Sensory immersion at MOFAD, the Museum of Food and Drink.
Vanilla, the world’s most ubiquitous flavor: Is it the hand-harvested cured fruit of a tropical orchid? Or a chemically manufactured synthetic substitute? Umami: Mushroom or MSG? Exploring flavor, both natural and artificial, is the theme of an enticing, interactive exhibit at The Museum of Food and Drink in the museum’s brand new headquarters, MOFAD Lab in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In this transformed industrial storage space, visitors can analyze aromas at the Smell Synth, taste test real and fake vanilla tablets, and follow the evolution of the flavor industry from a 19th century chemist’s lab to today’s 25 billion dollar business.
A decade ago, the concept of a museum dedicated to revealing the myriad ways that food affects our lives was a gleam in the eye of kitchen science wizard David Arnold. Arnold envisioned a place where “visitors will learn about the culture, history, science, production, and commerce of food and drink” and be able not only to see and touch, but to taste and smell.
Now MOFAD, which has been building a constituency through a Kickstarter campaign, gala fund raising events, and pop-up exhibits in temporary locations, finally has its first brick and mortar home, a design studio to showcase exhibit concepts, as it works toward opening a full scale museum. For its inaugural exhibition, the fledgling museum has mounted a provocative multi-media presentation that offers visitors an opportunity to engage all their senses – sight, sound, smell, and taste – and discover the complex interaction of aroma and taste that defines flavor.
A lively large screen animated video and an historical time-line illustrated with old photographs and advertisements trace the story of vanilla, balancing the romantic tale of hand pollination of an orchid that blooms one day a year and the subsequent painstaking process that produces pure vanilla extract, with the ah-ha moment in 1858 when a prominent French chemist, Nicolas-Theodore Gobley, discovered that a single naturally occurring chemical called “vanillin” was responsible for most of the vanilla beans flavor. Sixteen years later, German scientists Ferdinand Tiemann and Wilhelm Haarmann successfully created vanillin, the very same chemical found in the bean, from pine tree bark. They established a factory, began manufacturing the cheap substitute, and launched the modern flavor industry. The debate over pure versus imitation has been raging ever since. The latest news in vanilla flavor is the product of synbio (synthetic biology), a method of brewing vanillin from yeast developed by a Swiss company, Evolva, that recently came on the market.
Another section of the MOFAD exhibit is devoted to MSG, the invention of Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda who, in 1908, analyzed his beloved dashi, kelp, and bonito laden broth and discovered that the delicious taste was glutamic acid derived from the kelp, kombu. To mimic the flavor he combined it with sodium to form mono-sodium glutamate, which was marketed in the form of a crystalline powder by the Ajinomoto company. Now MSG is ubiquitous in our food supply.
Can we recognize the differences between natural and synthetic? Sometimes yes, other times no. To challenge our tastebuds, MOFAD’s executive director Peter Kim dreamed up clever flavor pellets made with a neutral potato starch and chicory root based powder and pure commercial grade flavor powder. Dispensed in gumball machines, you can crank out little pills for vanilla and vanillin, umami flavors, or pumpkin spice.
Even more ingenious is the Wonka-esque Smell Synth, a contraption that Arnold, a self-taught food technologist with a deep knowledge of chemistry and physics, built himself, a simplified homemade version of a machine used at the Monell Senses Center where olfaction scientists (flavorists) research taste and smell. There are 19 buttons on a control panel that, when pressed, release a puff of aromatic air from a specific scent chemical dissolved in a solution. The selection is wide-ranging and surprising, including boozy, fruity-ripe, nail polish remover, and almond extract. Press several buttons at once and you can mimic more familiar smells like pancakes in syrup or orange soda.
To enhance the visitor experience, there are talks by prominent scientists like Harold McGee, hands-on workshops ranging from fermentation to making bitters, and, for kids, a chance to create chocolate concoctions with pastry chef Dominique Ansel. A donation to MOFAD comes with a gift of spice blends, including Ansel’s French Toast Spice, and a boutique offers local foods and artisanal wares.
Since its early days, MOFAD has been embraced by the culinary community. I first met the multi-faceted Arnold a decade ago at the Fancy Food show at the Javits Center. He had put together a demonstration and small exhibit about American country ham, and was already pondering the question “Why is there no museum of food and drink?” Encouraged by Michael Batterberry, Editor/Publisher of Food Arts, he began writing for the magazine, and became founding director of the Department of Culinary Technology at the French Culinary Institute (now International Culinary Center.) Arnold also partnered with chef David Chang to open a food and drink research lab and futurist cocktail bar, Booker and Dax, named for his two sons.
Still focused on starting a museum, Arnold lacked financial resources, but had the support of many cutting edge chefs and colleagues. In 2011 they pitched in to organize an epochal fund raising event, a nine course feast at Manhattan’s Del Posto. Each chef was assigned a particular period in history: Wylie Dufresne interpreted cave man food with “Bone Appetit.” That included potato, bone marrow, scallops, beets, Enoki mushrooms and assorted herbs; Del Posto’s Mark Ladner presented an ostrich in full plumage to represent ancient Rome. Among the desserts, pastry chef Brooks Headley interpreted Hebrew food in Italy with artichokes and ricotta-matzo ice cream, while Milk Bar’s Christina Tosi channeled Space Food as a deconstructed Neapolitan ice cream.
Most of the participants at that memorable meal now serve on the museum’s advisory culinary board. One guest, Peter Kim, a young lawyer, was so taken with the concept of a food museum that he left his legal practice to sign on as MOFAD’s executive director. Kim provided much needed structure to the project, and has worked along with Arnold to raise the MOFAD profile with roundtables on relevant food issues, and a mobile traveling educational exhibit about the rise of breakfast cereal from obscure health food to vast industry that featured a workable 3,200 pound “puffing gun” that explosively puffs food.
Kim was instrumental in securing funding for the Brooklyn location, a difficult task for a non-profit unwilling to accept sponsorship from food companies. Infiniti came on board as MOFAD Lab Presenting Sponsor, with Vox Creative as Media Sponsor. Arnold, and his team are realistic in their expectations that a large scale food museum like the Nestle sponsored Alimentarium in Vevey, Switzerland, is a long way off, but meanwhile they are rethinking the traditional museum model and finding new ways to define the conversation about food. “At MOFAD” says Kim, we call food a common denominator of human relationships.”
FLAVOR: MAKING IT AND FAKING IT will be on display until February 28th; check out the website www.MOFAD.org for details, and for news about future exhibits and events.