“What We Sow” communal meal successful despite government shutdown

The Mural Arts Program holds “70×7 The Meal, act XXXIV” on Oct. 5.

The grand finale of The Mural Arts Program’s six month initiative, What We Sow, drew to a close on Oct. 5. As the sun set over city hall, 904 guests broke bread at “70×7 The Meal, act XXXIV,” a communal dinner at Thomas Paine Plaza.

Chef Marc Vetri and the Cescaphe Event Group served a menu of heirloom produce to guests, hoping to engage this vast audience of Philadelphia residents in a historic and incredibly important conversation.

What We Sow has been working non-stop all summer through workshops, tours, cooking classes, tastings and much more in hopes to raise awareness about these dying species and answer the question – what in the world are heirloom foods?

Heirloom is a term used to describe plants that have open pollination. The offspring of an heirloom plant will be genetically identical to its parent plant, without any genetic modification. These plants are built to resist disease, harsh weather, and climate change – making them the ideal, organic choice to bring to the dinner table.

“Its called 70×7, and it looks at the meal as public art. It looks into the meal as expiration of the ritual of breaking bread, of dining, of sitting down together, of social networking connections. It is a way to stimulate conversation about the changes we need in our world,” Mural Arts program director, Jane Golden said.

Realizing the importance of these species, and the steps that need to be taken to bring them back, What We Sow reached out to Lucy and Jorge Orta, in hopes to do just that. These internationally recognized artists have been organizing dinners all over the world since 2000. Philadelphia was home to the 34th, and largest ever edition of The Meal, where heirloom foods were brought to the forefront of taste and conversation.

“These meals have been unfolding over the last 13 years, in different locations and different countries all over the world. This is the first time we’ve staged one in such a tremendous urban environment, and we feel a part of the fabric of the city,” Lucy said. “Philadelphia is a city renowned for its progressive restaurant scene, food policies, and programs, and Mural Arts is the perfect partner to help engage people from all backgrounds in a participatory and immersive artwork.”

The work of artists Jorge and Lucy was displayed at the dinner. Both the table runner and the plates on which dinner was served were designed by the artists to depict heirloom foods that can be found in local markets. In order to contrast the past from the present, inscribed under the drawings are names of extinct heirloom produce – the memory of the Purple Purivian Potato, Crowder Cowpeas, Oxheart Tomatoes and many more will be preserved by guests.

The plates were available to take home, in order to keep the conversation going. The concept of 70×7, the program’s namesake, is one of infinity. It is the hopes of Lucy and Jorge, and the Mural Arts program that seven people will engage seven others with the benefits of heirloom, who will then engage seven more, and the cycle will continue to churn.

“I think the actual dishes that were prepared was what really brought it home for me. The bright colors of the vegetables, and their incredible freshness make a beautiful combination that really draw the attention to heirloom vegetables,” guest, Sarah Anton said.

With the addition of new, interested minds, the art displayed for guests on the table transcends from the visual to a public performance art. The guests participated in something bigger than themselves – helping to simultaneously preserve and create history.

In order to add to the historic value of preserving heirloom produce, the dinner was originally planned to take place at Independence Mall. One long, 904-foot table was where the guests would have taken their seats, and enjoyed their meal.

Unfortunately, the government shutdown on Oct. 1 uprooted 18 months of planning to be rearranged in four days. Amidst the chaos the entire Mural Arts team, as well as sponsors in the William Penn Foundation, PNC Arts Live & AT&T were able to cover the unforeseen costs and plans, and pulled the night together seamlessly.

Brianna Spause can be reached at brianna.christine.spause@temple.edu.

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