Chef competitions on TV, front-page articles in daily newspapers, cover stories in mainstream magazines: Everyone, it seems, is talking, writing, blogging, dreaming about food. And getting serious about it. We’re finally gaining some much-needed civic momentum to do something about obesity, about our food safety standards, about salt and sugar, and preserving heirloom vegetables and family farms.
The problem is there’s lots of talking and not enough listening. Food is a big issue, comprising health, culture, industry, commerce, botany and biology. We need a “big tent” for the national conversation on food, a neutral venue that can host all sorts of people, all ages groups, all professional and civic perspectives.
I’ve become convinced that science museums should become that place.
All museums traffic in information and education, but science museums are uniquely rooted in the notion that the highest human purpose is the cultivation of wonder at the world we inhabit. As a venue, a science museum invites multiple viewpoints and disinvites commercial messages and histrionics. More practically, as venues, they are easy to find, have good parking and public access, and have spaces available for public debate and education. They are serious places, but also fun. Neither 5-year-olds nor full professors are out of place.
As a chef, restaurant owner and now food writer — and always as an interested eater — I’ve followed the food debates for many years. But I didn’t see the potential of this foodie-museum relationship until the documentary “Food Inc.” came out last year.
I’d seen the film at a preview screening, written about it and waited expectantly for the noisy yet reflective conversation it seemed sure to spark. I waited all through the summer of 2009. I had to beg chefs and foodie friends to go see it. Then, late last September, I moderated a panel discussion at a special screening of “Food Inc.” at the Museum of Science in Boston. It was a weekday afternoon, not exactly prime movie-going time for busy adults, and yet all the spots in the auditorium were reserved with a waiting list of hundreds more.
The auditorium was filled with a fascinating array of people: public health professionals, academics, college students, moms angry about school lunches, moms raising chickens, activists and advocates, urban farmers, chefs, culinary students, city officials. For once, a true variety of stakeholders in the food conversation were on hand and asking good questions — and listening. (They were also meeting one another and discovering overlapping interests and efforts.)
That’s when it struck me that the science museum was the spot where this conversation could keep on going.
To that end, I’ve recently been working with the museum on an a new initiative called, “Let’s Talk About Food.” Our goal is no less than the cultivation of a food-savvy citizenry, one that understands the interplay of science and food and how food affects our health, our environment, our economy and our culture. With any luck, our efforts will provide a template for other science and technology institutions in the U.S. and beyond.
The Boston Museum of Science staff already is working full steam ahead to make it a success. “Let’s Talk About Food” will explore how food forms the basis of our cultural traditions, how it creates community, how it affects our health. The topics will branch out from there: What impact does food production have on the land, the oceans, the planet?
The conversations will assume many formats, from seminars and panels to films and discussions, readings, working groups, cooking events, demonstrations and activities. We’ll marvel at the science of food with gee-whiz exhibits, examine the impact of the Gulf oil spill on fisheries, discuss why our kids are fat and talk about we can do about it. With the help of scientists, chefs, public health officials, farmers and doctors, we will talk about fresh water, debate sugary beverages and discuss the merits of urban gardening. We will ponder what happens when locavore eating means a hog farm moves in next-door.
We will ask what would happen to the ecosystem if (really, truly) we all became vegetarians. Why does yeast actually make things rise? What is happening when we tinker with genes on wheat? How does Ferran Adria make a Jell-O cube taste like a fresh tomato?
Is there another venue that could fulfill this promise? I don’t think so.
Zester Daily contributor Louisa Kasdon is a Boston-based food writer, former restaurant owner and founder of letstalkaboutfood.com. She is a columnist for the Boston Phoenix, the food editor for Stuff Magazine and has contributed to Fortune, MORE, Cooking Light, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine and the Christian Science Monitor, among others.