-service company.

To learn more visit the Manitoba Food History Project website.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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