How did we get vanilla flavor without a vanilla bean? Or chicken flavor made from all-vegetarian ingredients?
Though humans have been enjoying the sensory pleasures of flavor since we first popped food into our mouths, the flavor industry itself is relatively new. And this modern business of manufacturing smell and taste will be the theme of the Museum of Food and Drink's first exhibit in a brick and mortar space of its very own: a "mini-museum" opening in Brooklyn on Oct. 28.
The small space, dubbed MOFAD Lab, will be the first permanent home for a project already years into the making. The idea for MOFAD was first conceived in 2012, says executive director Peter Kim. "There wasn't a good precedent for what we were trying to do," he explains.
What they're trying to do, in essence, is create a world-class museum that combines the multisensory experience of eating with information about the history, commerce, science and culture of food. As we've reported, hundreds of institutions exist devoted to regional cuisines or specific foods — there are museums for chocolate, cheese, fish and Spam, for starters. But MOFAD's vision is much grander – and interactive.
Until now, the public has only been able to glimpse that vision through a series of small, one-off events.
Last year, MOFAD announced itself with a bang by staging its first, temporary public exhibit: It featured an industrial cereal puffing gun — the type used in the early 20th century to make cereals like Cheerios or Kix light and airy. The gun played an important role in the development of the breakfast industry. Rather than simply put the gun in a display case, MOFAD decided to make the thing actually work.
"There's something very symbolic, of course, about starting the process with something that literally explodes," says Kim. It was a one-item microcosm of the types of exhibits the museum hoped to host in the future.
After that grand entrance, the brain trust behind MOFAD – which includes an advisory board of food industry luminaries like food science writer Harold McGee and celebrity chef Mario Batali – staged a series of talks. (It's founder and president, Dave Arnold, is an industry powerhouse known for his scientific approach to food and drink innovation.) These MOFAD Roundtables brought together experts with opposing viewpoints for discussions on topics like GMOs, proposed bans on soda and the future of meat. Occasionally, the events got heated enough that participants ended up shouting at each other. (MOFAD is not yesteryear's library-silent museum.)
Such events helped MOFAD develop a community of fans and supporters while its leaders worked on the bigger goal — finding a permanent home.
That proposition was tricky for MOFAD: Museums cost millions of dollars to operate, and its board decided long ago that accepting sponsorship from Big Food was too ethically fraught, because so much of our experience of food is as a consumer good wrapped up in marketing.
"I feel a greater ethical burden with MOFAD than I would if I were opening a different kind of museum," Kim explains. "We're dealing with a subject that has a lot of marketing and misinformation, and that's precisely why we need a museum like this."
Their financial conundrum got less fuzzy thanks to the car company Infiniti, which stepped in this year with enough funds for MOFAD to lease the small new dedicated space in Brooklyn. The flavor exhibit will be the first of many the museum plans to stage in its new headquarters.
But MOFAD hopes to outgrow that new space within the next few years. By 2019, its leaders plan to open a larger museum with room for more than one exhibit at a time. "We have a few potential sites in mind," Kim says, adding that it's still too early in the planning process to offer more details.
Kim says founding MOFAD has been a "trial by fire."
"We've had to prove our relevance every step of the way," he says.
But by the time the full museum eventually opens, Kim says, "there won't be a question mark around whether people want to go to a food museum" — they'll already be forming a line at the door.