Last month, The Museum of Food and Drink in Williamsburg published a new digital map that highlights the foodways of the African American culinary experience. MoFAD promises that Mapping the Nation’s Table will be an ongoing history of Black-owned restaurants, farms, and other food ventures focusing on businesses that have been in operation for at least 50 years and are still in operation today. The map doesn’t list very many New York businesses yet — save for Sylvia’s in Harlem, which was started in 1962 and calls itself “the Queen of Soul Food” — but MOFAD has a submission portal open for operators of such businesses to submit their own businesses here.
The map is a part of the museum’s larger exhibition that remains postponed due to the ongoing COVID pandemic. African/American: Making the Nation’s Table remains set to be the first major showcase in the country that details the history, impact, and ongoing influence of the African food diaspora in the United States. “In the 400-plus years since enslaved Africans first arrived on the North American continent, African Americans have been the bedrock of American cuisine,” according to the show’s curator, Jessica B. Harris, who teaches English at Queens College and is the author, most recently, of My Soul Looks Back: A Memoir.
According to the museum, “African/American: Making the Nation’s Table” was set to open to the public on April 3rd, 2020. But as the ongoing pandemic intensified, MoFAD decided to indefinitely postpone the event.
“Due to COVID-19, we postponed the exhibition and are waiting for the right time for people to feel safe being together in such an interactive space,” Catherine Piccoli, the museum’s curatorial director told Bushwick Daily. “Because our exhibitions bring people together to share food, we had to figure out how to do that online during the shutdown.”
The exhibition is set to premiere at the Africa Center at Aliko Dangote Hall in Manhattan sometime in 2022 and the show is still collecting donations for that here. But, while the exposition is still a year out, its homepage remains abuzz with upcoming events.
The Legacy Quilt will be one of its stars: a 406-block quilt provided by a nonprofit called Harlem Needle Arts and showcasing culinary heroes, innovators, and mainstays. The Harlem nonprofit even plans to make the quilt “historically accurate” by making a point to use fabrics that date back as far as 1900, like gingham and corduroy. The 400 silhouettes are more modern and were designed by Adrian Franks, a graphic designer Spike Lee seems to like. The Brooklyn food writer Osayi Endolyn penned the blurbs for each individual block. The museum is still taking new entries for that and there’s a form to nominate your own.
Another planned exhibit called “Movements” will look at the way that the American food experience evolved through immigration, the slave trade, and urbanization. Subjects include: the popularization of corn, red peas and the development of modern Carribean cooking, as well as the first known cookbook penned by an African American writer.
“Agriculture” is set to examine irrigation and other farming techniques during the chattel slavery era. In addition to the backbreaking labor, many found time to tend their own gardens, which will be a big focus of the show. Undoubtedly, “Agriculture” will reveal the indelible impression that Africans made on the farming and cultivation practices in America. Among the characters celebrated by the exhibit is David Bohlen, whose business Bohlen Family Farms has its own block on the Legacy Quilt. According to the site, the company’s “heirloom ingredients are in demand by chefs in St. Louis, Missouri.”
Also in the works: a virtual reality showcase that promises to bring paying visitors to a pitmaster’s smoker and an herbalist’s farm. That exhibition will center on African contributions to distilling, brewing, the culinary arts, commerce, and also feature the Test Kitchen that Ebony magazine used to own and which MOFAD bought in 2019.
In the interim, MoFAD wants the public to engage with their showcase safely and thoughtfully. Pull up a virtual seat to the proverbial table, and make way for a new era in American cuisine; one that honors the history, people, and practices of generations. The museum says it will still announce ticket sales at a later date, but you can keep up with the latest news on their Instagram, or their website.
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