The Museum of Food and Drink is an educational non-profit looking to change the way people think about food, and now it's seeking funding on Kickstarter to build a physical presence in New York. Headed by mad food scientist Dave Arnold, the museum will feature interactive exhibits focusing on culture, history, and of course, the science Arnold developed during his time heading the Culinary Technology department at the French Culinary Institute and the bar at Booker & Dax.
We talked with Peter Kim, the Executive Director of the museum, to talk about the group's long-term goals and first short-term project: funding their first exhibit. Details in the video below.
As a person who has a past career as an attorney, Peace Corps volunteer, public health program founder, and political science student, how did you get interested in food? I don't know, it's burned in my brain. One milestone was reading Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking. That book opened me up to food history and science at a young age. I'm always thinking about food: what I just ate, what I'm eating, or what I'm about to eat. At MOFAD, we call food "a common denominator of human relationships," and I think that is one of its most important aspects. The stuff that happens over a good meal is what makes life worth living.
What inspired you to join this project and why do you think it's important? Why now? MOFAD addresses a critical need at a critical time. On the one hand, you've got this pop interest in food which is at a fever pitch. On the other hand, there is an increasing focus at the academic and policy levels on issues like obesity, greenhouse gas emissions, and the food system's impact on economies on both the local and global scale.
But for a lot of people, there's still a disconnect between their food choices and the deeper meaning and consequences of those choices. MOFAD will help bridge this gap. Behind everything we eat and drink, there are intertwining connections with culture, history, science, and economy. Take your morning cup of joe. The fruit it came from grew somewhere, was hand-picked by someone, and went through a dizzying complex of processing, distribution, and marketing before those caffeine molecules got a chance to pop your eyes open. And there's a fantastic story behind how coffee went from an undiscovered shrub in Ethiopia to a global morning ritual. These are the kinds of stories we want to tell at MOFAD. Call me biased, but I think food is one of the most important aspects of human life: we express our cultural and personal identities through food, we create communities and relationships through food, our economies run on food, and, of course, we need food to survive. We've got museums of math, moving images, and even sex. Why not a food museum?
It says on the MOFAD website that visitors "won't just see and touch—they will smell and taste as well." How do you plan on incorporating smelling and tasting into your exhibits? As much as I love books and TV shows that feature food, it pains me when I can't taste what I'm learning about. Not so at MOFAD. The museum's tastings will illustrate educational points, whether it's tasting cereal at different stages of the production process, sampling regional varieties of Vietnamese street food, tasting how coffee beans go stale over time after they are roasted, or eating an authentically reproduced K-Ration. At MOFAD, you'll be able to travel the world and through time with your nose and taste buds.
On the Booker and Dax website, it says that Dave Arnold founded the Museum of Food and Drink in 2005, but in the Village Voice, it says that Arnold pushed the idea forward two years ago. Can you clarify this? You see, Dave built this time machine using a few thumbtacks and a wad of gum... No, really, Dave founded and chartered MOFAD in 2005 and did a lot of work fleshing out the core ideas and testing exhibit concepts. Then, over the following years, he did some groundbreaking work in food tech and education as the founding Director of the Department of Culinary Technology at the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center).
Flash forward to 2011. The passing of Michael Batterberry, a staunch believer in MOFAD, became a rallying call to push the idea forward. So Dave, Patrick Martins, and Nastassia Lopez organized an epic fundraiser in March 2011 to get the ball rolling. The event featured plated courses that hinted at future museum topics like "Food as Medicine" and "Space Food." There was a giant whole-roasted ostrich, covered in bright yellow plumage, wheeled out by Chef Mark Ladner at some point, a nod to Ancient Roman food. That fundraiser was the moment at which Dave said: "Go go go!"
When did you join the project? I met Dave at that fundraiser. At the time, I was an attorney at Debevoise & Plimpton and I took on MOFAD as a pro bono client. A year later, in May 2012, I hung up my lawyer shoes and started as MOFAD's first executive director.
What made you guys decide to use the puffing gun as your first exhibit? We have a lot of great exhibit ideas but the puffing gun is a perfect way to start. First, it is sensational, and a hell of a machine to watch in operation. It literally explodes food. But the best part is that we didn't build it just for entertainment's sake. This is actually how breakfast cereal used to be made—puffing guns revolutionized the cereal industry. And when you consider the fact that Americans consume almost 3 billion boxes of cereal a year, you can see that machines like this one played a pivotal role in the development of industrial food production. It's a great exhibit because the puffing gun provides an accessible entry point to explore a lot of interesting and important narratives.
Do you have any other exhibit ideas in the works? Can you give us some examples? Oh, yes we do. But I'd hate to ruin the surprise.
Will you be approaching food from a specifically historical, scientific, political, or cultural perspective, or will the museum's exhibits encompass a wider range? We will approach food from as many perspectives as possible and there are few limits to the museum's scope. That said, MOFAD isn't seeking to be an encyclopedic reference on food and drink, at least for now. To do that, and to do it well, we'd need a space the size of the Met. Dave and I don't want anybody to see one of our exhibits and to feel like we treated it superficially. So we're going to focus on a constellation of specific stories instead, like the story of the puffing gun and how it helped make cereal the behemoth industry it is. The idea is that by showing people more and more of these stories, this will inspire them to be more intellectually curious about everything they eat and drink.
Where will you be presenting this exhibit? We have an exciting debut location in mid-August in Manhattan. Unfortunately, we can't disclose it just yet. After the exhibit debut, we're going to take it wherever we can drive it, into schools, public parks, plazas, and street festivals around New York and beyond. There will be a sneak preview of the exhibit that we're doing on August 13 for some of our Kickstarter backers where they'll be able to see chefs like Wylie Dufresne and Anita Lo blow up whatever they want in the puffing gun.
If your first exhibit is successful, what will be the next step for MOFAD? We'll continue developing a series of traveling exhibits that will go on trailers or in shipping containers. The idea is to create a mobile museum, exhibit by exhibit, that we can take around the country. We also have a couple of non-exhibit-based programs in the works, and I'd like to create digital initiatives for the museum that allow people from around the globe to be a part of MOFAD. In a couple of years, we'll do a full demonstration exhibition to give people a taste of what the future museum will look like. Throughout all of this, we're going to continue hunting for a brick-and-mortar home for the museum.
What have been some of the challenges in creating MOFAD? We don't have a lead donor or a major collection so we're really starting from scratch. One thing that makes MOFAD tricky, but also exciting, is that there aren't too many precedents for what we're trying to do.
Is there a specific demographic that you're catering to? Two of our main target audiences are families with children and primary and secondary school students. Food is such a broadly shared experience, though, that we expect to reach a broad spectrum of people—this won't be a museum just for "foodies." I'm excited about engaging communities that aren't traditional museum-going demographics, and we're going to make our exhibits as broadly appealing as possible. As an example, we will take the puffing gun and use it to explore the cultural significance of puffed grains around the world. How great would it be to pump out some puffed rice and make bhelpuris for people out in the streets of New York?
When can we expect a fully completed Museum of Food and Drink? It'll take years for us to secure and fund a home for the museum. Even then, MOFAD is always going to be a work in progress. We have some very grand ambitions.
About the author: Ari Rudess is a Serious Eats intern and student at Wesleyan University. You can check out her Wesleyan food blog at www.wesstuffed.com