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Thursday
Jun232011

A Museum of Food

Four or five years ago I read The Omnivore's Dilemma, and since then have been telling friends about my dream of a museum of food. I was inspired by that book's look at the ecology, economics, and nutrition of what we eat. Another book, A History of Food, a reference that explains the unusual origins and traditions of foods like honey, and the Slow Food movement, also informed  the idea. I wanted a broad audience to experience these ideas in the immersive, social, authoritative way that only a museum can offer.

Given the relevance and accessibility of the topic (we are not talking about contemporary art), as well as its breadth, this should be a serious museum, on the scale of a museum of natural history, with a whole wing for each of the key themes the museum would cover:

Ecology and Economy: Where does our food come from? How is it grown? What effect does that have on the world around us and on nature? How have those locations, practices, and effects changed over time? Who grows the food, processes it, and sells it? Imagine exhibits with huge interactive maps and time lines. Time-lapse videos showing food growing and people farming. Live or harvested samples of different crops for people to see and touch.

Cuisine and food preparation: What do we eat today and how is that different from previous generations or eras of human history? What are the many ways of preparing food, when were they adopted, and why? What kinds of food are eaten in different parts of the world and in different cultures? Exhibits could include samples of featured dishes cooked in the museum (the equivalent of an audio guide in an art museum). Images and videos of different cultures' food and eating habits. Maps that show how one ingredient migrated around the world, influencing new recipes.

Nutrition: What are vitamins? Is it healthy to be a vegetarian? What is the history of dieting? What diseases come from too much or too little of certain kinds of food? How do traditional cuisines and eating traditions support healthy eating? How are food companies changing the way we eat? Exhibits could include scales, blood pressure tests, quizzes, and other information about an individual's diet. There could also be interactive displays where kids could add different foods to a hypothetical person's diet and see how it effects their health (“What if you only ate ice cream for a year?”)

Of course there would be great restaurants at the museum, a fabulous gift shop, and perhaps a mini-TV studio where people could pay to record their own cooking shows as a way of passing down family recipes. Like most museums, this would certainly be a non-profit and I think it could attract a great deal of financial support to complement the revenue opportunities. One key, in my mind, would be to avoid the support of big corporate agribusiness and processed food money. Conflicts of interest would be guaranteed. Just look at previous iterations of the federal nutritional guidelines. A total sham.

I hadn't Googled this idea in year or so, but I did today and found out, not surprisingly, someone (David Arnold of the French Culinary Institute) is finally going to build one: The Museum of Food and Drink (http://www.mofad.org/ - site under construction, real location somewhere in Manhattan). There was a big fund raiser at the Manhattan restaurant Del Posto a few months ago. I certainly hope they will be successful, but I have to wonder if NYC is the right home for another big museum. San Francisco is across the bay from Chez Panisse, the progenitor of the California Cuisine that salvaged American cooking, is a short drive from one of the world's most productive growing regions, and has an excellent restaurant scene. I wonder if SF missed a great opportunity, or if they might create their own competing institution.