Hail to the Bitter Melon Council!
SOMArts Cultural Center and Kearny Street Workshop's "A Sensory Feast" exhibit featured a presentation and showcase by the National Bitter Melon Council, run by an artist collective passionate about the underrated vegetable.
by K. Joyce Tsai
Date Published: 04/20/2011
National Bitter Melon Council's "Bitter is Better?" Photo by SOMArts
SOMArts Cultural Center and Kearny Street Workshop presented "A Sensory Feast" from February 4 to February 24, with a special presentation by the National Bitter Melon Council (NBMC) called "Bitter Is Better?" on February 16. "A Sensory Feast" featured art installations by Asian American artists about food. As befitting the title, the pieces encompassed all the senses, from a table with bell jars over custom-made scents to headphones playing the sounds of someone cooking to wearable costumes of food such as durian, tofu, and pineapple. In the midst of this was the NBMC's corner, set to the right of the main entrance and delineated by green tape. The NBMC's goal is to promote bitter melon, a vegetable well-known in Asian communities but not always widely recognized or appreciated outside those communities.
I arrived early for the opening reception of "A Sensory Feast," and Hiroko Kikuchi and Jeremy Liu of the NBMC were still setting up. They had already set up a small island in the middle of their exhibition space to display an assortment of items, including a bitter-melon-shaped tea set, a picture book about growing bitter melon, some tiny crocheted bitter melon amigurumi made by Hiroko, and bitter-melon-flavored candy drops from Japan. Two large pieces of butcher paper had already been taped to the wall, one labeled "What smells remind you of bitterness?" and the other "What makes you feel bitter?" A large poster consisting of a glossary for the NBMC was hung above a green counter, upon which the contents of the NBMC's "Better Living through Bitter Melon" manual had been laid out. Hiroko was placing crumpled green gloves underneath the display, I assumed because the masses of fabric looked eerily like bitter melon. I drifted over, curious about what might be in a bitter melon manual, so I picked up and examined some of the booklets and pamphlets.
"You're not using the gloves!" Jeremy said, and I guiltily looked up. He pointed to a sign Hiroko was taping down, asking people to don gloves to examine the booklets. "No, I'm just kidding. It's to make fun of those museum exhibits that tell you to be extremely careful."
Photo courtesy of SFAC
A small TV next to the bitter melon manual display played an endless loop of video: a pair of hands, owner unfilmed, unwrap brown cardboard packaging to reveal several booklets, a postcard, and a poster. The hands continuously display the contents to the audience as jaunty music plays in the background, cycling through the different manuals, removing an uninflated green balloon from the postcard, and unfolding the poster to reveal a glossary.
"You'll get really sick of that music by the time the night is over," Jeremy told me as I bobbed my head along with the tune.
Throughout the opening reception, people wandered over to the exhibit, thumbed through the pamphlets -- with and without gloves -- but best of all, by the end of the night, both sheets of butcher paper were covered with various reflections on what smelled bitter and what made them feel bitter. Quotes ranged from the sarcastic and the light-hearted to the more serious, much like the art installation itself. Examples of things that smelled bitter to the attendees included "anything flavored 'purple'!," "defeat," "the fuzz on my tongue after being out all night," and "class discrepancies." People felt bitter over the small and the large, some samples being "people who lean on top of & in the way of art exhibits," "YOU!," "being wrong... though clearly I am," "health care repeal," and "not knowing how to answer the question?"
Photo courtesy of SOMArts
On the evening of February 16, the NBMC hosted a presentation of "Bitter Is Better?" in which they discussed the origins of the NBMC. In 2005, Hiroko created a year-long art installation called "Sifting the Inner Belt" to shed light on the gentrification of the South End neighborhood in Boston. Named after a large highway planned during the mid 1900s, the Inner Belt stood not only for a highway project that would cut through local neighborhoods, but also for the many urban renewal projects taking place in Boston at the time. One of these, the South End Urban Renewal Area, attempted to improve the neighborhood, which was seen as a tenement populated by immigrants and the working class. The 1940s saw a larger LGBTQ population moving in, but by the time "Sifting the Inner Belt" took place, many of the neighborhood's old residents were slowly being priced out. One particular area of friction lay between the newer residents and the Berkeley Street Community Garden. The BSCG is located on land that was razed for the South End Urban Renewal Area, but due to resident protests, the plans were never carried through. Instead, members of the South End community reappropriated the land and created the BSCG. As of 2005, many of the gardeners were Asian immigrants growing vegetables for personal consumption, a drastic difference from the wealthier new residents, who focused more on ornamental gardens.
Hiroko wanted to use a vegetable from the community gardens that would also symbolize the dissatisfaction and conflict taking place as the South End neighborhood gentrified, and she decided on bitter melon, an ugly and bumpy vegetable with a characteristic bitter taste. Although bitter melon is much more common in Asian cuisines, it is still not the most popular of vegetables, and as such, Hiroko found it a perfect symbol for the plight of the Asian immigrants and the Berkeley Street Community Garden.
In order to introduce bitter melon to a wider audience, Hiroko and Jeremey came up with the idea of Bitter Melon Week. For Bitter Melon Week, they would ask local restaurants of all types, from the new James-Beard-award-winning places to long-time Latino restaurants or Middle Eastern sandwich shops, to create a bitter-melon-based dish. In return, they would promote the week and offer the recipes for free to anyone who participated, and to do so, they created the National Bitter Melon Council. Bitter Melon Week went off successfully, and in the process, the National Bitter Melon Council expanded from Hiroko and Jeremy to include Andi Sutton and Misa Saburi.
After Bitter Melon Week, the NBMC focused on creating "Better Living through Bitter Melon," a kit including bitter melon recipes, nutritional information, and information on how to start local chapters of the NBMC. The entire council has been working on the kit in hopes of creating a way to let the NBMC go grass roots; with the kit, ostensibly anyone could start a local chapter of the NBMC and plan art installations, educational projects, or whatever else they can think of. In the meantime, Hiroko and Jeremy moved to the West Coast in late 2009, while Andi and Misa have continued working on the East Coast with diabetes organizations to promote what bitter melon can do for diabetes. Hiroko and Jeremey participated in an art installation in Los Angeles last year, and then in "A Sensory Feast" this year.
Photo courtesy of Kearny Street Workshop
After presenting Bitter Melon Week and the origins of the NBMC to an audience of around 30 people, Hiroko and Jeremy continued to showcase further work the NBMC has done. Topics included the assorted nutritional and health benefits bitter melon could provide, a blind taste test of bitter melon versus honeydew, as well as more philosophical notes, including a Meyers-Bitterness Survey based on the popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test. Audience members could serve themselves cups of bitter melon tea, which I passed up, or sample slivers of freeze-dried bitter melon and pineapple, which I took advantage of. Hiroko, who had grown up in Japan, mentioned that she had always eaten bitter melon, whereas for Jeremy, the vegetable was more of an acquired taste. I don't remember when I first tried bitter melon -- probably when I moved to Taiwan at eight -- but it was always something I had avoided eating until recently. Despite trying some bitter melon dishes prior to meeting the NBMC, I found the freeze-dried bitter melon a bit unpalatable at first, but when I ate it accompanied with the freeze-dried pineapple, the sweetness of the pineapple cut through some of the bitterness. The resulting combination wasn't precisely delicious, especially at first, but the way the flavors augmented each other had me returning to the snack basket multiple times to keep trying it.
Meanwhile, as I was munching away, the presentation turned into a discussion, as various members of the audience piped in with their own bitter melon experiences. One woman touted bitter melon's efficacy in homeopathic treatment. As the group gradually broke up into smaller circles of people, all talking bitter melon, Amy Ho began setting up a sewing circle to create a new mascot for the NBMC. Amy had shown a variety of food-based costumes in "A Sensory Feast," from durian to Buddha's hand to pizza. She felt that the durian costume in particular could work as a template for a bitter melon costume, as the points on the durian costume and the bumps on the bitter melon costume could be sewn using a similar technique. I sat and went through the entire process of sewing a single bitter melon part, from choosing the fabric, cutting out the shapes, sewing it together, then stuffing it. However, others took a more assembly-line approach, with one person manning the sewing machine and others concentrating on stuffing or cutting patterns. Although the bitter melon costume was nowhere near complete by the time the night was over, Jeremy reports that a second sewing circle has already taken place.
When asked about how he felt about the NBMC's participation in "A Sensory Feast," Jeremy said, "We were trying to conitnue the work of the council, so part of the goal was to engage the other artists to use bitter melon." Not only did the NBMC collaborate with Amy for a new bitter melon mascot, they also posted the "What smells remind you of bitterness?" in order to help Yosh Han, the creator of the bell-jar perfume place settings, brainstorm a scent for bitter melon. Finally, they put up a raffle for a free bitter melon tattoo from tattoo artist and "A Sensory Feast" participant Jean Chen.
As Jeremy noted, "That's our mission, really. It's to insert ourselves into other systems and works and processes."
When asked about future projects for the NBMC, Jeremy and Hiroko emphasized wanting to get local chapters of the NBMC started up. Also, they noted that the dual roles of the NBMC as a collective of artists and as an official vegetable promotion board created an interesting dynamic that they wanted to continue to explore. The NBMC is in the process of talking with larger vegetable growers to see if they would not only be interested in doing more with bitter melon, but also if they would be interested in using the methods the NBMC has been using to promote other vegetables as well.
I had prepared myself for writing this article by first visiting the NBMC's website (http://bittermelon.org/), where I found a confusing mixture of practical farming and cooking tips side by side with more abstract ideas questioning why it is that people avoid both literal and metaphoric bitterness. Half the website was aimed toward an audience of farmers, cooks, and gardeners, complete with detailed information on how to grow bitter melon, how to prepare it, along with the nutritional information and health benefts of bitter melon. Yet, unlike other produce campaigns, such as the "Baby Carrots -- Eat 'Em Like Junk Food" campaign, the goal of the site does not stop with education and persuasion, but instead challenges visitors to think more about the role of bitter melon and bitterness in the world. Their definition of "What is bitter?" includes "Loss with attachment," along with the more conventional definition of bitter taste that I would associate with bitter melon.
The NBMC's beginning as art installation, activism, and practical vegetable guide remains an essential part of the organization today. As it turns out, my initial confusion about the NBMC seems par for the course: the presentation opened with screenshot of a discussion on Wikipedia to delete the National Bitter Melon Council Wikipedia page. One comment reads: "I've read the article and visited their website and I'm still not sure whether a Bitter Melon is a real thing or a metaphor. Either way, this organization doesn't seem that notable, and this looks a lot like spam." However, rather than choosing to clarify, Hiroko and Jeremy instead focused on the confusion and the uncertainty the NBMC frequently receives as a reaction. But in reply to the Wikipedia poster, the NBMC is both the real thing and a metaphor, and that's precisely the space they intend to occupy.
Kearny Street Workshop is curating A Sensory Feast: Local Flavors from April 7 to May 27 at 18 Reasons, 593 Guerrero Street @ 18th, San Francisco, CA. Visitors were able to try signature-scent-inspired cocktails by Eau de Yosh or temporary food tattoos by Jean Chen during the April 7 opening.