Not all that many years ago, it would have been unthinkable that food was considered a weighty enough subject to be the focus of serious exhibitions at major venues such as the Smithsonian and the Museum of Natural History. Little by little, that has changed, and I could not be more delighted. Here is a report on some currently on exhibit in New York, New Jersey, and Washington, DC.
Back in 2011 I was pleasantly surprised by the liveliness of a exhibition (now closed) at the normally staid National Archives in Washington, DC, titled “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” about the federal government’s well-meaning but unintentionally hilarious attempts, from its earliest days, to mold our eating habits with civic-minded propaganda campaigns. So late last year — when the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History launched a new permanent exhibition called “Food: Transforming the American Table 1950 – 2000” — I hopped aboard Amtrak to take a look.
I’m not sure if it is because memories of what crossed the American dinner table in the last half of the 20th century are too young, or if having witnessed them (and been victimized by them) firsthand renders them less fascinating, but, with one major exception, I found the displays of seminal cookbooks (The Joy of Cooking), iconic appliances such as the Cuisinart, and the revolutionary new foods that include TV dinners and tacos a bit “meh.” Even the first microwave — roughly the size of a subcompact — was only momentarily distracting.
The one exception — and the clear draw, from the number of visitors of all ages transfixed for long periods of time around it — is Julia Child’s kitchen. The actual kitchen from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the very one used for taping her now legendary TV show, with every pot, pan, and whisk hanging in its exact spot on the green pegboard walls. I can well understand why this is the holy grail for someone like me, but for 10-year-old kids? From around the world? I tell you, none of us visitors could tear ourselves away. Is it that its practicality, warmth, esthetics, humor, and unpretentiousness represent the beloved lady herself? All I can say is, you will be moved. Free. www.americanhistory.si.edu.
I owe the American Museum of Natural History in New York a debt of gratitude for introducing me to the wonderful (and newly trendy!) world of ingesting insects. That was several years ago, as part of an exhibit aimed partially at captivating kids by grossing them out. So after reading a glowing review in the New York Times of “Our Global Kitchen: Food, Natural, Culture,” which runs through August 11, I took a tour.
Bottom line: This exhibition is for you if you have been meaning to broaden your understanding of where we in the U.S. find ourselves in terms of food production and ingestion, as well as of the critical issues surrounding feeding our hungry planet in the years ahead. And you should drag along every school-age child you can.
In truth, the exhibits are surprisingly static — lots of enlightening text but not as much interaction as you would expect. The highlights: videos on global food celebrations and on the future of food production and — odd as this may sound — the plasticized model of the typical breakfast consumed by swimmer Michael Phelps in his teen years. As with Julia’s kitchen, children and adults stand drop-jawed around its five-egg omelet, three fried egg sandwiches (with lettuce, tomato, and cheese), big bowl of grits, and separate stacks of pancakes and French toast. Washed down with two mugs of hot cocoa. Entrance fee to museum is $25. www.amnh.org.
The exhibition I have enjoyed most (so far) is at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. Now, I recommend this unique, wonderfully curated history museum for its insightful and sensitive tours of several tiny apartments inside an 1863 building on Orchard Street that vividly bring to life specific German, Jewish, Irish, and Italian families who lived there. While these touch tangentially upon what these struggling immigrants ate day in and day out, the museum recently added a new exhibition in the vast basement of the tenement that focuses in great part on food and drink. “Shop Life” provides glimpses into the many immigrant businesses that operated here for more than a century, the centerpiece of which is a re-created 1870s German beer saloon (or, “bier salon”).
Unlike other New York drinking holes of the period, these were family-friendly places where homesick Germans would gather, typically, after church on Sunday for afternoons of socializing, often with staff and patrons providing oompah music. One plate of food — cheese, wurst, sauerkraut, and the like — was provided free for each mug or stein of beer purchased. Beer was considered, not incorrectly, to be nutritious and wholesome — and it was indisputably safer than the city water supply. It’s difficult to relate how vibrantly and deeply the exhibition brings this all to life. Museum admission: $25. www.tenement.org.
Closer to home, there are two exhibitions on my list to tackle next. Not literally about food, but certainly evoking nature’s bounty is Canutopia. Sculptor Ming Fay’s colorful indoor garden fantasy of lushly stylized fruits, seeds, and vines has proven so popular that its run at Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton has been extended through July. (It had been scheduled to close in February.) Park admission: $12.
If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, then “Ring for Service” at Liberty Hall Museum is for you. Not familiar with Liberty Hall? It is the ancestral mansion in Union of two prominent families in New Jersey history: the Livingstons and the Keans. It is run in partnership with Kean University, and the exhibition, which runs through August, examines the lives of the servants who worked in the mansion 100 years ago, for former governor Tom Kean’s family. Tours show a typical day in the life of one such servant. Museum entrance fee: $10. www.kean.edu/libertyhall. By the way: also on the Kean campus is Ursino, a notable fine-dining restaurant.
Pat Tanner blogs at www.dinewithpat.com