Rich flavor of a culinary story

J&W museum closes to public but displays, extensive archives remain available to students, faculty

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Ever wonder if there was an alternative to sliced hot dog buns? Of course, store bought buns are already cut although it isn’t always the easiest thing to keep a hot dog nestled between the two slices. That’s not a dilemma that escaped the attention of an inventor in the 1930s. The solution was the hot dog bun machine, a chain driven conveyor belt with bun-shaped cups that were filled with dough and moved through an oven to produce a bun with a perfect groove for a hotdog.

The machine wasn’t a success and like so many inventions faded into obscurity. Apparently the buns just weren’t the same consistency and even if hotdogs slide out of the bun, that’s part of the experience. But the machine is still here, a footnote in the much larger story of food and how it is prepared, delivered and served.

Like so many items on display it was given to the Johnson and Wales Culinary Arts Museum that was started in 1989 and was located to the university’s Harborside Campus in Cranston in 2003. On Feb. 27 the museum closed its doors to the public permanently although it will remain open to students and as classroom space.

From experience, collections manager Erin Williams knows the museum will still get a lot of use. Students frequent the diner to sit on stools alongside the dummy customer and across the grill with its plastic hamburgers and strips of bacon. It’s a quiet place for studying or to hang out with friends. In addition to classes, the museum is used as a meeting place for campus clubs. But with its 200,000 items, the museum’s major role is a resource for research. Of the collection, 18,000 items have been digitized and are accessible to the public on the website culinary.org. Williams expects the collection to continue growing as people and estates hand over private collections.

“It pulls it all together with what they’re learning in class and the labs [kitchen],” said Williams.

The museum traces its start to its original donor Louis Szathmary, the owner and executive chef of The Bakery in Chicago. Williams said Szathmary was looking for a home for his collection and in 1989 16-tractor trailer loads of items arrived from Chicago.

The museum averaged between 10,000 and 12,000 visitors annually equally split between the general public and students, Williams estimates. Now that access is limited to students and university staff, she believes it possible it will get more use.

While the hotdog bun machine is an example of how implements in the preparation of food can change, albeit a failed attempt, the museum collection likewise illustrates how little some have evolved. A case outside the Ever Ready Diner carries a display of implements used at a soda fountain. They may be 80 years old, but they’re recognizable.

“You never change an ice cream scoop,” says Williams. Indeed, it could have come out of any kitchen drawer. Step back more than 2,500 years in the hermetically controlled Culinary Beginning display with its hum of humidifiers and air circulators and in small glass wall case, where light reflects off a pair of chop sticks and two delicate long handled spoons.

Williams asks to guess what kind of soup the spoons might have been used for. The answer is at the end of the handle shaped like a fish tail. The room is a trove of information with maps, books and pictures showing the routes of the spice trade. As done throughout the museum, displays are as much about recreating an environment that takes the visitor to that time and location as it is about telling the story. In the inn and tavern collection, the reconstructed 1830 tap room from the Stoddard Tavern, donated by the Mystic Seaport, is a stark contrast to the highly polished bar with its row of taps just outside the door. One can imagine, even feel, the welcoming warmth of refuge of each whether dismounting from a horse-drawn carriage or stepping off a bustling rain -soaked city street.

The White House display provides an altogether different experience. Elevated display cases contain recipes and hand written notes from White House chefs along with menus, pictures and letters. One display features President Grant along with a letter he wrote to the chef.

What will become of the museum and its collections?

University director of communications, Ryan Crowley said, “We don’t have any plans to reopen to the public.” He said students and faculty would use the space although it is not clear whether the displays would stay.

“We would return them [items donated to the university] case by case,” he said. Presently, he said, the dean of libraries oversees the museum.

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