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(Almost) Too Good To Eat

A wedding cake created by Muscoreil's Fine Desserts & Bistro in North Tonawanda.

Food and culture on exhibit at the Castellani Art Museum

An exhibit at the Castellani Art Museum at Niagara University is about food as memory. Food as remembrance of where we came from, our forbears, our heritage and culture. The title of the exhibit is (Almost) Too Good to Eat.

Food such as a Ukrainian tradition wedding loaf, looking more like an elaborate floral arrangement, with red, white, and blue flowers and assorted greenery and impressive stand of ripe wheat, and around the substantial base—the actual loaf—more greenery and small flock of dough-construction little birds, symbols in toto of life and love and happiness and fertility, and the old country and the new country. A finished product loaf is on display along with photos of the loaf in the making in the kitchen of Earka Luzecky in Rochester. A main feature of the actual loaf is a continuous braid of three strands of dough around the top edge (concealed under birds and greenery in the finished product), symbolizing the triple union of the wedding pair and God.

Adjacent to the Ukrainian loaf display is one on the more familiar European-American tiered white-icing wedding cake, pointing out symbolic meanings we probably aren’t cognizant of anymore. The advent of the white wedding cake related to technological innovations in the seventeenth century that allowed the production of white sugar, which was still expensive, and so a status symbol, in addition to the white cake virginal purity symbolism.

Several versions of the white cake basic model—from traditional to bizarre unconventional—are from Muscoreil’s cake bakery, North Tonawanda. Instead of the staid bride and groom figures at the top, one version shows the happy couple wielding chainsaws in a pitched battle with a crazed bunch of attacking zombies. The zombies have lost some limbs, but keep on coming. The bride and groom are a team, seems to be the message, and are going to face challenges.

A Japanese formal tea ceremony performed last year at the Buffalo History Museum in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the sister city relationship between Buffalo and Kanazawa is depicted in photos, accompanied by a display of ceremonial vessels and other utensils employed in the tea-making. The sturdy brazier on which the tea water is boiled, an elegant ceramic flower vase, tea bowls of various styles and decoration, one with a lovely lake and mountain scene, one with Japanese calligraphy. Tea master Takako Michii describes the tea ceremony, which can last hours, as “like a symphony,” embodying principles of harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility.

Nor is coffee neglected. Another display is on Ethiopian coffee ceremony, which starts with roasting the coffee beans in a skillet, and savoring the fragrance, the better to enjoy the full coffee aesthetic experience. The Ethiopian coffee display is courtesy of the Lucy Ethiopian restaurant, on Amherst Street, which was mentioned last week in this space, being the subject of a video made in conjunction with a Squeaky Wheel young filmmakers’ program. (You can observe/participate in/partake of the whole Ethiopian coffee ritual, including free coffee, every Wednesday and Saturday,4-7pm, at Lucy.)

Other subjects in the Castellani exhibit include kosher food and drink associated with the Seder meal, which commemorates the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, and an assortment of Easter lamb cakes and lamb butters from the Broadway Market. Also, photos of two recent weddings in the Bhutanese-Nepali community on the West Side, featuring ritual offering foods, and copious and variegated foods for sustenance of participants and guests during the protracted ceremonies.

And a Mexican Todos Santos (aka Dia de los Muertos) altar similar to the one erected each year outside the Mariachi de Oro restaurant, Medina, by Leonel Rosario, proprietor, and family, consisting of a framework arch of fruits and flowers, and on the altar proper, tiers of fresh and preserved foods of many sorts, including numerous kinds of bread, from yeasty white loaves to a dark brown hardtack, spices, candles, alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, and sacred images. Not the more usual multitude of frolicking skeletons. Accompanying verbal material explains that Todos Santos traditions vary widely from region to region and even village to village, and the tradition in the Rosarios’ ancestral locale downplayed the mortality imagery.

Photographs are by Carrie Hertz, gallery folk arts curator, who created the exhibit, and Lukia Costello, photographer and instructor of English as a Second Language in the Buffalo Public Schools. Accompanying the ethnic foods exhibit is an exhibit of her superb portrait photos of some of her ESL students, which she makes and presents as gifts to the students, “as a sign of her appreciation for their strength and vitality.” The portrait photos are in black and white “to de-emphasize the superficial contrasts of skin color,” she says, “highlighting instead our similarities as human beings.”

The ethnic traditions and photo portraits exhibits continue through December 8.

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