- Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurantproduced by Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD)
Food and its objects have long been a focus of museums across Europe and North America. Folklife and living history museums in particular include foodways as a central component of their interpretative offerings. Yet there has arguably been a recent turn in museum scholarship and practice toward more diverse examinations of food. Museums are increasingly recognizing the growing interest in culinary tourism and weighing in on contemporary discourses surrounding the cultural, political, and environmental significance of consuming food in today's globalized world. As Nina Levent and Irina D. Mihalache observe in their edited collection Food and Museums(Bloomsbury, 2017:3), "museums are responding to the current public fascination with food by integrating food displays, programming, and eating in their practices. These new museum practices are convincing more and more audiences that food is worthy of serious attention."
The Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) is one museum that reveals the curatorial potential and complexity of food by creating new critical dialogues around the intersection of food, culture, labor, immigration, power, authenticity, and identity. Founded in 2015, the museum is still very much developing. The curator of MOFAD, Catherine Piccoli, explains that the goal of the museum is to educate people about food and drink, using food "as a lens to understand ourselves and the world around us" (interview with Meghann E. Jack).
The museum space currently constitutes a small "lab" in a former industrial unit overlooking Brooklyn's McCarren Park. Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant, MOFAD's second exhibit, explores 170 years of Chinese presence in America through the origins and evolution of Chinese American restaurant food. As Piccoli relates, the compact exhibit intends to tell "the story of the Chinese American restaurant and the cuisine created in those spaces. But it's also a story about immigration, exclusion, and what it means to be an American" (interview with Meghann E. Jack).
The impacts of racial discrimination on Chinese people and the ways that immigrant cuisines are exoticized and othered certainly underlie the exhibit, but perhaps the most significant theme explored is the fluidity of ethnic foodways. Chowbegins by broaching the idea of invented tradition in the creation of chop suey. Indeed, much of the exhibit implicitly asks visitors to question what matters more in understanding Chinese American food: authenticity or cultural meaning. Initial panels explore the nebulous origin of chop suey, which the museum suggests is the earliest Chinese American dish, if not the most iconic. They go on to explain how chop suey likely originated in the Guangdong province and was made with offal. In the American context, more mainstream cuts of meat were utilized in order to satisfy local taste preferences. The dish was first served in New York's Chinatown in the late 1800s, and, by the 1920s, it was popular all across America. "Chop Suey Palaces" thus emerged as one of the few business opportunities that Chinese newcomers, who faced racist and exclusionary immigration policies, could pursue.
The exhibit considers the origins of other popular Chinese American foods. The fortune cookie largely emerged from a Japanese food tradition adopted by Chinese restaurateurs. The Taiwanese origins of General Tso's chicken are also discussed. Another text panel plots Chinese American cuisine after World War II, [End Page 249]when upscale restaurants emerged that offered more "authentic" and nuanced Chinese dishes. Chefs like Joyce Chen, through her popular cookbooks and Americanized wok, also began to change the way Americans experienced Chinese cuisine, offering an avenue for preparing and consuming it in a domestic setting. The most exciting component of the exhibit, and the one that best reveals the dynamic nature of ethnic foodways, is the extensive display of restaurant menus ranging from 1910 to 2016. In reading menu offerings, visitors can trace how food practices and preferences continued and evolved in Chinese American restaurants. The design of the menus is equally revealing...