I’ve been working on projects at the intersection of sustainable food, immigrant communities, and local culture since I returned to New York from Italy in 2014. So, of all the noteworthy (and cringe-worthy) sound bites of the current U.S. election season, one had particular relevance to my work: A conservative commentator warned that without more stringent restrictions to stem the (in fact, non-existent) flood of Mexican immigrants over the U.S. border, Americans would soon see “taco trucks on every corner.” We can laugh at his remarks – and thousands on social media did, noting that the promise of more taco trucks sounds like a pretty glowing argument for more immigration. But the comment also spoke to a dark thread in current political commentary: the demonization of immigrants and devaluation of their work, their culture, and their role in the fabric of American life.
The reality is that immigrants with taco trucks – and dumpling carts, injera bakeries, kebab stands, and pizzerias – are essential to the way we eat today. The landscape of American food is constantly changing with the population – and has been since the founding of our country. It is the ability to bring diverse people together to make a home here, to exchange and share ideas and customs that makes us who we are. And so much of that exchange happens over food.
This is the inspiration behind MOFAD City, a project of the Museum of Food and Drink in Brooklyn, NY. MOFAD City is a “virtual exhibit” that takes the form of eight guides telling the stories of food cultures in neighborhoods around the country. Each guide includes a narrative history of the community, profiles of food businesses and iconic dishes, as well video, photography, and audio interviews with local food producers and community leaders. The goal is to promote appreciation of immigrant food traditions and to inspire thoughtful discussion around the meaning of American cuisine.
I’ve been working with the Museum of Food and Drink since August of this year. Our first guides launched in October, and the final guide will go live in January, 2017. This project has taken me to some of America’s most vibrant cultural neighborhoods – from Miami’s Little Haiti to Los Angeles’ Little Armenia – and introduced me to some of the immigrant food producers who are shaping local food scenes across the country. From the start, we felt it was essential that these guides be relevant to the people living in these communities, and not just addressed to visitors. We wanted them to be thorough, historical, and culturally responsible. And we knew this would be impossible if the only voices heard were ours: a group of (mostly white) foodies in Brooklyn.
In each city, I set out to identify researchers, writers and advisers who were rooted in these communities, and passionate about the local food and history. Mexican cuisine in Chicago; Caribbean food in Crown Heights, Brooklyn; Vietnamese cuisine in San Jose – these stories come from people who have lived – and eaten – in these neighborhoods all their lives. In every step of the project – from selecting photos to editing audio and video clips, to writing web copy – we have worked to channel the voices of these communities, so that we can do justice to the immigrant groups who have built these cities, celebrate their contributions while drawing attention to their biggest challenges.
Our hope is that users will not only appreciate the site – built in a collaboration between MOFAD and online food magazine Eater.com – for its food and restaurant information, but that they will use it to learn about the culture and historical significance of culinary landmarks, and explore issues of food culture, identity, immigration, and adaptation. We hope users will be inspired to visit these places, enjoy the food, support these local producers, and come away with a closer connection to the immigrant communities that shape the way America eats.
It is part of the same mission that drives the museum – to contribute to public understanding of the culture, history, science, production, and commerce of food and drink, in the hopes that an informed public will be better equipped to address the food challenges of the 21st century. MOFAD knows that to truly achieve its mission it must reach out to people of all economic and ethnic backgrounds, and make them feel not only welcome in the museum, but integral parts of our national conversations on issues of food, immigration, and justice.