Photo Credit: Kent Wang
I recently ventured over to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Lincoln Park, excited to see their new food exhibit. What a novelty! A museum exhibit dedicated to the pursuit of a full stomach, rather than a lofty ideal or a masterpiece of human endeavor. It seemed pleasingly democratic.
Sorry to say, I was mildly disappointed. The first portion, dedicated to the transformation of the Illinois prairie to the monocultural farming wonderland it is today was probably the most illuminating part of the exhibit. There’s so little attention paid to grasslands and savannah as an environment worthy of protection and respect, compared to the awe-inspiring landscapes of, for example, MonumentValley or Yellowstone. The rest of the exhibit was given over to attempting to engage children and their parents in discussions of food politics — the number of miles an apple might travel to your local bodega, the food deserts on the South and West sides — or vaguely advertising Dominicks, who sponsored the exhibit. I got through it in about twenty minutes.
Twenty minutes! Less than the time it takes me to eat breakfast, most mornings.
Despite its fleeting nature, food is as much a part of a people’s heritage as their art, music, and literature. If you want to know a people, sit down at their table and eat with them. A meal can last a few hours, but it carries the weight of history and place, both of the individuals involved in making and consuming the meal, and of the historical community that originated the recipe. In my family, during one of our infrequent reunions, food is a gateway to the personal history of the unruly Cipri clan that used to run wild through the West side of Stamford, Connecticut. A plate of garlic bread or a dish of meatballs serves as a trigger to a round of stories. Beyond that, there exists the less-discussed history of the food itself, the collision of cultures exemplified in immigrant cuisine, the journey my great-grandfather took from Calabria to the eastern seaboard. Then there’s the greater journey of the food itself, the biological evolution of the spices used, the cultivation of wheat, the domestication of cattle and pigs.
Considering that eating is integral to our existence, it’s surprising that there are so few museums dedicated to food. We’ve been eating longer than we’ve been creating art or technology, and yet you’d never guess from the dearth of museums exhibits devoted to the art and practice of stuffing your face. A quick google search revealed the Muzeum Gastronomie in Prague, and the Alimentarium in Vevy, Switzerland, and closer to home, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. There are also numerous smaller museums devoted to particular cuisines or foodstuffs: the Ramen Museum in Yokohama, Japan, Pizza Brain in Philadelphia, and high on my “Places to Visit” list, the Museum der Brotkultur in Germany: a museum entirely given over to bread.
It begged the question: what would I put into a food museum, given an unlimited budget and no problems with occasionally horrifying, terrifying, or disgusting my patrons? How would I divide the exhibits? How would I curate them?
Curation itself is an interesting occupation: to form a collection of singular objects, creating a cohesive experience out of the whole, and to be a custodian for the objects themselves. To curate an exhibit or a museum requires intimate knowledge and abiding love of the subject on display. Chefs are natural curators, though their media is ephemeral; despite this, the experience of a good meal persists long after dessert.
Perhaps I’d divide my food exhibits into their intersecting sciences. I’d have a technological wing, done in uber-modern Ikea chrome and solid colors, displaying the latest technological advances in the cultivation and preparation of our meals, with GMO salmon in an aquaponic tank next to some vat-grown meat, with free samples of astronaut food. The chemistry wing would reek of pickling fumes, and various stages of kimchi, sauerkraut, and prahok would be on display. The biology wing would have an exploration of the alimentary canal, from your lips to your rectum, with a few detours to the brain to discuss the issues of taste, smell, cravings, anticipation, and the near-sexual pleasure one gets from a good meal.
Or maybe I’d divide it like an art museum, pre- and post-modern, experimental and avant-garde versus the beautifully utilitarian: rye bread and potatoes, street-vendor food, beer and fortified wine, all of that set against the deconstructivist creations of Grant Achatz and Ferran Adria, the Picassos and Van Goghs of the food world.
A large garden would be necessary, obviously. Maybe even a farm. The kitchen would be huge.
But any museum curated by a single individual would be incomplete, because food is so bound up in communities. In a globalized world, where an apple grown in New Zealand will end up in a bodega in HumboldtPark, food no longer belongs to a single person.
My food museum then would have to be a rigidly democratic institution. No board of governors, no CEOs. The curators could walk in off the street, slip on an apron, and say, “I’m gonna make you some meatballs, just like my Aunt Gloria used to do.” And then we’d be off, consuming the history of our meal with each mouthful.