|Should you go?
|37 minutes (excluding time attending a talk)
|Best thing I saw or learned
|I most appreciated this evolutionary family tree (or is it a periodic table?) of the sauces in American Chinese food. Succinct and illuminating, a good example of a great visual.
UPDATE APRIL 2021: The Museum of Food and Drink is currently closed due to the pandemic, but it also sounds like it’s going to be looking for a new home. I hope it finds one, it’s a worthwhile spot. Hopefully one that’s a bit easier to get to.
The Museum of Food and Drink is a very young institution. Its founder Dave Arnold had the initial idea back in 2004, but the museum only held its first fundraiser in 2011. Currently it occupies a space it calls its “Lab” in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Before I go any further, yes, it’s MoFAD for short. I find myself wishing Arnold had called it the Museum of Food and Tasting.
The Lab is a decent size, probably about 5,000 square feet. It occupies a ground-floor, open floor plan space near McCarren Park that used to be…a garage maybe? It boasts super high ceilings, a roll-up front window, and, appropriately enough, both a demo kitchen and a bigger, more capable commercial kitchen tucked away to one side.
I love food. My other blog is a food blog. But I was skeptical about the notion of museuming food. How do you capture an experience primarily related to the senses of taste and smell in a medium best suited to sight and perhaps sound? And how do you do any justice to so broad a topic in any space smaller than, say the American Museum of Natural History? I think visiting MoFAD changed my mind.
A Brief History of American Chinese Food
The current exhibit at MoFAD is called “Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant.” I found that an interesting coincidence, as the Museum of Chinese in America had a very similar show when I visited that institution last year. Looking around MoFAD’s exhibit I believe the two were done independently, making it interesting to compare and contrast.
Overall, MoFAD did a good and convincing job with its exhibition, given the finite space it has to play with. Much of the show was of the “science fair” school of museum exhibition: heavy on the text and images, light on the artifacts. But I liked MoFAD’s style; at least it was a science fair with really nice design. It gave a decent capsule summary of Chinese immigration to the United States, and the backlash against that, and how that indirectly led to restaurants becoming a promising line of business for Chinese people living here.
The MoFAD exhibit included a terrific display of Chinese restaurant menus, from across a wide span of times and places. It also had a fortune cookie machine, telling the story of that very American delicacy. Also, your price of admission gets you — theoretically — all the fortune cookies you can eat.
MoFAD couldn’t possibly tell all the stories of American Chinese food and the people who cook it. Indeed, I think it fell short on the people aspect (which is where the Museum of Chinese in America show excelled). But what it did, it did well; nearly every panel made me smile, or think, or both.
The history of chop suey, in particular, used a specific, iconic dish to illuminate the general principle of adapting Chinese cuisine for available ingredients and the American palate.
The Shape of a Museum to Come
MoFAD also featured a small display of other items in its collection. A taste (as it were) of its curatorial aspirations. Among other things, it included:
- An array of stuffed chickens of various artisanal varieties;
- A cereal puffer (for making puffed cereals, duh); and
- An old timey refrigerator.
All spoke to various aspects of how people produce, acquire and store food.
In a small space it did a creditable job conveying where this place might go over time, as it raises more funds to grow in terms of both collection and space in which to show it off.
Should You Visit the Museum of Food and Drink?
We live in a particularly food-obsessed time. Celebrity chefs, trendy ingredients, and the diet du jour, all garner thousands of words on blogs and in magazines. There are at least two cable networks devoted to food and cooking. So why not have a museum of food (and drink. We also like to drink)? It makes sense.
If you consider yourself a foodie or a foodist, a gourmet or a gourmand, you’ll almost certainly enjoy this place and empathize with its aspirations. I’m looking forward to following its growth and seeing what it does after Chow. People for whom food is merely fuel can probably skip it at this point.
One tip. MoFAD charges a relatively high cost of admission given the scale of its exhibition space. You could potentially balance that by eating a lot (a lot) of fortune cookies during your visit. Or, I’d suggest, you may get more mileage if you time your visit for an event (which generally include some food and drink as well). I attended a talk on the cultural history of chopsticks. MoFAD’s event calendar is sporadic, but they do interesting stuff.
|62 Bayard St, Brooklyn, NY 11222
|General Admission: $14
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