Although it’s in Manhattan, the Museum of the City of New York on the eastern edge of the northern reaches of Central Park at 103rd Street, is a respite from the urban hustle and bustle and a wonderful destination for City natives and tourists.
Founded in 1923, the museum was originally housed in Gracie Mansion, the future residence of the Mayor of New York City. A decade later, in 1932, its new home on upper Fifth Avenue was completed.
In the 21st century, its collection contains approximately 750,000 objects, including prints, photographs (e.g., 412 glass negatives taken by Jacob Riis), decorative arts (e.g., a complete room of Duncan Phyfe furniture), costumes & clothing (e.g., a man’s suit worn to George Washington’s Inaugural Ball), paintings, sculpture, toys (an artful creation which playfully resembles a toy, the Carrie Walter Stettheimer dollhouse which contains miniature works gifted to Carrie Walter by some of the leading names of modern art in New York in the 1910s and 1920s, including Marcel Duchamp, Louis Bouché, Gaston Lachaise, Marguerite and William Zorach, and others) and theatrical memorabilia.
The museum is currently offering a stimulating array of exhibits. Now (through September 30, 2023) one of the five exhibits on display, Food in New York: Bigger Than the Plate provides a particularly good reason to pay a visit to this off-the-beaten track museum in the Big Apple.
This exhibition focuses on the food which sustains New York City’s inhabitants and was inspired by an earlier, pre-pandemic exhibit at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, that also focused on a multi-cultural global city’s “nodes and networks of food systems.” The exhibition was similarly named in London: Food: Bigger than the Plate.
In only a couple rooms of gallery space on the first floor of the museum, much subject matter is covered by this exhibition. And the major “theme” of the show is close to the heart of the mission of our website, which spotlights the words of the Kentucky farmer and writer, Wendell Berry: “Every time you make a decision about food, you are farming by proxy.” We hope the users of our website agree (in Berry’s words) that they will not “given proxies to the corporations to produce and provide all of their food;” if so, they will find much to savor in this exhibition in New York City.
The purpose and aims undergirding Food in New York: Bigger Than the Plate exhibition are clearly described: “What we eat is one of the most important decisions we make every day.” And for folks who appreciate the writings of Wendell Berry, these words will reverberate: “Many of us feel detached from our food, often not knowing where it came from or how it was produced.”
The exhibition, in the curators’ words, “showcases the work of artists, designers, activists, and people like you who are thinking creatively about how to shape the future of food beyond the plate.” It’s a show with some hopefulness for the future, especially when it focuses on community gardens, farmers markets, and providing access to real food for all city dwellers, rich and poor. One major positive, today there are some 600 community gardens in the five boroughs of New York City.
With only 300 acres of farmland out of the city’s 200,000 acres (and none on the island of Manhattan), signage in the exhibition notes that “Food supplies in New York City today link a global system of predominantly industrial-scale farming to the nation’s largest market at Hunts Point in the Bronx . . .” A film, How NYC Is protecting Its Main Food Supply? (2018, Run time: 1:42 min, courtesy of the WNET Group) is on view in the exhibition and focuses on Hunts Point, which employs 8,500 people and “handles more food than any other distribution center in the nation- 4.5 billion tons of food for the region, and roughly 2.3 billion tons of food for New York City each year.”
Nonetheless, there are now over 50 producer only GrowNYC Greenmarkets in New York City spread among all five boroughs which promote “regional agriculture and ensure a continuing supply of fresh, local produce for all New Yorkers.”
This museum-goer was impressed by the focus paid on the original inhabitants of the geographic area which became New York City, noting that “the native populations of what today we call New York City inhabited an abundant landscape.” Although squash, maize and beans (the “three sisters” were grown), the agriculture of the Lenape was not intensive. Instead, hunting, fishing and foraging predominated, “with white-tailed deer, berries of all kinds, oysters, black bear, salmon, lobsters, wild turkeys, sturgeon and beaver all part of their regular menu.”
The raw animal fat from the diverse animals they hunted was “their main condiment.” And with heated rocks in light-weight earthen vessels that could not withstand high fire temperatures, they boiled their soups and stews.
Signage in the exhibition bluntly notes that the foodways of the Lenape “changed radically in the 1600s, when European invaders began tilting the area’s economy towards fur-trading (with hunting for fur supplanting traditional self-sufficiency).” With expanding European settlements, “Native people lost access to land, irreparably changing their foodways and their cultures.”
The foodways of New York City today are, of course, staggeringly changed from the Lenape era. In the 21st century, signage in the exhibition notes that “New Yorkers can experience local favorites and cuisines from all over the world in some 23,000 (emphasis added) restaurants and eateries, the most in the nation.” The elephant in the room, of course, is that the population of New York City is now 8.468 million (2021) and a reasonable estimate of the native population in all of North America (north of the Rio Grande) in 1492 was seven to ten million. In contrast, the North America population in 2023 is 604,155,369.
Also impressive is the exhibition’s focus on the loss of biodiversity. Uli Westphal’s “Cultivar Series” artwork on display stopped this museum-goer in his tracks with its profound visualization, in the artist’s words, of the “displacement and extinction” of what had been “since the dawn of agriculture . . . a seemingly infinite diversity of locally adapted crop cultivars.” So sad to lose “not only their genetic plasticity, but also a living cultural and culinary heritage.” For example, industrial agriculture’s intensive cultivation of a small number of crops and strains “mean that most of us do not know that there are over 12,000 sub-species of corn. . . ” Uli Westphal’s focus on the portrayal and transformation of nature through industrial agriculture is deeply insightful.
Artist Naima Penniman’s painting “Foresight” also required a very close look to fully appreciate. She created this artwork “to honor our visionary African ancestors who braided seeds into their hair before being forced to board slave ships as an act of resilience for an uncertain future.” The black eyed pea, which seems to glow at the center of the painting, is “a sacred food indigenous to Africa that has become a staple throughout the diaspora” in Penniman’s words included on the informative label for this work of art.
[Food in New York: Bigger Than the Plate (through September 30, 2023), Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue (at 103rd Street), NYC, NY]
(Frank W. Barrie, 2/11/22)