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The thriving spirit of food technology

Silicon Valley Eats exhibit comes to the Los Altos History Museum

A dinner table greets visitors at the entrance to the new "Silicon Valley Eats" exhibit at the Los Altos History Museum, prompting them to think about where their meals come from and how they've changed over the years. Photo by Adam Pardee.

While most think of Silicon Valley as the epicenter of all things tech, the area was nicknamed "The Heart's Delight" by John Muir in 1912, as he believed it was one of the most agriculturally bountiful regions in the world. From Mariani Premium Dried Fruit, founded in Cupertino, to Impossible Foods in Redwood City, Silicon Valley is the birthplace of food companies, canneries and orchards.

The Los Altos History Museum last weekend debuted a new exhibit called "Silicon Valley Eats," to educate visitors about the food and farming culture in the area.

The museum curator, Amy Ellison, moved to Silicon Valley last fall and started working for the Los Altos History Museum in January. She said her favorite part of creating the exhibit was learning about the region by connecting with people who worked in canneries, picked fruit, owned or managed restaurants or had ancestors who developed important agricultural systems. Stories, artifacts and photographs from these people bring Silicon Valley's history and future of food to life in the exhibit.

"As someone new to this area, I found it a very inspiring exhibition to work on," she said. "Today, Silicon Valley is famous for innovative technology, but when we look back at all the agricultural technologies developed here in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it's clear that spirit of innovation has been thriving here for a long time."

Ellison said that she was surprised to learn about the sheer number of orchards and canneries in Santa Clara Valley. One of her favorite food-canning modernizations was developed by Thomas Foon Chew, a Chinese immigrant and one of the most successful cannery operators in Santa Clara Valley.

"Before 1920, asparagus could not be canned without being damaged, but Chew and one of his employees found that square cans protected the stalks," she said. "He became known throughout the Valley as the 'Asparagus King.'"

With a focus on the area's agricultural roots, canneries, orchards and Ohlone origins, the first section of the exhibit, "Valley of Heart's Delight" displays stories and highlights from former cannery employees, who in the 1930s were primarily female.

"Conveniences in the Kitchen," the second section, explores changes in the way people ate, cooked and stored food. Visitors can watch a Dole Food Company promotional film about canned fruit cocktail on a replica 1950s black-and-white television set next to a TV tray with a boxed Swanson's prepackaged frozen dinner. While inventions such as the microwave and Tupperware were not invented in Silicon Valley, Ellison said, they transformed eating practices in the area.

A large wall featuring a culturally diverse collection of menus from popular local restaurants represents the third section of the exhibit, "Diversity of Cuisine," which celebrates the multitude of food cultures represented in Silicon Valley. Menus include Chef Chu's in Los Altos, Le Boulanger in Mountain View and the Pasta Market in Palo Alto.

The final section, "The Future of Food," examines local food movements and issues of sustainability. Local food tech companies Impossible Foods, which makes the meatless Impossible Burger, and Brava are included, along with groups such as Slow Food South Bay, which focuses on locally-grown, seasonal foods.

An original prototype Brava energy-efficient oven, created by Gunn High School alumni Dan Yue and Thomas Chen, is a part of the exhibit's "Smart Kitchens" vignette. The oven allows home cooks to prepare foods at different temperatures simultaneously. At the opening reception on May 5, Brava chef Lindsay West used the oven to make albondigas, Mexican meatballs made from Impossible Foods' plant-based meat.

The museum is hosting several workshops in conjunction with the exhibit, including a cocktail mixology event, cooking demonstrations and food-focused panel discussions. One of the workshops encourages visitors to explore hands-on science, technology, engineering and math activities at an apricot-themed STEM Fair on June 30. Inspired by local food pioneers and entrepreneurs, the event includes orchard-themed activities and an appearance by Lisa Prince Newman, author of the cookbook, "For the Love of Apricots."

"We hope people will enjoy the exhibit and be able to relate to the stories we tell, whether they used to pick fruit in the orchards, or whether today they enjoy plant-based meat and cricket flour," Ellison said. "We also hope that this exhibition makes people think more about the food they buy and eat. We often take food for granted and it becomes routine, but looking back at the food we ate and looking forward to the future of food can help us reflect on the impact our eating habits have on our communities and our planet."

What: "Silicon Valley Eats: A Taste for Innovation."

When: Through Sept. 8, 2019, Thursdays-Sundays, noon to 4 p.m.

Where: Los Altos History Museum, 51 S. San Antonio Road, Los Altos

Cost: Free.

Info: losaltoshistory.org/exhibits/silicon-valley-eats

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