It may not be the fully-fledged Museum of Food and Drink that founder Dave Arnold has spent years trying to build, but the MOFAD Lab, an "exhibit design space" that opened yesterday in Williamsburg, is a pretty impressive step toward realizing his ultimate dream.
Located in a one-time warehouse at 62 Bayard Street across from McCarren Park, and retaining much of the industrial feel of its former tenant, the 5,000-square-foot MOFAD Lab will host a single exhibition at a time as Arnold and his team continue to try and secure a bigger, more permanent home. And the inaugural show, "Flavor: Making It and Faking It," is a solid start to what should be a rich field of inquiry: the history, science, commerce, and culture of the things we eat and drink.
"Flavor" explores the ways in which scientists and the food industry have tried to understand how we chemically experience different tastes, and then to replicate that specific sensation in a laboratory. There are graphically-pleasing timelines, sidebars and explainers tacked up all around the large open space, most of which wouldn't feel out of place on Vox, the media company that owns Eater and is a MOFAD Lab partner. Here's a look, for example, at how the creation of artificial vanilla turned this once-precious flavor, only available via orchids grown in remote regions of the world, into a hugely profitable, much-loved commodity, and gave birth to today's $25 billion flavor simulation industry.
(Scott Lynch / Gothamist)
But as engagingly written and designed as these materials are, the real fun of "Flavor" lies in the smell machines. Stick your nose up to one of the smell tubes and isolate the different aspects of common food aromas (strawberry has both "caramel" and "cilantro" notes, apparently), or try to guess which is the smell of actual concord grapes and which is the "artificial" chemical counterpart, methyl anthranilate. And over at the giant Smell Synth on the back wall, you can mix and match 19 different aromas into combinations both delightful and disgusting.
The MOFAD Lab exhibition also has a half dozen or so tasting tablet dispensers, which dole out tiny pills of pure flavor, so you can compare, for instance, vanilla with vanillin, or the naturally umami-rich tomato and mushroom with manmade MSG.
On hand as well—mostly because they're cool to look at and they probably have nowhere else to store them—are MOFAD's Puffing Gun (used to make puff cereal) and Tablet Press. There's a weird Infiniti thing up front too, in which you sit inside a car and a video about a chef in a different city plays on the windshield. It will not surprise you to learn that Infiniti is sponsoring the exhibition. A small gift shop area rounds out the MOFAD Lab experience.
"Flavor: Making It and Faking It" will be at MOFAD Lab through February 28, 2016.
MOFAD Lab is located at 62 Bayard Street in Williamsburg, between Lorimer and Leonard, and is open Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday from 12:00 until 8:00, Thursday from 12:00 until 6:00, and Sunday from 10:00 until 6:00. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Admission for adults is $10.