The VEMU and ENM Exhibition is Ready! Food – A Treasury of Estonian Heritage. Businesses and Factories in Toronto

September 30, 2014

The exhibition “Food – A Treasury of Estonian Heritage: Businesses and Factories in Toronto” opened in Toronto at Tartu College on the 21st and 22nd of September. The events included an English language symposium “Everyday Culture as a Keeper of National Identity”, the Dr. Vello Soots Memorial Lecture delivered by the writer Elin Toona, followed by the premiere of the documentary film “Makers of Food” (Toidutoojad). This series of events marked the 70th anniversary of the “Great Exodus”, Tartu College’s 44th anniversary, and the start of the VEMU/ Estonian Studies Center academic year.

The exhibition project started about four years ago, with the idea of collecting information about a variety of Estonian businesses that have operated in Canada. We realized quickly that we had to come to terms with a number of realities. To begin with, there were too many businesses operating over the years to fit them into one exhibition. It seemed that it was more appropriate to focus on a narrower topic. Also, there was a shortage of researchers: only the VEMU archivist.

Another sad fact was that the VEMU collection, although otherwise large and well organized, had less than 10 photos showing Estonian food businesses. All Estonians from the Toronto area had vivid memories of Rooneem’s and Amjärv’s bakery and confectionery shops, as well as Poko’s meat and delicatessen shop. However, no archival matter or materials existed. Information was also missing about the fate of the original owners and their descendants. Everything would now have to be collected from scratch.

It soon became clear that we could not finish this exhibition with our limited resources. Fortunately, it did not take much to persuade Riina Reinvelt to help. As an experienced ethnologist and a researcher of Estonians in exile, Riina had a like-minded interest. Her employer, the Estonian National Museum, was able to offer the necessary artistic and technical support for the exhibition set-up. Additional help for Riina came from Maido Selgmäe, Merike Tamm and Tiit Sibul. Both Riina and Maido came to Canada to film the interviews. Riina also did thorough archival research in Estonia and wrote the exhibition text. Merike gave the exhibition its eye-catching design and Tiit sent the exhibition off to Toronto. Mati Tee, of Regio Ltd., was responsible for creating the map that shows the location of all the food businesses and the printing of the exhibition was done by OÜ Seridisain. A great many people contributed to the completion of the exhibition and to all, a heart-felt thank you.

From the beginning, the idea was to compile an attractive and useful book complete with pictures and recipes from the exhibition material. The Koppel gift store of Toronto had such a book, but information for other stores could only be found in newspapers and then mostly in advertisements. Furthermore, the collection “Estonians in Canada” only touches upon food stores briefly. We still do not have a book on food stores but the idea has not been forgotten. In the end, we obtained more material than we could use for the exhibition, but it can still be useful. Experience has shown that more information and materials will be submitted after an exhibition has been open to the public. The plan is to select additional material and after a few years develop the book. However, an unplanned project – a documentary film “Makers of Food” was made possible by using the extra materials at hand. The film, by the Baltic Film and Media School graduate Kaisa Pitsi, was shown at the EstDocs film festival in Toronto.

The exhibition continues at Tartu College until February, 2015. After that, the exhibition will tour North America and then Estonia.

Piret Noorhani