What goes better with storytelling than incredibly tasty food? The Toronto Ward Museum’s signature program, Dishing Up Toronto, aims to create space for locals to tell their stories of migration using food as a vehicle for storytelling. The process of planning and developing the tours spanned nearly three months as museum staff (including myself and co-founder Gracia Dyer Jalea) worked with the museum’s institutional partners Heritage Toronto, the Culinaria Research Centre, and Kapisanan to help train and provide tools for four local Torontonians to be able to develop and deliver their own unique food and storytelling tours.
The dynamic duo of Leo and Arlene Chan, local food blogger Aisha Silim, and emerging arts professional Joyce Voegler participated in three workshops and a dress rehearsal as part of their training for the tours. During this process, the Toronto Ward Museum acted as a supporting and guiding force in terms of working out logistics and providing suggestions, but ultimately it was up to the tour guides to decide where they wanted to hold their tours, which local restaurants and businesses they wished to feature, and how their migration story would be highlighted using food. Within this model, the tour experience is different than might be found at a more traditional museum, where there is an interpreter leading the tour and telling the story. With Dishing Up Toronto, tour goers are hearing directly from the people who lived these experiences. In other words, the Toronto Ward Museum worked to create space for immigrants to be able to tell their own stories, in whatever manner they were most comfortable, without interfering or changing what the guides wanted to accomplish during their tours.
Arlene Chan discusses how lichees are an important part of her migration story during ‘A Wok in Chinatown.’ Photo Credit: Sophie Burke.
I think the most poignant example of how this process differs from other museums can be found by examining the third tour in Dishing Up Toronto, which was led by Aisha Silim and was titled ‘A Taste of Ramadhan’. During the workshop process, it became apparent that the dates for the tours fell within the month of Ramadhan. Aisha, therefore, couldn’t eat during the day, when the tours were originally scheduled. However, she came up with the brilliant idea of hosting an Iftar at her aunt and uncle’s house, thereby inviting participants to join her and her family in breaking fast for the day. This tour had a similar vibe to League of Kitchens, where people are invited into a person’s home and have the chance to sit and eat together, which can be a very memorable and intimate experience. One of the participants commented that they enjoyed the “feeling of camaraderie, being able to explore migration stories in an intimate and safe space with great food and even greater conversationalists.” Throughout the evening, Aisha and her family served various tasty dishes that explored aspects of their family’s migration story, and there was much lively discussion as others joined in to share their own experiences of migration. The exchange of stories, ideas, and laughter made for an incredibly memorable experience, which is what the Toronto Ward Museum aims to do in all of its programming.
Participants gathered in a circle to hear and share stories of migration with Aisha and her family during ‘A Taste of Ramadhan.’ Photo Credit: Sophia Burke.
Dishing Up Toronto managed to highlight 14 local businesses and restaurants, to reach an audience of approximately 2.4 million people through media coverage, and to engage both locals and international visitors during the tours. These numbers mark a strong beginning for the Toronto Ward Museum’s programming, and we are looking forward to finding new ways to engage local Torontonians in telling stories of migration. Larry Ostola, Director for Museums & Heritage Services, and Acting Director for Arts & Culture Services, Economic Development and Culture at the City of Toronto, attended Leo and Arlene’s ‘A Wok in Chinatown,’ and commented that “The tour was very well done with top notch guides and was a fascinating blend of history, culture and food.” Feedback like this indicates that we are on the right track, however there were some challenges during the tours, as nothing goes perfectly the first time. Some participants weren’t fond of how personal the storytelling became as the tour guides shared their own experiences, and although the participants were encouraged to share their own stories of migration with the group, some were just too shy! Participatory experiences in museums are becoming more common, however we will have to continue to build a framework for our programming which will help participants engage in those experiences more fully.
Joyce interviews local restaurant owner, Diona Joyce, during her ‘Balikbayan Renaissance: Kain Na! Filipino Food Tour.’ Photo Credit: Sophia Burke.
We were very happy to welcome City of Toronto Councillor Mary Fragedakis, on Joyce’s tour. She commented, “It is just wonderful how the Toronto Ward Museum wraps together fabulous food, history, culture and learning into a truly enchanting experience.” This project is something new for Toronto’s culinary tourism sector, as it offers unique, individual perspectives on the city, as well as highlights local businesses and restaurants that are often not included in other culinary tours. Overall, this pilot project was a success, and we are looking forward to improving some areas of the process in the future, to continue training guides, and developing more tours.
Dishing Up Toronto continues this November with more food and storytelling at the Pasquale Brothers warehouse in Etobicoke. Join the Pasquale family, founders of the Unico brand, on the eve of their company’s 100th anniversary, and uncover the family stories behind one of Toronto’s most recognized food brands.
For more, visit https://wardmuseum.ca/dishinguptoronto.
Anja Hamilton is a Master of Museum Studies student at the University of Toronto, and has spent the past summer interning at the Toronto Ward Museum. She is interested in participatory experiences in museums and looks forward to starting her career. In her spare time she can be found knitting and eating too many plates of nachos.