By Mary Schneidau Sullivan

If you can’t stand the summer heat, get out of your own kitchen — and then stay as cool as cucumber while sampling the selections at the Laurel Museum’s current exhibit, “What’s Cookin’, Laurel?”

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Alexandra Jones and Jan Kushner visit “What’s Cookin’ Laurel?”
Photo credit: Mary Schneidau Sullivan

Whether you like mixing metaphors or salads, the exhibit offers a gastronomical glance at Laurel’s history that is sure to whet your appetite.

“We wanted something more fun and lighthearted after the heavy events of the last two years,” said Ann Bennett, executive director of the Laurel Historical Society (LHS), which runs the museum.

Many tasty tidbits are served up in the retro-designed exhibit, including a look at local farms and grocery stores of yesteryear, and explorations of the role of food and faith among Black families in the Grove neighborhood, dining out both past and present, and kitchens of different eras. The exhibit also includes a collection of historical cookbooks and imaginative depictions of the future of food.

“It’s been very positive overall,” Bennet said, noting visitor reaction to the exhibit. “Many people are connected to the nostalgia of it.”

“What’s Cookin’, Laurel?” features a milk jug voting system for visitors to select their favorite local restaurants in a series of rotating categories, and cards are available for guests to copy down enticing recipes they want to try at home. 

The exhibit includes a list of some 200 now-shuttered Laurel restaurants, too. Just before the exhibit opened, the city’s beloved Pasta Plus, which served its last customers in late December and announced its permanent closure in January, made it onto that list. Dedicated Laurel Historical Society volunteers quickly interviewed owners Max and Sabatino Mazziotti and grabbed some souvenirs from the restaurant to add to the museum’s collection. The exhibit includes a guestbook in which customers can record their favorite stories of dining at Pasta Plus restaurant; after the exhibit closes, the museum will share the guestbook with the Mazziotti brothers. 

The museum also offered two smaller rotating exhibits this spring marking the 50th anniversaries of both the George Wallace shooting and Hurricane Agnes. 

The food-themed exhibit ushers in a return to normalcy after the pandemic disrupted the museum’s more normal operations. 

The exhibit “Unpacking Laurel’s Past: 150 Years on Display” had only been open for six weeks of its expected 10-month run when the pandemic forced its closure in March 2020. The sesquicentennial celebrations designed around the city’s milestone anniversary were quashed. Also canceled were three years’ worth of scheduled galas, events that had traditionally been the museum’s largest fundraising events. In-person shopping at the museum store ground to a halt, and membership renewals were suspended for a year. All revenue sources took a hit, Bennett said, and the number of donors and volunteers declined. 

Still, Bennett noted, the historical society was fortunate to have dedicated board members and staff, smart investments and support from the city of Laurel, which owns the museum building, and from Prince George’s County.

Bennett noted that the pandemic pushed the historical society to focus on what it does best and evaluate how it can strengthen partnerships, going forward. 

The museum reopened in June 2021 with the exhibit “2020: What a Year!” that explored the city’s response to the pandemic, racial justice issues that dominated 2020 and the truncated celebration of the city’s 150th anniversary. The exhibit placed a spotlight on the historical society’s efforts at what is known in historical circles as rapid response collecting — in this case, gathering materials related to the pandemic and local social and racial justice protests.

“This was a way we could save Laurel’s past and present for its future,” Bennett said. “We wanted to give the most complete picture that we could of 2020 and 2021.”

The museum also offered two smaller rotating exhibits this spring marking the 50th anniversaries of both the George Wallace shooting and Hurricane Agnes. 

Education has been a priority for the historical society in recent years. LHS offered virtual summer camps in 2020 and hybrid summer camps in 2021, and has returned to in-person summer camps this year. The society continues to offer virtual presentations, which have allowed it to reach a wider audience than its pre-pandemic, in-person offerings did. One session last fall, which was held in conjunction with The Crystal Fox, focused on the history of Halloween; more than 200 people from all over the country participated — and the popular program even brought in a few international guests. 

“We’re in a good place to expand our mindset and basic operations,” Bennett noted.

 Laurel resident Alexandra Jones and her out-of-town guest, Jan Kushner recently visited the “What’s Cookin’, Laurel?” exhibit. Jones moved to Laurel last fall and had wanted to visit the museum. The two said the exhibit’s theme fit in perfectly with their plans for the weekend. 

“We’re going to spend the day eating food,” Kushner said, laughing. “We’ll have an interim break to go learn about food.”

The exhibit also helped Jones get a better feel for her new home, she said.

“I’m glad we have our own museum,” Jones said. “I’m trying to learn about the town I moved to.”

“What’s Cookin’, Laurel?” will run until Dec. 18 at the Laurel Museum, 817 Main St., on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are welcomed.