I played some work-related hooky yesterday and finally ventured into New York’s notoriously crowded Museum of Natural History to see Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture exhibition. Yes, I know, it’s been open since November, but holiday and weekend crowds combined with a $25 admission fee kept me away for most of the winter, until yesterday, after a tweet or Facebook post I read the other day about the Museum in general reminded me of the exhibit.
Depending on your budget, it may or may not be $25-worthy on its own, but if you are planning a visit to the museum anyway, with or without kids, I’d recommend springing for tickets to the exhibition as well. You have plenty of time to go–it doesn’t close until August 11, 2013, but if you like food, farming and culture as much as I do, you’ll enjoy it, once you get passed the usual door and dinosaur crush of school groups and visiting families from near and far. For true local food geeks like me, it’s a pretty basic overview of how food gets to our plate and principles of sustainable food and farming, but getting this message and the impact of our food choices to a broad, national audience of museum visitors, including very young children, is very heartening and very important to making lasting changes of minds and appetites beyond urban settings like New York City. Seeing the exhibit can help revive any sense of defeat or sagging hope or enthusiasm that the “Monsanto Protection Act” and other such industry hits can cause and renew a sense of commitment to a healthy, local food system.
The exhibition opens with a short intro film about our food system, and has exhibits that take you from farm to fork, divided into sections about:
- Growing our food. Information and interactive exhibits about types of agriculture, yield, seeds and native plants, various growing methods, including a vertical garden, with a strong focus on sustainable methods that focus on regional diversity.
- Trading and transporting our food. Stories and dioramas about how our food gets to our plate, distribution and trade throughout history, discussion about the use of biofuels, food waste.
- Cooking our food. The exhibit showcased cooking techniques around the world and throughout history, including a wall dedicated to modern “molecular gastronomy,” information about preserving food through smoking, salting, canning, pickling and drying, seminal and typical recipes and cookbooks, such as an ancient recipe on a clay tablet and Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire, and an interactive virtual cooking table, where visitors can “cook” recipes, such as West African Groundnut Soup, Mexican Tamales and Grilled Salmon and Peach Salad.
- Eating food. This was fun—sample meals from tables throughout history, such as a quite tasty-looking, albeit artificial, array of Roman appetizers, a typical meal for Genghis Khan, the power-breakfast of Olympic swimmer, for my Jane Austin-loving friends, her daily tea table, and my favorite, Kenyan “local” comfort food.According to the exhibition website, the meal exemplifies the work of Wangari Maathai, who founded the Green Belt Movement http://www.greenbeltmovement.org in Kenya. “To help Kenyan families keep nutritious food on the table, her organization offers tips for planting and maintaining kitchen gardens—small plots of vegetables for home-cooked meals made with fresh ingredients like the one featured in the exhibition.”
- Tasting food. The exhibition has a working kitchen, sponsored by Whole Foods, with a schedule of tastings that change every two weeks. The tasting yesterday running through April 14 was a disappointing tasting of Twinings English Breakfast and Earl Grey teas with a half a Whole Foods 365° brand butter cookie, but the exhibition tasting schedule show past tastings that included pastas, healthy foods, cheese, and homemade breads, and upcoming tastings that include international cooking, honey, grilled foods, and tomatoes. The kitchen alsohad interactiveexhibits, particularly good for kids, that demonstrate the anatomy of our senses and how taste is affected by smell, culture, age, exposure, etc.—including these various nifty aroma samples that puff out the smell of garlic, lavender, ginger, thyme, fennel, among others.
- Celebrating our food. This comprised mostly a short, but very festive and lively film about food traditions and celebrations in families and communities around New York, including the food traditions around Chinese New Year, an Indian celebration in Queens offering food to the Hindu deity Ganesh, variations on American Thanksgiving traditions, and Senegalese Ramadan meals for before/breaking a Ramadan fast. The exhibit also invites the general public to post photos of memorable meals and celebrations on Instagram using hashtag #CelebrateFood—your photo could be selected to run on the exhibit slideshow or on the exhibition Web site. For example, the average antipasto table at Zezima Thanksgivings, two hours of pre-eating and drinking:
- Future of food. Experts, like one of my food heroes, the Center for a Livable Future’s director, Robert S. Lawrence, M.D., (who I was honored and thrilled to recruit as a judge for the Food for Health Business Plan Competition finals when I was at Mount Sinai’s IMPACT Center) discuss the threats to our food system and propose thought-provoking ideas for growing food sustainably to feed a rising world population, reduce waste, pollution and animal suffering, and conserve water and build soil, including farming in skyscrapers and closed-system fish production. Also, the exhibit looks at underused and overlooked sources of food, such as hardy grains like emmer, perennial plants, sea algae and buckthorn, swamp taro, as well as imagining a few futuristic/sci-fi foods like chocolate you inhale instead of eat, and nutrition patches.
The show ends with the usual funnel into the gift shop, but the choices were hard to resist: small batch prepared foods from around the country, including a couple of local products from Brooklyn’s growing food manufacturing companies, kitchen tchotchkes, decor and hand tools, and seeds from the Hudson Valley Seed Library. I couldn’t resist and walked out with a heavy bag of gifts, including these:
Overall, this exhibition is far more progressive and less industrial in its focus than the 2011 National Archives exhibition, “What’s Cooking Uncle Sam?”, which focused on the government’s influence on our food system and the food industries and marketing that government policy helped support. In my experience, this is the first mainstream food and farming-related exhibit I’ve seen at a major museum that looks at the food system as a whole, while focusing on more sustainable, local and regional methods of producing and distributing our food, and translates for the average citizen the message of the complex but direct impact of their food choices on our environment, our health, our economy, our cultural legacy and their effect on the world.
For more photos from the exhibition, visit the Museum’s tumblr.