Somewhere in the aughts, Dave Arnold—an “adventurer and writer with a dash of mad scientist”—got the idea in his head that what New York and the world really needed was a museum specifically dedicated to food and drink. Think about it, what do most of us do throughout the day? We eat and drink. Where do we meet our loved ones? At bars or while grabbing something at a restaurant. In every culture, the very act of breaking bread with someone instantly forms a bond between those sitting at the table. And yet, there wasn’t a museum discussing this cultural aspect, or the technological aspect of our food system, or the marketing aspect of the industry.
Dave worked on the idea, getting so far as to build a business plan and having a goal for the first exhibit, but nothing could really get off the ground. Until 2011, when a lawyer taking weekend cooking class at French Culinary Institute—now the International Culinary Center—sat in on Dave giving a talk about this museum idea and decided he wanted to get in on it. That lawyer, Peter Kim, is now the Executive Director of the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD)—Dave is still heavily involved—and we, as you’ve probably gathered, are the neighborhood lucky enough to have MOFAD in our midst.
In 2012, the plan for MOFAD began snowballing and by the end of 2013, 830 people had backed their Kickstarter, raising over $100,000 to open MOFAD’s first exhibit. It’s fair to say a few people were probably drawn in by Dave’s new favorite toy, a breakfast cereal puffing gun. With the financial backing, the next goal was to find a space. They were drawn to Greenpoint/Williamsburg because the diversity of our community really makes it “a microcosm of the city as a whole,” Peter explains. They lucked out when stumbling across a small warehouse being used for storage right off McCarren Park. Now the home of MOFAD Lab, the space hosts the museum’s exhibits and a number of community events.
By some miracle of the museum gods, the first exhibit, “Flavor: Making It and Faking It,” came together in six months. Opening up a “new category of museum,” means MOFAD can throw away the rules and present material in much more creative ways than, say, the Met. At first glance, “Flavor” was about the modern food system and artificial chemicals in our food, but closer examination had you asking, “What is real? What is fake?” How much of our world around us, just food-wise, has been generated by a random person at some corporation, or decided for us in a boardroom? Also, how powerful our sense of smell is for not only eating but for our memories.
For exhibit #2, MOFAD chose a very timely subject matter: the role of immigrants in the United States. “Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant,” open through the summer, celebrates the contribution Chinese-Americans have made over the last 200 years to American food culture. If you don’t think they’ve made a big impact, consider that there are about three times more Chinese restaurants in the US than there are McDonald’s. In almost every town in America, you can find a Chinese restaurant, it’s that ubiquitous and ingrained in our society. Yet, despite being a vital part of America, there is prejudice towards Chinese-Americans, the worst example being the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which significantly limited Chinese migration into the United States and gave rise to commercial human smuggling. By having you examine the role of the Chinese in America through food, MOFAD shows how “they” are “us.”
Plus, there’s a fortune cookie-making machine that’s kind of awesome, and demos of culinary techniques so you actually get to eat things this time. Currently, you can get a taste of Five-Pepper Kung Pao Chicken, a recipe created by Chef Irene Li of Boston’s Mei Mei Restaurant. Tomorrow, part of their New Year celebration is a visit by children’s book author Kam Mak, who will read from My Chinatown. And really, what better way to celebrate the Lunar New Year!
MOFAD Lab is located at 62 Bayard Street. It is open Friday through Sunday, noon to 6pm.