Penn Museum and Women's Committee to Publish "Culinary Expeditions: A Celebration of Food and Culture"

Alison Vayne, for GPA -- The University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (3260 South St.) will be releasing “Culinary Expeditions: A Celebration of Food and Culture Inspired by Penn Museum Treasures” on May 5, providing readers with the unique opportunity to test recipes from eight different countries and cultures.

The idea for creating the book, which features historical objects as its illustrations, came from Suzanne McDevitt, a member of the museum’s Women’s Committee. McDevitt, along with book editor Jane Hickman, Ph.D, worked for years to develop the concept.

“The more Suzanne and I worked together, the more the book started to take shape,” said Hickman.

Hickman and McDevitt carefully picked each section of the book with the help of the museum’s staff. The structure of “Culinary Expeditions” ultimately determined what it would feature.

“We sat down with the curators and keepers and talked to them about food. We talked about Roman food, Greek food, Middle Eastern food and Egyptian food and all of that gave us an idea,” said Hickman.

"Culinary Expeditions" emphasizes the relationship between food and culture. The museum staff selected cultures that their readers would already be familiar with.

“We looked for sections that had food that would be known to many people, like Greek food or Middle Eastern food,” said Hickman. “We really tried to pick mainstream types of food.”

The book features eight different cultures and culinary stories from Asia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Africa, Mesoamerica, the Middle East and Native America. There are a total of 80 recipes, accompanied by photos of related objects from the Penn Museum.

In addition to Hickman, McDevitt and Penn Museum staff, The Women’s Committee also supplied volunteers to write small paragraphs and research food for "Culinary Expeditions." The book details the evolution of food in each area and gives specific information on cooking techniques, culinary traditions and local ingredients. Hickman enlisted the help of outside experts for certain parts of the book.

“In a couple of cases we needed some kind of expertise that we didn’t have, so we found people outside of our group,” said Hickman. “An outside expert wrote the Rome section."

One of the most critical parts of putting together the concept was ensuring that the book had accessible recipes and made for a pleasant read. With this in mind, each recipe was tested twice.

“You’ve basically got forms that you have to fill out in terms of taste, ease of preparation and ease of getting ingredients,” said Hickman. “If a recipe was too hard or didn’t taste good, it got kicked out.”

The Penn Museum and the Women’s Committee published “Culinary Expeditions” to bring people to the museum so they might discover the objects featured in the book. All proceeds from the sales go directly to the museum.

“One of the main reasons we did this was to raise money for the museum,” said Hickman. “Our goal is to sell a thousand books and donate $25,000.”

The Women’s Committee has been a friend to the Penn Museum since 1937. The committee, originally composed chiefly of wives and relatives of the museum’s Board of Managers, opened the first shop in the museum and paid for the very first conservator’s training. Today, the Women’s Committee carries on their mission with initiatives like the printing of “Culinary Expeditions.”

“This really is a Women’s Committee publication,” said Hickman. “They paid for the printing of this so we would not have to take any of that out of the profits.”

The project required hard work for everyone involved but it turned out to be a unique book about cultures and food around the world.

“We had trouble early on describing the book because we did not want to just call it a cookbook, it is so much more than that,” said Hickman. “This was really a great collaboration between the staff at the museum and the volunteers.”

Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum.