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Museum of Food and Drink's new exhibit explores African-American culinary history

Museum of Food and Drink's new exhibit explores African-American culinary history
Photograph: Courtesy Lee Bey Architectural Photography

The Museum of Food and Drink, a learning center in Greenpoint telling cultural history through food, has announced its next exhibit will be “African/American: Making the Nation’s Table,” a much-overdue survey of the black community’s immense contributions to the nation’s culinary scene. 

The museum show, set to open in February 2020, will be the first-of-its kind asshockingly—there has yet to be as comprehensive of an exhibit focused on the subject. There are many exciting features to the upcoming exhibit, such as stories of how African-Americans played a role in staples like rice, whiskey and ice cream while seeking to recast legacies of dishes and erasures of appropriate credit due to the ripple effects of slavery and lingering racism.

The Museum of Food and Drink also recently purchased the psychedelic orange and yellow kitchen (seen above) that was once used for recipe testing at Ebony Magazine, before the magazine shuddered, and its remnants were put up for auction. Many fans of the storied space were worried what would happen to the dreamy kitchen that held so much history of black home cooking, so we’re glad it’s found a new life. 

Photograph: Courtesy of Museum of Food and Drink

Music for the “African/American” exhibition will be crafted by Questlove, an advisor to the museum. And, in true MOFAD (as it's colloquially called) fashion, there will, of course, be edible elements that allow a more sensorial experience in a gallery space than you may be used to from a museum. We hear Carla Hall will be putting together the tastings at the exhibition, inspired the concept of the “shoebox lunch”a remnant from the Great Migration in which black travelers were repeatedly refused service at restaurants and had to pack lunch, in, you guessed it, shoeboxes. 

MOFAD has had many iterations. Back in 2013, it started with pop-ups with its traveling cereal puffing gun (a relic from the 1930’s) while continuing to take the museum on-the-road until it landed its home at the 5,000-square-foot factory space next to McCarren Park; it's since held shows about flavor and the making of the Chinese-American restaurant (after “Chow” closes in January, the space will be converted into the museum’s administrative offices). 

Interestingly,  “African/American” will be held off site, not in its Greenpoint space, but at the Africa Center in East Harlem, a part of Museum Mile. The Africa Center is also home to celebrated West African chef Pierre Thiam’s fast-casual restaurant Teranga (which Time Out awarded four stars this year, slotting it in as #17 of 100 best restaurants in New York). "[This exhibit] should've been happening a long time ago, so it's sad in that way. African-American traditions are at the core of American cuisine: black eyed peas, jambalaya, all types of southern cooking. And the exhibit will show of technology and techniques, too. Farm-to-table was an African-American concept, you know?" he says. Thiam will also help develop dishes that will be available for tasting in the exhibit as well as other related cooking programming that's still being developed. "It's interesting. I'm from Senegal and I can see the West African cousins of many of the dishes [the exhibit focuses on]." 

MOFAD has had many major food world collaborators: including trustee David Chang and advisors, Harold McGee, Dr. Jessica B. Harris and Questlove. (For transparency: I was very briefly a docent at the museum and was once paid by the team to create edible sculptures for an off-site event).

Photograph: Courtesy of Museum of Food and Drink

The aforementioned Dr. Harris, widely considered to be the African-American culinary expert, helped curate the upcoming show. “The enormous contribution of African Americans to American food has gone unrecognized for too long," agrees Dr. Harris in an interview with Time Out New York. "This exhibition is the beginning of proper acknowledgement of this generous gift to our nation."

“African/American” also has contributions from other New York-based culinary stars like Omar Tate (who runs the Honeysuckle dinner series), Alexander Smalls, James Beard Award-winning co-author of Between Harlem and Heaven and Nicole Taylor (who authored the Up South Cookbook, among other projects in this space). "Our modern American moment is realizing the ever present contribution of its black citizens. However, I find that our culinary landscape has yet to go as in depth as other industries in doing so," shares Tate with Time Out New York. "I am excited to be a part of redefining and substantiating the evidence that keys in black American’s truth to our American foodways and identity through the MOFAD African/American exhibit. We all deserve to have it explored in this rich and interrogative way."

The team hopes to open the next exhibit in 2020 and is currently looking to raise funds to bring their vision into fruition on Kickstarter, through November. 

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