New York City has museums devoted to everything from fine art and film and tattoos to toys and the subway system. So what took it so long to establish an institution celebrating our greatest cultural achievement—food? Comprised of immersive, hands-on exhibits, Museum of Food and Drink is dedicated to advancing public understanding of the history, science, production, and commerce of comestibles. Program Director, Emma Boast, is the woman behind the curtain, having led research and production for exhibits such as Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant; Flavor: Making It and Faking It; and the pop-up exhibit BOOM! The Puffing Gun and the Rise of Cereal.
How did you become involved in your line of work? Looking at my resume, it seems natural that I would end up working at a museum dedicated to food. However, I took a long, slow, convoluted path to get here. I’ve always been a generalist and have never felt entirely comfortable with the idea of settling on just one line of work or career. Toward the end of high school, I thought I wanted to go to culinary school and become a pastry chef. I quickly realized that getting a general education would serve me better in the long run. Fast forward a few years, and I’d graduated with a BA in art history. Along the way, I’d also dabbled in food writing, museum education, urban gardening, and food education, and had put in some time in professional kitchens. This was in 2009, and needless to say the job market for art history majors wasn’t looking up.
After unsuccessfully applying for dozens of positions in food education and food justice, I moved to Japan and ended up working at a hospital as a medical editor and writer and sometimes English teacher. Whenever I wasn’t working, I was traveling across the country, learning about regional cuisines and seasonal specialties. I also started a blog, Shichimi, where I detailed my attempts to cook Japanese food at home. I didn’t realize it then, but that experience was incredibly formative. In Japan, I caught a glimpse of a society with a deep and abiding respect for food; one could eat well not just at sleek Tokyo izakayas but also at soba noodle stands in train stations and cafeterias at highway rest stops. When I returned to the States two years later, I stumbled across a posting for a part-time volunteer gig with a museum I’d never heard of—the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD). The idea of a job that combined my interests in history, education, and food was thrilling. I sent an email to former board member Nastassia Lopez and then-attorney/now Executive Director Peter Kim, and began volunteering a few days a week, helping with everything from data entry to exhibition research.
Tell us a little bit about your present work, the Cliffs Notes version of your day to day and what is at stake.
There is no template for the Museum of Food and Drink, so every day is a little different. These days, I’m developing our next exhibition concept, which will focus on the intersection of material culture and social history (I can’t give more details publicly—yet!). The Museum of Food and Drink doesn’t have a collection, so I’m also working on sourcing unique objects that represent how our relationship with food has changed since the Industrial Revolution, things like the cook stove and the first electric, domestic refrigerator.
On a given day, I might meet with our amazing Program Manager, Catherine Piccoli, who organizes all of our public programs and is my righthand woman in exhibition development. She and I brainstorm new program concepts together, and figure out a strategy for promoting them. I might then check in with our head chef and test cook, Edward Huang, to make sure our new tasting for Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant, is ready to roll out, and receive the weekly delivery of ingredients from our supplier. In the afternoon, I like to try to carve out some quiet time for exhibition research and writing, including sending inquiries to collectors and small museums about objects that they could loan. Toward the end of the day, I might join a meeting about upcoming grant opportunities, then review content for one of our forthcoming MOFAD City tours. We’re a tiny team, so I’m always trying to balance the need to manage others while keeping my own long-term work moving forward.
What do you find most fulfilling about your work? Cliche as it sounds, there’s nothing better than watching visitors connect the concepts we cover in our exhibitions with their daily lives. Last year, during Flavor, I taught lessons to groups of middle and high school students. One of the lessons asked students to analyze packaging of products made with added flavors. This lesson asked them to consider why a company would use “natural” flavor in their food, even if that flavor was chemically the same as an “artificial” flavor. It didn’t take long for the students to start talking about marketing, how it influences our decisions, and how they would look differently at food in the supermarket in the future. These days, when visitors come to Chow, they often remark that the exhibition’s subject—the history of Chinese restaurants, viewed through the lens of immigration history—hits home. It’s impossible to visit the exhibition and (re)learn about the Chinese Exclusion Act without connecting the lessons of the past to today.
What made you decide to do a deep dive into the science of flavor, Chinese American restaurants, and the cereal boom, respectively? And what topics are you looking forward to exploring in future? Each of these topics represents something I like to call the material culture of the everyday. They’re commonplace foods or, in the case of added flavors, found in most packaged foods. We tend not to think much about a box of cereal or our local Chinese takeout restaurant, but each of these things can teach us a valuable lesson. My goal is for people to come to the Museum of Food and Drink and learn the fascinating, complex stories behind these things we take for granted. When our visitors leave, I hope that they see the world with a renewed sense of curiosity. I also focus on the seemingly mundane—on what people already know and can relate to—because I want the Museum of Food and Drink to be an inclusive and accessible museum, one that speaks to people’s everyday experiences. One of the topics I’m most excited about tackling is sugar—it’s a product with a sweeping global history that touches on dozens of cultures, but there’s also an interesting local, Brooklyn angle to the story.
How do you see the Museum of Food and Drink changing and shaping Brooklyn culture?
I grew up in Brooklyn, so I’ve seen the borough change a lot over the last couple decades. Tensions are high and there’s a lot of understandable resentment and anxiety about the influx of high-end restaurants and food culture. I would be lying if I said these things aren’t symptoms—and often drivers of—gentrification. On the other hand, food provides a common ground for conversation and conviviality; it’s something everyone can relate to, because everyone eats. My hope is that the Museum of Food and Drink can become a gathering place for the borough—a space that’s global in outlook, local in its approach, and welcoming in its embrace of people from all walks of life.