This past Monday, the Manitoba Food History Truck rolled into Steinbach. I love food, and I love history, and the combination of the two in this way to be quite enticing. We caught up with Janis Thiessen and had a chance to ask her a few questions.
Erin: So you’re looking for oral history about food…
Janis: Yeah! So folks come on and cook a sample of food, just something that’s memorable — it doesn’t have to be good or fancy, just memorable to them. And while they’re cooking that, or while we cook it together, and then eat it together, we interview people about the story of their lives. Part of the project takes place on the truck, and part of it takes place in actual food-related businesses, on farms, in restaurants, poultry processors, you name it, we’ll go there.
E: What’s one of the most interesting or unexpected stories that you’ve heard thus far?
J: Oh, we’re just starting the interviews now-
E: Today’s the first day? I thought it was just the first day in Steinbach!
J: It’s the first day of the truck!
Andrew: It’s a U of W project?
J: Yes it is. U of W Oral History Centre — I’m the Associate Director there. Kimberly Moore and Kent Davies are adjunct professors there, and Sarah Story is our hire for this project, our Archivist and Oral Historian — helping us make it happen. Do you want to come on the truck?
E: Ooh my goodness, this is awesome!
J: Yeah! We got really lucky, it’s virtually untouched. Friday we have our first interviewee who will be cooking on the truck.
E: I’ve had the impression though that you’d like to have people showing up to cook and share their stories, like, a lot.
J: Oh yeah for sure! That’s part of the fun, you never know what you’re going to get. Our first podcast is up on our website already, it’s student-produced interview with his co-worker from El Salvador about the role of salsa in his life, leaving civil war and still having difficulties here… but initially when that student proposed it, saying “I’m going to interview my co-worker about salsa,” I thought okay, that doesn’t sound tremendously inspiring… but you don’t know people’s story until they share it with you! So, listening to the final product the student generates… it’s not even about salsa really. Salsa’s just the hook to tell this much bigger story. And that’s what we’re hoping happens here — is that cooking is just a way to start a conversation so we learn a bit more about people’s lives and how that fits in with the history of the province.
A: Kinda like how Anthony Bourdain used food to open up all these other conversations.
J: Yeah! What he was doing for culture and understanding, we hope that we can do for history — just complicate people’s views a bit more. Because some folks tend to have a nostalgic view of the past, or they think the past is more relevant, and both of those are… not right. So we’re hoping that even if you don’t have an interest in history, most of us are interested in food. And you’ll log onto the website and see some story maps or listen to a podcast episode and have your understanding of history complicated a bit, hopefully.
A: Do you have any Mennonites signed up?
J: We do! We have someone signed up to make portzelky. It’s going to be a lot of fun. We have someone signed on to make tuna noodle casserole… we have someone coming on board to make puffed wheat squares… so we’re not looking for fancy. We just want something that means something to you.
E: So, when I was reading about this, I was kind of expecting that you could arrive here at any given time and see you cooking with someone, or hearing someone’s story.
J: I think it’ll take some time to build… because the truck doesn’t really make a lot of sense to people. I mean, who does a food history truck? It’s really a mobile oral history lab / kitchen, and it’s gonna be fun! So it’s here for three weeks, it’s going to be the last two Wednesdays in August at St. Norbert Farmer’s Market, we’ll be at the Morris Stampede, we’ll be at the first ever Manitoba Podcast Festival at the Park Theatre. And we’re hoping to do something this fall at the University of Winnipeg together with one of our partners, Diversity Foods. Their plan when they use the truck, later on, the long-term vision is that some of the recipes we generate here, they will offer either on the truck or cafeteria at the U of W, and so you’ll get, you know, an order of portzelky, it’ll have a QR code on it, and you’ll scan it with your phone as a student there at the U of W, it’ll take you to an interview excerpt, or the podcast episode, where this woman who prepares the portzekly talks about its role in her life, and her broader life story, and the broader story of Manitoba. The goal is, by any means, to drag people towards history.
A: Are you hoping to find things that are unique to Manitoba, or quintessentially Manitoban as if that’s a thing, or…
J: Yes and also no. This is why we’re doing life histories — because we don’t actually know what there is to find or we wouldn’t have to do the research. But part of it is that in some ways people think they know the past — we don’t, we know a version of it. But in some ways things that we think are universal because we grew up with them are in fact unique to here. That’s what we’re hoping for — that we get all the stories that we can, to learn all that we can, knowing that we don’t actually know what there is to know. And in the process hopefully we’ll know more.
You’re invited to come on board the truck and share your life story, but while you do that, cook a recipe that’s memorable to you — as a way to kind of encourage conversation. The Food History Truck will be in the MHV parking lot until July 7th. To RSVP your time on the truck to cook and share your story, please email email@example.com or call 204-786-9947.
To snoop around for more details, check out www.manitobafoodhistory.ca
Or visit their Facebook page, at https://www.facebook.com/events/485175165230387/