The test kitchen at U of T Scarborough was bustling with food and flavour as Toronto Chef Nick Liu cooked a meal inspired by one of the oldest Chinese restaurant menus in the Harley J. Spiller collection.
The food session was one of several events in a two-day symposium held at U of T campuses called Chinese Food Everywhere.
“What makes the symposium a little bit different is that in addition to standard academic, scholarly panels there are some unorthodox sessions,” says Rick Halpern, Professor of History and holder of the Bissell-Heyd Chair of American Studies at U of T Scarborough and co-organizer of the symposium.
Hosted by U of T Scarborough’s Culinaria Research Centre at U of T Scarborough, the Bissell-Heyd Chair of American Studies, and the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery at Hart House, the symposium focused on Chinese food around the world and highlighted the Spiller menu collection – the largest collection of Chinese menus in the world.
“What makes the symposium a little bit different is that in addition to standard academic, scholarly panels there are some unorthodox sessions,” says Rick Halpern.
One of those unorthodox sessions was the artist’s talk held inside an installation by artist Karen Tam at the exhibition titled, “Far and Near: The Distance(s) Between Us.” Featured at the Barnicke Gallery, this installation recreates vintage Chinese restaurants inside the gallery.
Another example included a photography session, “Markets and Chinese Space,” a session that looks at how Chinese markets have been visualized and captured by photographers, Halpern says. Mississauga-based artist Morris Lum and Halpern’s own photography were the focus of the session.
The two-day event was inspired by conversations held between Halpern and Lily Cho, Associate Professor at York University and a Massey College Fellow in 2017-18.
“There seems to be a re-emergence of scholarly interest involving events at Hart House and the Spiller collection,” Cho says referring to recent exhibits such as U of T Scarborough alum Henry Lu’s exhibit on contemporary Chinese Canadian art.
Cho, author of Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada, hosted two of the event's panels and is greatly interested in new material about Chinese restaurants.
“More research and scholarship is being created about Chinese food, Chinese restaurants and how to think about all the politics around this stuff,” Cho says.
The fully registered event also gave participants the opportunity to be involved in a hands-on session in the UTSC Library’s Makerspace with a Canadian selection of the 10,000 menus already catalogued from the Harley J. Spiller menu collection, a 2014 acquisition by U of T Scarborough.
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“It’s a really exciting time to start looking at the materials in the Spiller collection because it’s just starting to be catalogued,” says Cho.
UTSC Library recently hired a new archivist, Tanis Franco, and a significant part of their job is organizing the immense collection.
“The library is figuring out the best ways to make the collection accessible to the U of T Scarborough community, particularly people in your food studies program,” Cho says, “but also more broadly for the Chinese-Canadian community - there’s so much potential for this collection.”
Open to the public, registration for the event quickly reached capacity. Like many Culinaria Research Centre events, the Chinese Food Everywhere symposium was an opportunity to connect researchers, chefs and many more.
“We try to establish connections with the industry and the wider community here in Toronto,” says Halpern.
Special guests included Eric Rath who is one of the leading scholars of Asian food in the English-speaking world; Harley Spiller, namesake and assembler for the menu collections; and Gabriel Chin, a law professor in the California system with a long experience with immigration law. Researchers from several universities were also in attendance.
“It’s nice to have these chances to bring all these people together and to make the connections between the campuses even more vibrant,” Cho says.
“This event alone is just a little bit of what kinds of things we can start talking about when we have something like this archive,” says Cho.
Halpern hopes that events like the recent symposium will be an annual affair. In fact, another theme is already in development with a symposium exploring Chinese Hakka food around the world - Hakka being a fusion of food between Chinese migrants and local cuisine, a food type that with a long history in South Asia and the Caribbean.
Until then he hopes that the Chinese Food Everywhere event has made people more aware of food studies at U of T Scarborough and the ongoing emphasis on diasporic foodways.