Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
The new Museum of Food and Drink combines geeky food-science info with lofty social-justice goals.
At the far end of the newly opened Museum of Food and Drink in Brooklyn, there’s a row of vents affixed to thick tubes. Multi-colored wires trail down the whitewashed brick wall and snake up from the floor. They’re pumping scents that conjure familiar flavors.
An air compressor churns aroma chemicals through the tubes; the chemicals evaporate and become sniffable. The idea is to teach people about the sum effect of disparate smells, such as orange, lime, and cinnamon essential oils paired with vanilla extract. (The result is a scent that evokes bubbly cola.)
For now, the museum—the first of its kind in New York—is operating out of a storefront space in Williamsburg. With exposed beams and pipes, it has an industrial air—which is fitting, given that the installation, Flavor: Making It and Faking It, invites visitors to moonlight as food scientists in a laboratory, mixing—and, yes, tasting—isolated flavors.
Emma Boast, the programming director, snaps on a pair of plastic gloves and squats down to refill the aroma chambers with drops from amber-colored jars. The fruitiest smells lose their potency after a day, she tells me; the more savory ones linger longer.
Nearby, the team has installed retrofitted gumball machines that dispense flavor tablets thickened with potato starch, a fairly neutral flavor. “We didn’t want it to look too much like candy or medicine or be too sweet or bitter,” Boast explained. I try mushroom and tomato.
The exhibition is accessible and compelling, but certainly cerebral. For instance, there’s a panel about bean-based versus synthetic vanilla flavors. Dried kelp dangling from the ceiling spawns a discussion about monosodium glutamate, and the MSG backlash that dates to the 1960s, when a letter to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine complained about feeling sick after eating Chinese food. The fever over food additives was even satirized in a 1970 issue of MAD magazine. (As Smithsonian has reported, subsequent research largely debunked these claims, and the FDA notes that MSG is “generally recognized as safe.”)
Of course, thinking about food at this granular level is hardly new—just ask any chef who has experimented with foams (now declared “dead”), or even the bartenders who are slinging what Eater described as “science-aided drinks,” such as sous vide cocktails. And many consumers are deeply invested in understanding where their food comes from, mobilizing grassroots organizations to fight for GMO labeling or seeking out local producers. There’s also widespread kvetching over artificial and natural foods, even if those distinctions aren’t so novel—after all, synthetic vanilla dates back to nineteenth century.
What is more surprising, though, is that there’s now a place that permanently hoists the shriveled vanilla bean into a vitrine. It’s no longer just context or background information for a natural history display—it’s the basis of the whole discussion. On the other hand, it’s also surprising that it’s taken this long. Julia Child’s kitchen was donated to the Smithsonian in 2001; the Museum of Modern Art devoted a whole exhibition, Counter Space, to the “twentieth-century transformation of the kitchen as a barometer of changing technologies, aesthetics, and ideologies.” But those are shrines to food celebrities or postwar convenience. MOFAD is a cathedral for the ingredients themselves.
Once dotted with Polish butcher shops and Italian restaurants—such as the still-kicking Bamonte’s, which has been serving up classic comfort food since 1900—the surrounding neighborhood has become home, in more recent years, to all manner of twee, artisanal food emporiums. Take, for instance, a cheese shop that only stocks dairy-free curds, or Heatonist, which employs hot sauce sommeliers.
But those shops only cater to a relatively small swath of the population. Nearly 20 percent of the borough’s residents are classified as food insecure, meaning that they lack reliable access to nutritious food. On the national scale, the USDA estimates that 23.5 million people live in food deserts, where fast food joints or convenience stores far outnumber grocery stores with fresh produce. Though significant federal funding has been doled out to combat the problem, food inequality is hard to conquer—in part, that’s because it’s a multi-layered issue. It turns out that diets don’t necessarily improve even when fresh food becomes more readily available. “The cost of food—and people’s habits of shopping and eating—appear to be much more powerful than just convenience,” the New York Times noted.
Ultimately, that schism between foodies and undernourished consumers is something that MOFAD hopes to bridge, Boast says, through programs such as food justice fairs and composting workshops.
“A lot of people care about where their food comes from in terms of geography and place, but there are also stories about where it comes from culturally and historically,” she says. “Not just examining the ‘what’ of what we eat, but also the ‘why’ question.”
In addition to delightfully geeky dives into the composition of dishes, Boast hopes that the museum will tease out the cultural valence of food, and how it shaped the city—how pho ended up in Sunset Park, jerk chicken in Crown Heights, and masala dosa in Jackson Heights. “These are very local stories we’re going to be telling,” she says.