Anyone who has ever had a group of caroling children sing to them demanding figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer may have wondered how children these days could be so rude — they might have also wondered how figgy pudding has become such a staple of our holiday feast. Hopefully it’s just the latter — and for those who are curious, Matthaei Botanical Gardens has put together a holiday event answering just these questions.

Feast! A Cross-Cultural Culinary Tour of Plants Around the World

Saturday through Jan. 6 from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Matthaei Botanical Gardens

“It’s really centered around international foods that are used around the world in celebrations,” said Bob Grese, the director of the gardens. “So — particularly in holiday times — plants that are sources of either spices, sweets or fruits that have been common in holiday celebrations.”

“Some of them were originally found in Africa or South America, and they came to be a tradition. Things like chocolate and pineapple that really got moved around the world and entered the major diet of foods,” he added.

“Feast! A Cross-Cultural Culinary Tour of Plants Around the World,” a dinner at the Grese Gardens, will feature a variety of activities, including troll and fairy villages for children to discover, live music and a world dinner party, which is the main event of this year’s exhibit.

The Matthaei Botanical Gardens play an active role in the community, offering multiple programs for youth and adults throughout the year. It also serves as the classroom for Practical Botany, a biology course offered during the winter. The exhibit this holiday season is an extension of this community outreach in addition to the winter cheer — in a way unique to what the Botanical Garden have to offer.

According to Geese, this isn’t the first time the Botanical Gardens has hosted an event this time of year in the holiday spirit, citing a past theme of sustainable Christmas decorations.

Through the years, a special guest has been making an appearance for the kids as well.

“We’ve always done kids classes, and Father Christmas has become a tradition,” said David Betz, the garden’s visitor operations manager. “We’ve had different activities that have been more related to either a craft or an activity in the conservatory or a speaker or a lecture related to the exhibit.”

Betz oversees the educative aspects of the event, as well as the creation of the overall look. One of the staples of the Botanical Gardens holiday events is the Poinsettia Tree, made entirely of Poinsettia plants.

“It’s always a big draw and a great photo opportunity,” Betz said. “And there will be different colors of poinsettias depending on what (green) house you are in. There’s a big focus on holiday colors to complement the interpretation of the feast and the plants and food that are celebrated.”

This year, however, is the first time the Botanical Garden will be hosting a culinary feast.

“We’re working with the U of M chefs, and they’ve created a menu using ingredients that could be found in the conservatory,” Betz said. “Every entrée, every appetizer, even our mocktail has an ingredient that can be found in the conservatory.”

In an interactive way, the world dinner party sets the theme of the exhibit.

“It’s about really helping people make that connection between vanilla orchid and the vanilla flavoring and the vanilla they experience in foods,” Betz said. “Or the chocolate and how it becomes the chocolate we know and use and how other cultures use them.”

He added: “Some ancient cultures are showcased and how they use these plants as well as some current cultural celebration.”

The dinner takes place on Dec. 14 at 6 p.m. and will include a pre-dinner tour of the exhibit as well as a chef’s cooking demonstration.

“We would love to see how (the dinner) is received,” Betz said. “It would be great to have something in the conservatory, like around Valentine’s Day, that can play off this idea to make a connection between plants and foods, and really just enjoying the space this way.”

“Really, during this time of year when we all are thinking of food, we can create environmental awareness of relationships of food supply,” Grese said.

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