MoFAD: An In-the-Works Institution Kicks off With a Boom

How do you turn a great idea into a beloved and enduring institution?

The words “Museum of Food and Drink” might not immediately make you think “puffer gun.” But that is how New York’s MoFAD announced itself to the public: with a series of explosions from a cereal cannon.

New York has museums devoted to art, history, culture, ethnicity, religious heritage, Bible studies, math, movies and sex, but no august institution devoted to food. Dave Arnold, founder of the Museum and Food and Drink (MoFAD for short), hopes to change that. The man whom Anita Lo described as a “culinary Google” is in the process of raising $25 million to launch a MoMA-like institution with a curatorial philosophy focused on five key aspects of food: science, history, culture, commerce and production.

As Arnold and his team describe it, walking into MoFAD will be like walking into On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, who happens to be a board member. Including, Arnold adds, “some spectacular crap to get people to want to go!”

It’s hard to imagine crap more spectacular than the 3,200-pound cast-iron and steel puffer gun that was the focal point of MoFAD’s conceptual coming out: a 2013 demonstration and pop-up exhibition entitled “BOOM!” that vividly illustrated the science, technology and marketing behind supermarket cereal.

But the gun also elegantly telegraphs the methods and the sublime madness behind MoFAD itself. For this was no ordinary piece of breakfast arcana, but a newly minted Puritan puffing gun, commissioned by MoFAD from the original manufacturer in Nebraska. Just one month later, the museum had raised $106,503 to fire the puffer gun at public venues around New York City (in a cage, of necessity, to catch the exploding grains as they reached their terminal velocity) and had made converts out of 830 Kickstarter backers, who had perused MoFAD’s pop-up exhibition materials and tasted the puffed results of their investment at demonstrations in Chinatown, at Maker Faire and in Foley Square — where the NYPD was nonplussed by the explosions but asked for cereal samples just the same.

They weren’t the only ones. “I had the cereal you guys were popping at Maker Faire and oh my god i still dream about that taste i can’t wait to visit you guys again,” one fan wrote on Facebook. The puffer gun had hit a (very pleasurable) nerve.

This blend of curiosity and technology has been the through-line in Dave Arnold’s unusual working life. “Whether it’s pancakes or cocktails,” chef Wylie Dufresne says of his longtime friend (and, more recently, brother-in-law), “he possesses some innate abilities and a dogged approach to knowledge which I find nothing short of unbelievable. It could be welding, or identifying leaves in the forest — it doesn’t matter, his enthusiasm is infectious.”

And, he adds, “it has always been a dream of his to help people understand food more deeply.”

This helps explain how a philosophy major who trained as a fine artist could end up not only as the instigator of a museum of food and drink but also a pioneer in cooking technology, a cocktail cookbook author and a radio host — not to mention the owner of a thriving alchemical bar, Booker and Dax, inside Momofuku Ssam Bar. The story of Arnold’s career in food brings to mind Rube Goldberg, with a dash of Homer Price, of doughnut machine fame.

A few years out of Yale, Arnold and his wife were living in an illegal loft in the Garment District where he built a hidden bedroom and a rolling kitchen from second-hand restaurant equipment he bought “for next to nothing.” With a grin he recalls cleaning colonies of mouse and cockroach carcasses out of some of the pieces, and set to customizing the kitchen, a process that he describes as if anyone might install a periscope in a deep fryer if they had the time. “I learned to weld in a senior art class,” he explains, his eyes lighting up.

A frequent customer at Dufresne’s restaurant, WD-50, he began to consult with Dufresne on unorthodox kitchen tools. Arnold built Dufresne a futuristic arsenal that included a vapor oven and a scaled-down version of a commercial co-extruder (imagine creating and filling a Twinkie simultaneously, and you’ll understand how co-extruding works). “These pieces are important and relevant to the story of modern gastronomy,” Dufresne emphasizes.

When he wasn’t hacking kitchen gear, Arnold worked in database design and spent his free time browsing the extensive cookbook collection at the Mid-Manhattan Library. Then a chance visit to a 2004 exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History had a transformative effect.

The museum, he felt, had completely missed an immersive, transformative opportunity: If only they had put food at the center of their exhibit, instead of as an afterthought at the exit.

“I went to an exhibition on Vietnam and at the end they had a little café,” he says, wincing a little at the memory of the “faux Vietnamese” food served at the museum’s restaurant (renamed “Café Pho” for the duration of the exhibit). “It wasn’t authentic, you weren’t learning the culture,” he remembers; nothing about the importance of rice to the economy, the history of the fish sauce industry or of how pho itself came to be the street food staple across Vietnam.

The museum, he felt, had completely missed an immersive, transformative opportunity: If only they had put food at the center of their exhibit, instead of as an afterthought at the exit. “Everything just fell together for me that day,” he concludes, and the Museum of Food and Drink was conceived.

He began with country ham. Or, to be precise, an exhibition in 2004 at the Jacob Javits Center entitled “Raw Talent: America’s Ham Artisans Take On Europe’s Masters.” The gallery was the official debut of his newly incorporated museum, although the venue, the [International Hotel/Motel] trade show at the Jacob Javits Center, was not traditionally known for championing culinary history and Southern foodways.

In the short run, the exhibition earned Arnold a mentor, the late food writer Michael Batterberry, and a job writing for Batterberry’s Food Arts magazine, where he rose to be editor of the “Kitchen Science” department. Batterberry also urged Dorothy Cann Hamilton, longtime matriarch of the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center) to hire Arnold to develop the school’s first department of Culinary Technology.

“They needed someone who was not a chef and not a scientist,” Arnold says, modestly. “I’m not [at FCI] to overthrow classic French cooking, I’m just there to think of new techniques.” The post was a career-maker for Arnold, notes Harold McGee. “Michael Batterberry saw the need for someone like Dave, and Dave grew into being who Batterberry thought he could be.”

But for Arnold, it was a double-edged sword: “FCI gave me the legitimacy to start a museum,” he comments wryly, “but it also made me too busy.”

Still, FCI clearly didn’t make Arnold too busy to start fund-raising for his future museum. In 2011 he organized a nine-course lunch at Del Posto and assigned some of city’s top chefs historical “themes”: David Chang took on America, 1491 (the year before Christopher Columbus arrived — think giant oysters), and Wylie Dufresne offered a plate of “caveman food,” among others.

The menu — and Arnold’s remarks about the museum concept — made a particular impression on Peter Kim, a former Peace Corps volunteer working as a corporate lawyer. “I was so inspired by Dave’s vision for the museum that I e-mailed him immediately after to offer pro bono legal assistance,” Kim recalls. But over the year that followed, Kim saw that the museum needed an “execution person,” and, he realized he should be that person. He quit his white-shoe law firm in 2012 to become MoFAD’s first employee; Emma Boast, the museum’s program director, was hired shortly after. Together, they, along with a small army of researchers and volunteers, have been charged with making this currently bite-sized museum into a perpetual banquet.

And so: “BOOM!”

Dry cereal’s evolution from American health fad (think Road to Wellville) to global supermarket staple may not seem like the stuff of shock and awe, but video footage of the explosive exhibit proves otherwise. A cereal consultant and an acoustical engineer were brought in. Archival images obtained from General Mills showed audiences how cereal packaging has adapted to or anticipated changing tastes, both aesthetic and gastronomic, over time. Even the Barnumesque style of MoFAD’s exhibit was a nod to history, paying homage to an early puffing gun demonstration put on by Quaker Oats for thousands of spectators at the St. Louis World’s Fair 109 years earlier.

MoFAD’s team even designed a cereal box just for Joe Biden: “Cheeri-Joes,” which captured his famous toothpaste smile. Kim delivered the boxes to the vice president at a reception for Asian-American leaders held at Biden’s home — but the VPOTUS isn’t the only one getting to sample MoFAD’s cereal: The exhibit’s built-in opportunity for the public to watch and hear the puffer gun at work and to sample the final product made “BOOM!” into the kind of kinetic, food-centered learning that Arnold had longed for at the American Museum of Natural History, nearly a decade earlier. Arnold, Kim and Boast hope to recreate the “BOOM!” experience in a gallery space soon. But how does a rolling cereal cannon become a bricks-and-mortar museum?

Kim and Arnold agree that the space will include not only the exhibition halls and programming spaces you expect from a cultural center, but also a central kitchen, a sit-down restaurant curated to the visitor’s experience, and rooftop agriculture.

The answer, for Kim and Boast, seems to be “slowly and deliberately.” The ambitions of MoFAD seem to be taken from the Gilded Age, when major cultural institutions grew like mushrooms in New York, but they have been reinforced with 21st-century pragmatism. The MoFAD staff has consulted with other “new” museums in this city of centennial institutions, such as the Museum of Math, the Rubin Museum and the Liberty Science Center, and they are working with a round number of what it will cost to launch: $25 million.

That, according to Kim, is how much it would take to build, open and sustain a physical museum in a New York neighborhood “in the path of tourists” for one year. Regardless of location, Kim and Arnold agree that the space will include not only the exhibition halls and programming spaces you expect from a cultural center, but also a central kitchen, a sit-down restaurant curated to the visitor’s experience, and rooftop agriculture.

This multimillion-dollar plan, board member and former Slow Food external affairs chief Jenny Best admits, “will be a test of fund-raising ability, but MoFAD has a deep bench of interested prospects” that Kim insists includes not only the chef community but also “people who have not supported food before.”

Just what kind of fund-raising “bench” they have is a question that concerns culinary historian Laura Shapiro, one of the curators of the New York Public Library’s 2012 “Lunch Hour NYC” exhibition, which Kim has hailed as an inspiration for MoFAD. “They need to be able to say exactly what they want,” she insists, arguing that any food-centric nonprofit must protect the integrity of its content against special interests. Kim and Boast, who were quick to emphasize that General Mills did not give financial support to “BOOM!,” would likely agree, but their ambitions require substantial resources from somewhere.

“Maybe it will be like Alice [Waters’] Edible Schoolyard,” Shapiro continues, her enthusiasm mounting. “She started very small, with carrots and one school, but she kept the big picture in mind.

This could be another kind of public education around food.” Keeping the big picture while starting small sounds a lot like what MoFAD is doing these days. Since the debut of “BOOM!,” the museum has held a series of roundtable conversations designed to address controversial food issues, and in September, they will launch a geospatial app called “MoFAD City.” The app, which curates the culinary history and offerings of neighborhoods around New York City, functions as a preview of MoFAD’s methodological approach. Each neighborhood in the app is framed with historical research, oral histories and narration provided by a team of academic advisers (including advisory board member Jessica B. Harris, author of High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America). Recommended dishes and purchases are on offer, too. “We’re using a digital program to enhance a physical experience,” Kim says, explaining that he came up with the idea after using a phone-based tool to tour street art murals in Philadelphia. The emphasis is on enclaves of ethnic food, such as the Afro-Caribbean cuisine of Crown Heights, or the Dominican specialties found in Washington Heights, and on the shops and restaurants that epitomize the culture of those enclaves. In this way, the museum hopes to serve as an economic engine, driving engaged, informed visitors to the small businesses of these communities, rather than insulating them from street-level interaction in the culinary equivalent of a Gray Line bus.

And this is the real challenge of MoFAD, as it moves in the direction of its ambition: how to stay engaged at the street level, while fund-raising for a project whose ambitions are sky-high. How do you turn a great idea into a beloved and enduring institution? Their spring benefit dinner, to be hosted in mid-May by Questlove and Mario Batali and featuring eight mystery celebrity chefs, holds a clue: It will be held at Carnegie Hall, long a cornerstone of New York culture and a model for philanthropists and tenacious violinists alike. Could it be that MoFAD’s slow-but-steady assembly of exhibitions and programs, funders and fans is just another way to “practice, practice, practice?”

“The thing I love about Dave,” Harold McGee explains, “is being surprised by his ideas. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with.” As more and more New Yorkers learn about MoFAD’S BIG ambitions, Dr. McGee won’t be the only one impatient to find out what Arnold and his team will do next. The waiting is the hardest part.

Photo credit: Scott Gordon Bleicher
Renderings courtesy of MoFAD

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