Celebrating Black Culinary History with MOFAD and Masterclass
And a review of Jeni's Everything Bagel Ice Cream
Shortly after I moved to New York for graduate school, I started volunteering with the Museum of Food and Drink. MOFAD was barely more than a dream at that point, operating out of a windowless basement office in the East Village with a skeleton crew of volunteers and the barest suggestion of full-time staff.
I helped out two days a week, writing newsletters and gala programs, researching archival menus, working as a docent in the museum’s first proper exhibition, and generally falling in love with MOFAD’s mission of food education. It’s been years since I last worked with them, so I was beyond excited when I got an invite to the press preview for African/American: Making the Nation’s Table.
The culinary influences of African cuisine on this country are innumerable. If you’ve ever eaten okra gumbo, you’ve eaten Black food. Maybe you’ve noticed how common rice is in the South? Yeah, African rice growers were enslaved specifically to farm it for white American plantation owners. Are you a fan of mac and cheese? The version we know and love was perfected by James Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved, French-trained chef. The list goes on, and on, and on.
The African/American exhibition, which opened to the public this past Wednesday, interrogates this history with an unflinching but digestible tone. Presented at the Africa Center in Harlem, it features an interactive map of Black culinary migration through the years, the entire Ebony Magazine test kitchen, and an expansive 14-by-28-foot quilt embroidered with 406 portraits of important Black culinary figures. It even includes two VR experiences at a Black-owned farm and at Jones Barbecue in Kansas City, a well-loved spot run by sister pitmasters.
MOFAD’s work has always been marked by a dedication to a sense of whimsy, even when approaching the most difficult topics. CHOW, its Chinese-American exhibition (I got to do some archival menu research), had a functioning fortune cookie machine. That sense of self-directed exploration is palpable at African/American, which, while technically linear, can be enjoyed in whatever order and at whatever pace the visitor prefers.
MOFAD holds a special place in my heart, but this exhibition would be a remarkable achievement even if I had no connection to the organization whatsoever. At the ribbon-cutting, African/American’s lead curator Jessica B. Harris spoke about the evolution of the exhibition throughout the two-year delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic:
“I—we—all went to our rooms to await the passing of the angel of death that is COVID-19. We have not yet escaped fully… Things have changed. Panels have been redone. My eyes, like those of everyone involved, have been lathed with the tears of loss and views of the unforgettable and difficult. Seen with these new eyes, the show is different, somewhat changed… African/American: Making the Nation’s Table is a story of survival and resistance. Of resilience and triumph over adversity. It reminds us all of the stony road trodden by African Americans, and—and this is a very important and—it celebrates Black triumph, Black love, and Black joy.”
In a world on fire, this exhibition’s mere existence is a testament to the importance of confronting the truth, even when that truth is hard to look at. If you’re in the New York area or can visit soon, this illuminating exhibition is worth the trip in and of itself.
One of MOFAD’s advisors for this exhibition was culinary historian Michael Twitty. Twitty, for the uninitiated, is a Black, gay, Jewish food expert whose fame is predicated, in part, on a viral 2013 blog post in which he called out Paula Deen for perpetuating racism while building a career on a cuisine defined by Black chefs.
In that blog post, he pointed out the paradoxes of Southern food, explaining that: “Culinary injustice is the annihilation of our food voices—past, present and foreseeable future—and nobody will talk about that like they are talking about you and the “n word.” For shame.” In the intervening years, he has not shut up about what’s wrong with that picture, and last week I was given the opportunity to view his Masterclass, Tracing Your Roots Through Food.
In the course, Twitty breaks down the exhaustive process he used to trace his own genealogy in writing The Cooking Gene, emphasizes how inextricable world history is from anyone’s personal history, and explains to viewers of any background how preserving your culinary traditions can provide a palpable, experiential sense of the past in the present.
The class, like MOFAD’s exhibition, delves into dark topics without letting you get bogged down. Twitty has an engaging, conversational style. He’s infectiously enthusiastic about both the food of his ancestors and the potential for you to find yours, and after watching it, I’m certainly considering delving into my Lithuanian Jewish ancestry for Eastern European food stories.
This past weekend I celebrated a friend’s 29th birthday at Larina Pastificio e Vino in Clinton Hill, a restaurant I had heard a lot about but hadn’t gotten around to visiting. The family-style menu had a little bit of everything, and it was a stellar experience all around.
In other news, the ice cream mad scientists at Jeni’s are bringing back their most controversial flavor: everything bagel. They sent me a whole box of goodies, so I got to try a sample this morning (it’s breakfast ice cream, after all). Everything Bagel ice cream is a confusing but addictive taste experience that reminds me of drinking Spruce Beer—you kind of want to hate it, but damn if you don’t go back for another bite. If you want to try some yourself, it’ll be back on March 21st.
I also got to try some snacks from CHUZA, which sells Mexican style spicy dried fruit. The punch of sweet, salty, sour, and spicy can be a bit of a curveball for the palate, but that’s what makes it so good. My favorites were the spicy pineapple and cranberries.