For most people, food is often their first entryway into a foreign culture. One of the great advantages of living in the Big Apple is that you can eat your way around the world without ever getting on a plane. In that spirit, I’m reviewing two food-related shows.
I’ve always loved the oil paintings of groaning tables of food by the Old Masters, so I immediately jumped up when I hear about a show entitled Dejeuner! Organized by the National Association of Women Artists, it features over 30 fabulous black and white photos of oyster mushrooms by Canadian photographer Dale M. Reid. Ms. Reid still uses film and traditional darkroom techniques, and I think that is what gives her pictures their depth and resonance. Her photographs capture the contrasting textures and detail of these fungi. She also has an eye, and a serious way with composition; through her lens, mushrooms can seem to be so much more (like that game you played when you were a kid, and tried to see the images in clouds)
The series was begun in 2011 – you can find it on Ms. Reid’s website .
NAWA’s gallery is on the 5th floor of an office building at 315 West 39th Street and is only open Tuesday-Friday, 10:00am – 5:00pm (their website still has their old address) Take a long lunch and see these photos!
NAWA also has a very interesting on-line gallery featuring the work of women artists.
I followed Ms. Reid’s show with a trip up to MOFAD – the (relatively) new Museum of Food and Drink Lab in Williamsburgh. Given the importance of food to NYC’s economy and cachet, I’m surprised somebody didn’t do this sooner. Their current show, Flavor: Making It and Faking It takes you inside the $25billion flavor industry. It starts off with a short video explaining how our bodies and brains process flavors (it seems humans have over 10,000 tastebuds). From there, you can wander through exhibits which are a combination of explanatory text, flavor testers and artifacts. The show focuses mostly on two flavors: vanillin (for vanilla) and citral (for lemon). Today vanillin is the most ubiquitous flavor the world over. Originally derived from the Mexican vanilla orchid, it was rare and expensive – for one thing, it flowers only for one day – and for another, it needed to be pollinated by hand (even today). Additionally, it takes six months of curing to create vanilla extract (but it undisputedly enhances a lot of baked goods!)
To increase production for European markets, this orchid was planted in other tropical climates. In 1858 the scent was chemically recreated, but it wasn’t until the 1960’s that flavor technology took off, used primarily in packaged foods. Since artificial flavors are chemically identical to natural ones – making them indistinguishable to humans – by viewing flavors as chemical compounds which could be analyzed, reverse engineered and recreated, food scientists could go beyond salt, sugar and spices. One of the more interesting facts I unearthed during my visit was the number of natural sources for a given flavor: for example, citral can be derived from lemon peel, lemongrass, lemons, or lemon-myrtle, while vanillin can be made from cloves,coal, pine bark and paper pulp.
According to the FDA, Natural flavors just have to be taken from a natural source, not synthesized in a lab. On their website, MOFAD has more interesting information on this topic.
Throughout the museum, you’ll find individual stations, which release natural and artificial versions of various flavors so you can compare them, as well as machines dispensing tablets infused with a given flavor. There’s also the Smell Synth machine, where you can experience flavors one at a time, or in combination; on the wall in front of the machine are illustrations of foods such as pancakes, cheese, soda, etc. and the flavors that they contain. (You’d be surprised where the smell of nail polish remover shows up!)
You’ll also a display on Umami – the fifth taste (after sweet, sour, salty and bitter) -which is basically the “yum” factor. Another exhibit explains the discovery of MSG, which was originally derived from Japanese seaweed, but today is manufactured from wheat gluten (and, contrary to a lot of what’s been written, has not been proven unsafe.
Throughout the exhibit you’ll also find antique food tins and bottles, as well as early advertisements (note the repeated references to “purity”)
This exhibit will really get you thinking about what goes into our food, and how advertisers, manufacturers, and others in the food chain tell us only what they want us to know.
MOFAD also hosts talks on food-related topics: On May 19th, they’re hosting a discussion and tasting of North Brooklyn’s Polish Food Heritage, and there will be other talks in Chinatown, Jackson Heights, Arthur Avenue and other neighborhoods known for their ethnic cuisines. You can find the complete list here
Check out their gift shop for cook books and original foods!