Consumed by Cookware 

The origins and long journey of Kendall College's "Culinary Curiosity Exhibition"

In January, Kendall College opened its "Culinary Curiosity Exhibition," a culinary museum spread throughout the school. Displays in seven themed areas feature everything from early-19th-century spit motors to ornate meat and cheese slicers. For Mel Mickevic, who with his wife, Janet, donated the 300 pieces in the collection, the opening was the culmination of a long journey to find a taker for his treasures.

Mickevic, an octogenarian food scientist and inventor, started collecting 60 years ago. After serving in World War II and graduating from MIT, he wasn't sure what to do with his life, so he went for a career evaluation with a Boston industrial psychologist he'd heard about. "He gave me a written test and concluded my skills were in the 'bull department,' so he suggested I put my entrepreneurship and persuasive ability to work in a field I liked," Mickevic recalls. "I'd always enjoyed cooking, and I got a job selling candy- and chocolate-making equipment." On his sales trips, Mickevic found himself with a lot of free time and started exploring antique stores.

In the late 1940s he met Justin Alikonis, a research director for the Paul F. Beich candy company in Bloomington, Illinois—and the father of Janet, who was three at the time. Alikonis was cleaning out a storage shed and offered Mickevic copper kettles, candy rollers, and other equipment. "While I was on the road and limited by the size of my trunk, he was filling up my third-floor apartment," he says. They became close during the course of many visits over the years, and in 1983, after her father died, Janet moved to Chicago and they began living together; they married in 2001. Their 110-year-old, 12-room house in Uptown is still packed with stuff—early agricultural devices, hammered copper pots, 35 sets of candy rollers.

When Mickevic first started looking for a home for his collection, about five years ago, Chicago didn't have a culinary museum, and other important collections had already gone begging here before ending up out of state—notably that of the late chef Louis Szathmary, which is now at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. Mickevic says he and Janet began by talking to people they knew in and out of the food industry. They contacted Truman College, which agreed to exhibit the collection but only if the couple would cover the costs. They joined the Culinary Historians of Chicago and wrote a letter to president Bruce Kraig requesting suggestions on what to do. Kraig, who says he frequently gets similar inquiries, had a few discussions with Mickevic and consulted the Chicago Historical Society (now the Chicago History Museum), which was interested but didn't have the exhibit space.

Kraig, who teaches classes in food history and politics at Kendall, also mentioned the Mickevics in passing to his friend Christopher Koetke, dean of the college's cooking school. An avid fan of culinary history, Koetke phoned them, went to see the collection, and says he was so astounded his head was spinning. "Mel and I really hit it off," he says. "We shared a love of the antique mechanical devices as examples of human ingenuity and problem-solving ability, and I liked his commitment to putting the collection in a meaningful context."

But to do so would take time—and money. Koetke sought sponsors without success. According to Mickevic, a few years passed, and finally he agreed to pay for the installation and a three-year maintenance program. He won't divulge how much how much he has given but says it's exceeded Koetke's original estimate of $50,000 "by many times." Mickevic also declined to place a value on the collection itself, about half of which is on display so far. But he says that the most he ever paid for an item was $50, and that many items were free.

Naturally, there's a story behind every object in the exhibition, and they all arrived at Kendall with Mickevic's explanatory labels. But the job of verifying the information fell to Vicki Matranga, design programs coordinator for the International Housewares Association and author of America at Home: A Celebration of Twentieth-Century Housewares. Expanding on Mickevic's annotated photo albums, Matranga conducted a complete inventory and researched when, where, and how each object had been used, consulting with experts, visiting museums, and collecting pamphlets, postcards, and photographs for documentation. She also tried to connect the dots between similar items from different cultures. For example, in the "fuel conservation" section, a wooden oven from Papua New Guinea, that looks like a hollowed-out tree limb is displayed next to a 1905 Michigan slow cooker, a large oak chest lined with straw-filled pillows to insulate covered stew pots and keep them simmering.

Matranga says the contraptions she loves best are the spit motors; the variety of ways meat was roasted taught her a lot about early cooking methods. The oldest of the three in the collection dates to around 1800 and is in a case in the corner of Kendall's dining room. It's a complex array of interlocking gears, a rope-and-pulley arrangement, and a clockwork jack. Mickevic, who thinks it's from an English castle, provided the old postcard of a woman cranking a similar motor attached to a wall. The piece de resistance for Koetke is an adjustable wooden meat slicer that Mickevic refers to as the "Lithuanian attache salami cutter," because it can be collapsed and carried under your arm. "I got it for $35 while traveling in Kentucky," Mickevic says.

When asked his own favorite, Mickevic sidesteps the question. "Our dining room table seats 12, and when Janet and I have had dinner parties, we put a dozen objects on the table. My favorites are those that people of all different backgrounds relate to," he says. "Meat tenderizers always get a big reaction, because it hurts everyone's gums and teeth to eat tough meat."

The next steps for the Culinary Curiosity Exhibition include the installation of up to six additional cases around the school and the creation of a comprehensive Web site. Koetke suspects the museum will become a magnet for other donors: Northwest Cutlery has already given a meat pounder from the 1900s, and he's looking at a "bunch" of other items, as well as trying to line up funding for upkeep. A pamphlet guide is in the works, and at the moment visitors to the Dining Room at Kendall College can see exhibits there, in the third-floor hall, and in the lobby, among other locations.

Mickevic will undoubtedly donate more—he says people keep offering him "superb things" for free—but he swears his collecting days are over. Except, well . . . he's always been fascinated by carnival games with miniature cranes that grab baby dolls and other toys. "I saw one for $200—but that's more than my usual price limit," he says.   

Care to comment? Find this story at chicagoreader.com. And for more on food and drink, see our blog the Food Chain.

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