Inside MoFAD, New York City’s First Museum Dedicated to Food and Drink

Photos by Jane Bruce
Photos by Jane Bruce

When it comes to museums, NYC sure isn’t lacking for much—we have unprecedented access to ancient and modern art, can get up close and personal with dinosaurs and neanderthals, and are able to examine the subterranean sanctum of the subway system, then blast off into outer space. And MOFAD—founded by author and culinary innovator, Dave Arnold — has long aimed to bring the exploration of food and drink into the mix, finally realizing its goal last week with the opening of MOFAD Lab, a one of a kind exhibition showcasing the physiology, science, history and culture of flavor.

“The flavor industry impacts all of our lives every single day, and yet we have very little understanding of how it works,” explained Arnold, “so our task at MOFAD was to present that subject in a way that’s interesting and fun. Going through the exhibit, I hope everyone will see why a space like this is so important, making it the first great step in an ongoing quest to create even more exhibits, presenting larger and larger pieces.”

Situated in a converted garage space directly across from McCarren Park, the highly interactive gastronomic museum provokes the senses, by revealing a critically important part of the food industry, and raising questions about what “natural” and “artificial” really mean. Visitors are encouraged to manipulate a series of “smell machines,” that challenge them to tell the difference between real and fake strawberry scents, as well as genuine concord grapes from methyl anthranilate (a chemical used in sodas and candies), vanilla beans vs. synthetic vanillin and more. Patrons are also tasked with putting their tastebuds to work, gleaning edible lessons from tablets dispensed throughout the show—can one actually distinguish MSG, for instance (which is commonly used to flavor canned goods, Chinese food and processed meats) from natural sources of umami, such as mushroom, tomato and seaweed? Through immersive displays such as these, MOFAD has effectively revealed a century’s worth of machinations within the shadowy flavor industry, providing just a small taste of what the museum has in store for the future.

“The bottom line is simple. If we don’t eat, we die. Therefore, we are all part of MOFAD,” said food historian and advisory board member, Jessica Harris. “And increasingly in the 21st century, we have dealt with this growing movement in which food has become our lingua franca, our means of communication. Of skipping over boundaries of race and class and culture. And MOFAD speaks that lingua franca fluently.”

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