Foodies in Museums

Well, we all have to eat.  So what separates “Foodies” from everyone else?  In conversation, the Instagram world, and in dictionaries and scholarly texts, Foodies will self-identify as someone with a special interest in food.  That “special interest” allows food to be something that not only sustains life, but also works as a hobby for the Foodie.  

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What does a search for “#foodie” return on your favorite social media platform?

A Foodie may make a point to try new gastronomical experiences, whether that be dining out or cooking at home.  Some Foodies, such as Michael Pollan (author of In Defense of Food: The Eater’s Manifesto), even come up with guidelines for eating: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” (1) Pollan is a Foodie with interest in American health, and explores the scientific and legislative history of the American table.   Julia Child, patron saint of Foodies, noted in her autobiography, “This is my invariable advice to people: Learn how to cook- try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!” (2)  For Julia Child, food was all about personal choice and happiness, with attention to a dish’s traditional roots. For Foodies, food and drink create an experience that, especially when flavored with newness and authenticity, provide an opportunity to make meaning.  Museums have the power to engage people who love food, while providing multiple approaches to food as a way of understanding culture so that many different people can make meaning–through food–at museums.

A new museum in Brooklyn, New York, the Museum of Food and Drink Lab, blends science and culture to help visitors better engage with the complexities of the food industry in America. MOFAD Lab’s current exhibition, Flavor: Making it and Faking It “raises a lot of questions on a number of different levels,” says museum director Peter Kim.  “On the very deep end there are the philosophical questions about nature of real and fake, of authenticity. And on other levels there are questions that can be raised about how does our system of taste and smell work? Isn’t it interesting that we can provoke these sort of emotional responses by smelling something or tasting something?”  Kim notes an important point, which museums dealing with food and foodies should keep in mind: though Foodies make eating a hobby, that everyone eats makes food a unique object which can be used to make meaning with essentially every museum visitor.

Hoping to please everyone in the group in a single museum visit, I explored MOFAD Lab with a group of Foodies–my mother, who actually makes the recipes she finds on Pinterest; my uncle, a back-to-the-earth make-everything-by-hand home chef; my partner, a millennial who remains critical of the American food industry; and myself, a Julia Child fangirl and true lover of flavor.  We tested their amazing smell machines (pictured), which allowed visitors to mix different natural and artificial flavors until they produced the smell of a “whole” food.  The exhibition proved successful because it provided visitors with the opportunity to manipulate the food (particularly important for an independent, adult audience).  With little capsules of a “natural” and “artificial” flavor (such as vanilla) for visitors to try, there were chances to smell, taste, and touch.  The content allowed visitors to identify patterns and think about why they eat what they eat (without judging them for their choices).  The museum, overall, allowed visitors to question authenticity–what, exactly, is “natural”?

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MOFAD Lab’s Smell Machine (Or, proto-Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans machine?)

If nothing else, many Foodies are searching for “authenticity.”  In a balance between the creative and the traditional, foods which harken the eater back to a different time or place, while providing a kind of modern or trendy twist to the experience.  Foodies may, for example, be looking for “real” Chinese food–but what does that mean, in a culture with its own version of another culture’s food?  Foodies tend not to see an issue with their search for “authenticity,” but “Foodies’ understandings of authenticity are complex, confusing, confused, and frequently work in the service of colonial relationships,” say Josee Johnston and Shyon Baumann, authors of “Eating Authenticity.” (3) In helping foodies search for “authenticity,” we must take care not to equate “authentic” with “exotic.  That said, museums absolutely should provide a space for exploring authenticity; Johnston and Baumann argue, “As with other forms of cultural consumption, we evaluate authenticity in food by connecting the food to the visionary behind the plate…the uniqueness, originality, and sincerity of an identifiable individual or group find expression in their cultural production.  Fod is no different from any other art.”  And, as with good art, you’ll have something with which to connect museum visitors of all different backgrounds, to begin a conversation about culture, science, and even art–or, just what’s for dinner.

Here, in Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian Museum of American History uses food to tackle big questions and complex aspects of American culture.  Their objects and programs draw in Foodies, but also welcome and meet non-Foodies at an appropriate level.  They draw a wide audience by stating that food is part of our culture; they provide a timeline to show visitors that food is a lens through which we can examine American culture.  Jane Ferry, author of “Food and Cultural Identity,” asserts, “Analyzing food and dining…should underscore how food’s meaning germinates from the patterned system of social life for each specific social and cultural group.” (4)  NMAH’s Food: Transforming the American Table succeeds at helping visitors identify those patterns through food–a cultural lens with which we all have experience.  NMAH gives visitors the chance to think “authentically” about American culture through food, thus giving visitors the tools to think critically about other cultures more critically through food.

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You can visit Julia Child’s kitchen at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Museums can learn from MOFAD and NMAH’s success.  With strong appeal to Foodies as an audience, but with the understanding that everyone can relate to food, museums can use food to help all audiences make meaning.  

A Recipe for Meaning-Making with Food in Museums

  • Give visitors a chance to manipulate the food.
  • Have food for smelling, tasting, or touching if possible.  If the museum cannot provide food, make visitors aware of nearby options for sampling similar foods.  This gives visitors the chance to keep discussing and learning—and even the chance to make some meaning with their group as they recap their museum visit!
  • Help visitors identify patterns and think about why they eat what they eat (without judging them for their choices, while also providing nutrition and health resources).
  • Create opportunities to explore authenticity, but do your research—and consider who in the museum gets to present an “authentic” dish to visitors.  Do not equate the exotic with the authentic.

Bon Appétit!

References

  1. Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.
  2. Child, Julia, and Alex Prud’homme. My Life in France. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Print.
  3. Johnston, Josée, and Shyon Baumann. Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.
  4. Ferry, Jane. Food in Film: A Culinary Performance of Communication. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.

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