Our Global Kitchen at NYC’s American Museum of Natural History

The American Museum of Natural History , at Central Park West and 79th Street on Manhattan’s upper West Side has organized a major exhibit on our world’s food, “Our Global Kitchen, Food, Nature, Culture” (open Daily, 10:00AM-5:45PM until August 11, 2013).  The exhibit, curated by Eleanor Sterling, director of the museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation and Mark Norell, chairman of the museum’s Division of Paleontology, aspires to satisfy all appetites, ranging from displays on the foods of past human societies as well as the future possibility of feeding hungry mouths by growing meat in a laboratory.   This enticing smorgasbord of an exhibit is roughly organized into four major thematic areas of (1) Growing, (2) Trade and Transport, (3) Cooking and (4) Eating.

A well-made introductory short video (one of three included in the exhibit), touches on many timely issues including childhood obesity, unequal distribution of food with one out of eight hungry (870,000,000 worldwide), the depletion of natural resources  in producing food, food waste (typical American family throws out 1,656 pounds of food), the environmental consequences of the rising demand for meat (35% of crops feed animals), and the dangers of losing biodiversity (almost all bananas come from a single genetic group threatened by a fungus).  The video ends by posing the question, What will you eat today?  The answer provided: what you eat is shaped by history, nature, commerce and culture.

Our Global Kitchen closely examines global commerce in food in a section of the exhibit on Trade and Transport.  The facts related in this section of the exhibit (as well as in the introductory video) are staggering though not surprising: four trillion dollars worth of food is bought and sold globally each year, with 2 billion tons of corn, rice and wheat produced in 2010.  Difficult to digest is this stunning fact: 26% of the world’s packaged food is manufactured by just 10 companies.  The list of the top 10 global food exports makes for a guessing game of sorts: (1) wheat, 162 million tons; (2) corn, 110.9 million tons; (3) soybeans, 89.9 million tons, (4) sugar, 57 million tons; (5) palm oil, 38.8 million tons; (6) rice, 32.8 million tons; (7) barley 28.3 million tons; (8) bananas, 20.1 million tons; (9) rapeseed [canola], 18.9 million tons, and (10) coffee 15.7 million tons.  Although coffee is shown as tenth in this list of trade by volume, after oil, coffee is the most valuable (dollar-wise) commodity traded.  Of some surprise is that three of the top 10 food exporting nations (U.S., Netherlands and Ukraine) are also on the list of the top 10 importing nations.  The top 10 food exporters are (1) United States, (2) Brazil, (3) France, (4) Canada, (5) Germany, (6) Ukraine, (7) Argentina, (8) Netherlands, (9) Australia, and (10) Russia.  The to 10 food exporters are (1) China, (2) Germany, (3) Japan, (4) United States, (5) Netherlands, (6) Spain, (7) Italy, (8) Mexico, (9) Belgium and (10) Ukraine.

Although “industrial” global agriculture is closely examined, the local in global is also revealed in the exhibit.  The section on Growing details growing (1) maize in a village in Kenya, (2) oysters in Cancale, (Brittany) France, and (3) rice in Sa Pa, Vietnam.  The importance of cassava (also known as manioc in South America) in tropical regions was eye-opening to this northerner.  Growing year round, it can be harvested anytime.  The tuberous roots provide calories for 400,000,000 as a food staple.  The loss of biodiversity is also addressed: out of 1000s of varieties of wheat, only 30 species are grown widely.  And who knew there are 40,000 varieties of beans?

Included in the exhibit’s area on Cooking is a virtual cooking table, where four visitors at a time can try their hand at virtual cooking of four international dishes: (1) West African groundnut or peanut soup, (2) Mexican tamales, (3) classic French poached eggs with Hollandaise sauce, and  (4) an American gourmet meal of grilled salmon using a spice rub and peach salad.   In a first for the American Museum of Natural History, a working kitchen features daily samplings and activities ranging from taste tests to demonstrations of cooking methods.  Kitchen guests include working farmers and chefs with the theme of the kitchen changing every two weeks: April 15, grains/granolas; April 29, international cooking; May 13, grilling; June 3, bees/honey; June 17, jams/jellies; July 1, ice cream/frozen treats; July 15, pickling; and July 29, tomatoes.

The recreation of a giant marketplace in the capital city of the Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlan, in the year 1519 is captured by an extraordinary diorama (the specialty of the American Museum of Natural History and a still effective, old-fashioned “virtual reality”).  The Aztecs were the dominant culture in Mexico at the time of Cortez’s arrival in Mexico in the 1500s.  This depiction of the Aztec marketplace is what the Spaniards saw soon after their arrival in the Americas.  The foods available (visited by 60,000 people per day in a capital city of 350,000 inhabitants) include maize (corn), tomatoes, chile peppers, dried blocks of algae, chocolate, and vanilla.  The Aztec marketplace in Tenochtitlan (on whose ruins Mexico City would be built) would disappear in 1521, when Hernan Cortes and his army conquered the Aztecs through “germ warfare, siege warfare, psychological warfare, and direct combat” according to an informative Wikipedia article.

It is startling to realize that the Aztec civilization was built on the ruins of an even older Maya civilization.  The Aztec Empire, which lasted from 1325 to 1519, inherited traditions and foods from Maya civilization and the foods on display in the recreated Aztec marketplace are similar to the foods of the ancient Maya.  David Montgomery in his extraordinary history of world agriculture, Dirt, the Erosion of Civilizations, notes that at its peak in 800 AD, the Maya population had reached at least three million and perhaps as many as six million from a population of less than 200,000 in 600 BC.   In Dirt, Montgomery details the collapse of various ancient civilizations from the stress of feeding a growing population from deteriorating lands.  His stunning parade of examples of the collapse of various societies from inadequate food supplies begins as early as 6000 BC, when whole villages in now central Jordan were abandoned and includes,  among a dozen examples, the disappearance of the Maya civilization in the Yucatan and Central America (Mesoamerica).  To see the recreated Aztec marketplace, with the knowledge that an even older civilization had preceded the one depicted in Our Global Kitchen, shows the resiliency of humans albeit where a Maya civilization of 6,000,000 has been followed by a significantly smaller Aztec civilization.

The exhibit also includes the (not to be missed) recreation of the first meal known to have been eaten by a human (a 5,000 year old meal) in the section on Eating.  Snow and ice covered the mummified body of Otzi discovered in the Alps in 1991.  Scientists took samples from the mummified remains of his digestive system and through DNA analysis determined that Otzi had dined on the dried meat of a wild goat, bread (a particle of einkorn, an ancient variety of wheat was in the remains), and dried fruit (a wild plum called sloe). Wow.  Other meals are depicted and fascinate the visitor: a breakfast in ancient Rome served to Livia Drusilla, wife of emperor Augustus, consisting of sea urchins and eggs in pine-nut sauce as well as the breakfasts of Jane Austin, Mahatma Gandhi, swimmer Michael Phelps and Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize laureate and founder of the Green Belt Movement.

Two other videos are included in the exhibit.  Midway,  Thoughts on the Future of Food (with an emphasis on climate change, the environmental costs of inexpensive meat, and the use of biotechnology in food production) is required viewing.  In the last gallery,  A Celebration of Food  provides an upbeat, though fluffy, depiction of how food forges our cultural identities, ranging from Oktoberfest, the Chinese New Year, Ramadan meals with a focus on Senegal, to Thanksgiving in America.

The museum’s website includes extraordinary resources related to this exhibit in a section called “Additional Resources” which provides paths to further exploration of a range of topics from the evolution of crop plants and the crops of the future to wild fermentation and healthy school food.  If you are unable to visit the exhibit, spend some time on the intelligent “virtual” presence of the exhibit on the museum’s website.
[The American Museum of Natural History , at Central Park West and 79th Street, “Our Global Kitchen, Food, Nature, Culture” (open Daily, 10:00AM-5:45PM until August 11, 2013]
(F.W. Barrie (4/18/13)



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