It’s a bit surprising — before Wednesday’s launch of the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) Lab (62 Bayard Street, Brooklyn), no such venue existed, in NYC or elsewhere. As culinary historian Jessica Harris noted at the museum’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, “every day, we’re increasingly bombarded with more information from the food world…there’s a growing movement in which food is becoming our lingua franca.”
Indeed, we’ve become more enlightened and curious about eating in recent decades. Do you think the average American’s fridge contained fish sauce or miso paste even as recently as the Nineties? But at the same time, we remain in the dark about the science behind food and cooking. MOFAD Lab’s founders aim to address this with their first exhibit, “Flavor: Making It and Faking It.”
Executive director Peter J. Kim said that ultimately, the people behind MOFAD hope to make it a world-class institution, showing visitors the connections between food and cultural identity as well as where food comes from and how it’s made. “We envisioned a museum that would be for everybody, not just for foodies,” Kim said. “Because whether you’re rich or you’re poor, old or young, everybody eats.”
The debut exhibition (through February 28, 2016; $10), overseen by program director Emma Boast, focuses on how flavor is both engineered and experienced. Aptly, for a food museum, the interactive displays engage all the senses. Tasting stations allow guests to sample Tic Tac–size pellets, redolent with the flavors of everything from citric acid to MSG, the building blocks of what we identify as sweet or umami (MSG, as the exhibit gently suggests, may have gotten a bad rap).
Elsewhere, visitors can sniff various odors and guess which is real and which is manufactured, giving rise to questions of what terms like “natural” and “artificial” actually mean and how much they matter to our enjoyment of food. A “coffee smell machine” provokes discussion about how something perceived as disgusting on its own can, in small doses, enhance a pleasant experience: a “skunky” scent, when added to coffee, produces the rich aroma of a dark roast. And the “Smell Synth” allows visitors to test combinations of nineteen smells ranging from smoke to almond to nail polish remover.
Founder Dave Arnold said that the flavor industry affects every part of our lives but that, until now, there hadn’t been an outlet to explain how. “This is the first great step in an ongoing quest to create even more venues like this,” he said.
Up next for MOFAD? The museum’s creators hinted at an exploration of the food culture of each of NYC’s five boroughs — as they continue with plans to open a full-scale museum.