Exploring Jewish-Tunisian heritage through food
Artist Orly Olivier’s work revolves around the food and heritage of her Jewish-Tunisian family. She hosts group dinners, cooking workshops and makes visual art under the name Petit Takett. The name is a reference to Takett’s, her paternal grandmother’s restaurant in La Goulette, the port of the Tunisian capital of Tunis.
According to Olivier, a British soldier approached her father and uncle when they were children in Tunisia in the late 1940s or early ’50s. “The soldier offered them chocolate and said, ‘Take it.’ In the Judeo-Arabic they spoke, they thought it was a nickname, and my grandma named her restaurant after the nickname given to my uncle.”
After several years of cooking meals for large groups, Olivier’s culinary exploration of her roots will take the shape of an exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center. The show, which opens Sept. 1 and runs through Jan. 10, 2016, is called “Petit Takett: Love, Legacy and Recipes From the Maghreb.”
Olivier lays bare her family history in the exhibition. In one photo, her father, Sylvain, is making boulettes (North African meatballs) in their Los Angeles kitchen in 1983, while a tiny Orly looks on. Another photo shows a recipe card for chakchouka, a North African tomato and pepper stew with eggs. It’s written by Sylvain in blue pen, the paper stained with oil.
I interviewed Olivier sitting at a sunny backyard table at her midcentury modern tract home in a quiet neighborhood at the border of Highland Park and Pasadena. As butterflies flitted through the leaves of a grapefruit tree, we dug our forks into bowls of chakchouka. It was the same recipe she inherited from her father, made with roasted red and green bell peppers and roma tomatoes, serrano chilis from her garden, farm-fresh eggs and homemade harissa.
“This was a Sunday morning tradition at my parents’ house,” Olivier told me. “My dad made chakchouka any Sunday that he was home, in this big, giant enamelware blue-and-white pot. It was the best smell.”
Sylvain died in 2001 of complications from a living-donor liver transplant when Olivier was 20; her mother, Marsha, died in 1999 of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“I feel like they’re sort of everywhere with me all the time. This project has been about making that a priority in my life, keeping their memory with me,” Olivier said.
A decade after her father’s death, she discovered a box of his recipes in storage, with a couple dozen recipe cards for traditional Tunisian dishes. They include chreime, a spicy fish stew; aubergine farsi, a broiled eggplant dip; hand-rolled couscous; boulettes; banatage, mashed potatoes balls with sauteed meat inside; and numerous small salads served before the meal, such as mazoura, a spicy carrot and caraway salad.
Finding those recipes, Olivier said, “really resonated with me, and it made me realize that all the years that I’d been a photographer, shooting photographs of my family, this was sort of where it was building up to be.”
Olivier’s father emigrated from Tunisia in 1955 to Israel, where he completed his military service, and arrived in the United States in 1962. He ran an antique shop in West L.A., where he met Olivier’s mother. Olivier was born in 1981 and raised in Pacific Palisades, though she spent three years in Israel as a teenager and graduated from high school there. A graduate of Art Center College of Design, she is currently managing director of the Breed Street Shul Project, which is rehabilitating the landmark Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights.
“Breed Street is a bridge to the past, to people’s Jewish histories in Los Angeles, and it offers a unique opportunity for people to re-engage in that and think about how the cultures have evolved and changed over time,” she said. “Petit Takett is also that in a way. I’m taking my family’s history and making it my own in a way that’s meaningful to me.”
Olivier’s mother’s family is based in Los Angeles, and her father’s relatives often visited from abroad. Sylvain came from a large family (he was one of 12 children, of which nine survived into adulthood). The exhibit at the Skirball includes mementoes from Olivier’s childhood, including a hamsa amulet and a vintage commercial sign from her father’s kitchen, as well as the recipe box itself. There also are photos of Olivier and her sister, Remy, wearing handmade costumes and enacting plays for their extended family at home.
“After Shabbat dinner at my parents’ house, my sister and I would gather all the children and we’d put on these elaborate performances with ridiculous outfits, and my parents often participated in this,” she said.
The show includes her mother’s traditional North African dress, in cobalt blue and gold, that she wore for Shabbat dinners.
“It’s my Halloween costume every year, and I feel like Princess Jasmine in it,” she said. “My father had a matching white one that he would wear all the time for Shabbat dinner. It was a symbol of Shabbat for me, and of a really different culture from the American landscape I grew up in.”
The show also includes letterpress posters Olivier designed, inspired by her father’s recipes. They use different fonts and images to make the ingredients leap off the page, suggesting the emotional resonance that recipes can offer. They provide a map of sorts, to smells and tastes and visuals that can evoke vivid memories.
The exhibition will be installed in the Ruby Gallery, Skirball’s community space, across from Zeidler’s Café. There’s also a participatory aspect of the show. Visitors will be encouraged to reflect on their own family gatherings by submitting favorite recipes on cards provided by the gallery. Those will be displayed like a mosaic, inspired by North African tiles.
“I think the table is like a mosaic, where we all come together, and every piece of the table — the plates, the people, the food that you serve — fills the mosaic, and when it comes together, it’s a new picture,” Olivier said.
“Food has memories that go beyond words. Food can relate to many people. It’s very universal,” Doris Berger, the show’s curator, said. “[Olivier] starts with herself and her own culture. And that’s the closest and dearest and most authentic to her, obviously. But she starts to use it as a platform to venture out into all our cultures, and creates a possibility to remind ourselves we all have a certain heritage and certain memories, and we can bring them back, and food is a platform to do that.”
Last year, Olivier hosted a series of Shabbat dinners at Thank You For Coming, a food collective and art space in Atwater Village. Olivier will continue that practice at the Skirball with a series of related programs that explore various dimensions of food traditions.
As part of the Skirball’s ongoing “Skirball Playdates” for young children and their parents, the “playdate” on Sept. 20 invites families to prepare a delicious Tunisian dish and design table settings. Leading up to Sukkot, Olivier will lead a workshop for adults on Sept. 27, to create napkins using the Japanese shibori indigo tie-dye technique. Olivier will also host a Tunisian dinner on Oct. 18, featuring an array of salads, an entrée of vegetarian couscous and a dessert of basbousa (citrus semolina cake). There will also be a family sleepover for children and their parents to enjoy food and reflect on family stories on Nov. 14.
For Olivier, Petit Takett is about more than just a restaurant in Tunisia. It’s a concept that travels across time and space, from a kitchen in Tunis to a dinner table in Los Angeles. Food can be a powerful connection to the past, but it’s also a way to carry the past with you, to create a life that honors one’s heritage. In her art and in her food, Olivier continues the legacy of cooking and entertaining that her parents handed down to her.
This article was made possible with support from Cal Humanities, a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.