Digging Deep Into New York City’s Rich Tattoo History

The latest exhibit on view at the New York Historical Society, “Tattooed New York” chronicles over three hundred years of tattoo history ranging from Native American tattooing practices from three centuries ago, to the professional tattooed ladies who graced the stages of freak shows at the turn of the century, all the way through the ban on tattooing in 1961 to now. From punk rockers to hipsters and everything in between, this show has something for everyone.

Tattoo shop of “Coney Island Freddie” just prior to New York City’s ban on tattooing, 1961
Tattoo shop of “Coney Island Freddie” just prior to New York City’s ban on tattooing, 1961

The scope of the exhibition is significant and takes up an entire gallery space of the Historical Society’s first floor. The marble columns sit in stark contrast to many of the images of inked men and women who helped further a practice that was often looked down upon.

“Tattooed New York” has a comprehensive amount of artifacts, memorabilia, photographs and objects that help to illustrate the way that New York made its mark on American tattoo history. This exhibit is demystifying larger misrepresentations surrounding the practice. From the origins of Native American tattooing practices of the Iroquois to the other nations in the Northeast centuries ago, through the introduction of European tattooing, New York’s tattoo history is nothing but complex.

Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New York Historical Society said,”We are proud to present ‘Tattooed New York’ and offer our visitors an immersive look into the little-known history of modern tattooing.”

The exhibit considers each historical period of New York’s tattoo development in thoughtful detail interweaving interesting facts. For example, “Indigenous people of North America pricked or scratched the skin with sharpened bones, branches, or needles, then rubbed soot or crushed minerals into the wound as pigment.” The process resulted in beautiful ornate tattoo designs that were adorned on the bodies of those who got tattooed.

Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow, King of the Maquas, 1710
Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow, King of the Maquas,

The tattoo of the past also had significant iconography. They were often the literal mark of an accomplishment and the same symbols that were permanently inked on their bodies could also be found on “carved on their wooden clubs, which recorded victories and exploits in battles.”

Another fascinating element the exhibit explores is the link to maritime culture and tattooing.

It was Captain James Cook who sailed to the South Pacific in the 1700s who first introduced the Tahitian word tautau to England. However it is the three centuries long association with tattoos and sailors that remained intact.

Prior to identification cards and photography, tattooing served as a reliable form of documentation. Tattoos as a form of ID was a frequent trick used by sailors and soldiers throughout the 1700s and beyond. During the Civil War for example, NYC tattooer Martin Hildebrandt tattooed thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers in an effort to help identify them! Hildebrandt is also the first person to set up a permanent place of business dedicated to tattooing in the 1850s in the Lower East Side. But this is not what you would think of in terms of a tattoo shop today. Martin is also known to have tattooed Nora Hildebrandt, the first professional tattooed lady, however the nature of their relationship has historically remained unclear.

New York City’s ties to tattoo history are strong. As New York Historical Society curator Cristian Petru Panaite put it, “New York City is considered the birthplace of modern tattooing. There are a number of inventions or firsts in this craft and art form that took place in New York.”

Petru Panaite continued, “The visual tattoo vocabulary was also enriched with new designs being imagined and drawn by tattooers like Lew Alberts and Bill Jones.These designs were further refined, exchanged, traded – even stolen – ending up in tattoo shops all around the country. The New York tattoo artists were also business-savvy, and New York can definitely take credit for the growth of the tattoo supply business which very much opened the industry.”

Mildred Hull was the first woman to open a tattoo shop in the Bowery. Hull who was a powerhouse in her own right, enjoyed long and prolific career. Women such as Hull, Nora Hildebrandt and others played a vital role in the larger narrative of American tattoo history, however their stories have been often overlooked. While American tattoo history has often been viewed as a hyper-masculine space it is people like Hull, Hildebrandt and others who have helped add depth to this history.

Nora Hildebrandt, ca. 1880
Nora Hildebrandt, ca. 1880

By telling the story of NYC’s tattoo history, the New York Historical Society is helping to bridge the gap between contemporary tattoo culture and it’s past. . The subculture of tattooing in NYC specifically has seen many trends over the years. In 1961, a tattooing ban was put in place by the Health Department of NYC that last over forty years. Since the ban was lifted on tattooing in 1997, this city has come to be synonymous with tattooing.

From the illegal parlors that operating along the Bowery during the 1970s such as Mike Bakaty’s famous shop Fineline, (which is still operating in the East Village today by his son Mehai, and is known as the oldest tattoo shop in the city), to the new celebrity studded shops dotting the East and West Villages, not much as changed.

When it comes to tattoo institutional memory, the exhibit also enlisted the help of several famed NYC tattooers. Tattooed New York also featured various objects that were loaned to the show on behalf of the tattooers. Brad Fink who is co-owner of the famed shop Daredevil lent some of their own artifacts to the exhibit. Daredevil which is a fully operating tattoo shop also features a a small museum of tattoo history within their space.

Co-owner of Daredevil, Michelle Myles who has also incredibly knowledgeable about American tattoo culture as well, said “Cristian Panaite [the curator contacted us and came in to see the collection at Daredevil. Brad [Fink, co-owner of Daredevil] ended up loaning them several items including the Edison pen, a Charlie Wagner tattoo machine, a sailors hand poke kit, the Ace Harlan painting of Millie Hull and Charlie Wagner, the sideshow banner and several sheets of flash.”

Myles added, “I think it’s incredible to see the history of New York City tattooing represented in New York’s oldest museum. It’s important for people to know the role the city played in fostering this art form. New York City is the birthplace of Modern American tattooing.”

Stephanie Tamez who is also a well known tattooer and co-owner of the Brooklyn tattoo shop Saved also was contacted by the exhibit’s curator to help lend her hand to the show in a slightly different way. Tamez has several of her finished tattoos on display as photographs in the exhibit and also within a video that accompanies the show.

Thom de Vita and client in his studio at 326 E 4th Street, 1976, by John Wyatt
Thom de Vita and client in his studio at 326 E 4th Street, 1976, by John Wyatt

Tamez said, “There’s a back-piece of mine that is an Egyptian/ Tibetan phoenix on my client Rebecca (photographed by Gigi Stoll), there’s a piece of flash painting of a Phoenix that I did for Mike Rubendall’s & Neversleep Publishing’s new book “Tattooing’s Guide to Symbolism.”

“I’m also featured in the Ina Saltz video that shows some of my earlier work on typography. Recently I had been introduced to Bo Gehrig, who found me last year and asked me to participate in his video portrait project. So, after that I suggested him as an interesting participant to the show, which I’m happy to say that Cristian followed through with,” Tamez added.

While this show at NYHS is significant and is helping to solidify the vitalness of American tattoo history and those who have carved out this space out. Another exhibit that is also taking on this subject matter in a larger context is the Tattoo exhibit at the Fields Museum in Chicago. Tattoo looks at the larger sociocultural topic of tattoos from a more global perspective. A version of this show was first on display in 2015 as well in France then eventually made its way to North America. Tattooed New York like the show in Chicago is helping to educate the public on a topic that is not often looked at in this way. This show should not be missed and it is finally giving American tattoo culture the context it deserves.

Tattooed New York is on view until April 30, 2017 at the New York Historical Society.




Explore Food and the Immigrant Experience, Just in Time for Chinese New Year

In his poem “Model Minority,” Jason Koo relates an episode in which a young child kicks his luggage at Penn Station, calls him a “fucking Chinese,” and then stops, “thinking that was insult enough.” Koo, a Korean American, reflects on the incident ironically: “After something like this, my default comfort food is Chinese,” he reveals — “not ‘good’ or ‘real’ Chinese, but fucking Chinese.” Koo’s indisputably American heritage then floats to the surface as he describes familiar dishes like General Tso’s chicken and lo mein, “flaplocked” in warm takeout containers and typically consumed in “two volumes: Vol. 1 for dinner, Vol. 2 microwaved for lunch the next day.”

It is not by accident that, for Koo and many other Americans, a carton of Chinese takeout can be a reliable source of solace. The earliest inventors of American Chinese cuisine fought anti-immigrant hostility by cooking for a Caucasian public (a topic covered in depth in the recent Chow Chop Suey, by food writer and historian Anne Mendelson). As Koo’s descriptions attest, the contributions of these early immigrants have deeply influenced the American palate. Since the nineteenth century, individuals across the country have cooked variations on Chinese food to claim their place as innovators of American culture. A current exhibition at the Museum of Chinese in America explores how this tradition continues to evolve, perhaps now more rapidly than ever.

Neatly divided into two galleries, “Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy” tells the personal histories of more than thirty chefs, restaurateurs, and home cooks. The main gallery hosts a “dinner party” à la Judy Chicago, at which thirty-three place settings are spread across a large banquet table, each with a brief biography of a featured individual and a custom ceramic sculpture expressive of his or her cooking style. To decipher these colorful talismans, visitors are directed to a set of larger ceramics at the center of the table, which are presented on lazy Susans and sculpted to evoke foods, cultural artifacts, and topographic features representative of the main culinary regions of China. A teeming wave of red orbs, coated in crackling glaze, signifies the cresting heat of peppercorns and chiles native to Sichuan cuisine; a cone of porcelain pays homage to Yunnan’s clay steaming pots and mountainous terrain; new and old Shanghai are recalled in a doughy, hand-formed mass, dimpled like soup dumplings and drizzled in gold to capture the sheen of old wealth and modern skyscrapers alike. All part of a specially commissioned series by artists Heidi Lau and Lu Zhang, the ceramics coalesce into a spectacular landscape, beckoning visitors to investigate the geographic and gastronomic characteristics embodied in each design.

Projected onto the walls of this same gallery is a multi-channel video playing clips from interviews with the dinner guests, selected to represent a range of generations, regions, and personal and professional occupations. English is the predominant language, though subtitles are included to reach both English- and Chinese-speaking audiences. Museumgoers are invited to sit at the table, survey its spread, and watch or listen to the chefs, cookbook authors, and restaurant professionals recall the highs and the lows — or the sour, sweet, bitter, and spicy moments — of lives sustained, in many ways, by food. Moving from commercial dining rooms to private homes, the video suggests a long, intimate conversation shared among an extended family. The discrete layering of the installation tempers its seeming overabundance, allowing visitors to enter the multimedia artwork at any point and engage with it on many levels.

“Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy” notably builds on the 2004 MOCA exhibition “Have You Eaten Yet?” The earlier show traced the evolution of the American Chinese restaurant from nineteenth-century West Coast eateries to glamorous nightclubs to the sprawling network of takeout spots conjured in Koo’s poem, using a collection of menus, postcards, food products, and other ephemera to illustrate the changing conditions and representations of an ethnic minority. A decade later, MOCA curator and director of exhibitions Herb Tam sensed that the relationship between Chinese food and identity was ripe for reconsideration. “A lot of interesting chefs have been playing around with the cuisine,” he remarked, referring to figures like Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese and Jason Wang of Xi’an Famous Foods, whose restaurants highlight the diversity and adaptability — or the modernity, one could say — of Chinese cuisine. Chef Eddie Huang of the East Village snack shop Baohaus has been a prominent figure in this movement, rising to celebrity status with a charismatic irreverence that has translated into bestselling books, television shows, and web series. The new outlook has inevitably attracted a lot of “surface-level conversation” about Chinese food, observed Tam. “We were after a deeper approach, a slower conversation.”

And that’s an apt metaphor for the current exhibition, which developed out of three years of research and planning. “A major part of the mission at MOCA is conducting oral histories,” said the museum’s assistant curator, Andrew Rebatta. Rebatta, Tam, and fellow co-curators Audra Ang and Kian Lam Kho saw the show as an opportunity to solicit the participation of a broad range of individuals, from legendary ambassadors of Chinese cooking like Martin Yan and Cecilia Chiang to more recent immigrants like home cooks Jeff Gao and Biying Ni. According to Kho, one group has been particularly influential in generating new interest in the cuisine: Chinese Americans raised and educated in the U.S., who, with English as their dominant (if not only) language, have turned to food to rediscover their roots. As these chefs have started to claim their Chinese identities, restaurant diners have become more receptive to regional or diversified styles of Chinese food. China’s recent rise to global prominence plays no small part in both developments.

Representing this new wave of Chinese-American chefs, Jonathan Wu, like others in the show, earned his stripes in the kitchens of American and European fine-dining restaurants before fully dedicating himself to exploring his Chinese heritage. “When I decided to focus on Chinese food, it felt completely right,” said Wu, who opened Fung Tu in Manhattan with restaurateur Wilson Tang in 2013. “I could explore and express my familial and cultural heritage. That, I believe, gives soul to the cooking.” For Wu, the pursuit of soulful cooking has meant embracing the fluidity of American cuisine: Ho fun lasagna and China-quiles, an interpretation of Mexican chilaquiles featuring Chinese steamed egg, currently grace the menu at Fung Tu, mirroring the heterogeneity of a country built by immigrants.

For Grace Young, a native of San Francisco, food was instrumental in strengthening fragile family bonds. “This was the way that I could reach my parents,” Young said, referring to the process of writing her first cookbook. The desire to document one home-cooked Chinese New Year’s dinner — replete with symbolic Cantonese dishes like auspicious, doubloon-shaped clams stir-fried in black bean sauce and whole poached chickens (signifying the wholeness of life on Earth) — inspired Young to research Chinese cooking techniques and eventually to author three award-winning books, two of which showcase the Guangdong-province recipes judiciously preserved in her parents’ kitchen. Young’s personal journey speaks a truth central to many communities forged out of diaspora: In the absence of a shared language — be it dialect or any communication that rests on generations of tradition — food has often been the first thing to fill the void. Where words fail, a bowl of congee or a whiff of five-spice powder can sometimes be the only thing that bridges the oceanic psychic disconnect between family members, summoning a primal, irreducible love.

Hardship is never far from the surface in the stories told in “Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy.” Historical conflicts, deportation threats, assimilation struggles, and discrimination are alluded to casually, matter-of-factly, as if in knowing acceptance of the cost of progress. The second component of the exhibition, however, underscores that there is much to be proud of. Across the hall from the dinner party sits a small gallery of personal objects, one from each of the dinner guests: Prized cleavers, chef’s whites, patinated woks, and other items marking career milestones or honoring family roots are carefully displayed, shrouded in reverential silence. The atmosphere in this annex is closer to that of a more traditional museum, and yet the objects here vibrate with the stories related in the other room. In the transition from one space to the other, there is an uncanny sense that one is witnessing history in the making.

In celebration of Chinese New Year, Fung Tu will be serving special dinner menus on January 27, 28, and 30. The menus can be viewed online at

‘Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy’
The Museum of Chinese in America
215 Centre Street
Through September 10




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The Met’s ‘Museum Workout’ is a Magical Fitness Class Unlike Any Other

At 8:15 on Sunday morning, I sat on The Met’s front steps — the first time I could ever remember having them all to myself — watching runners cut through the fog and the proprietors of the not-yet-open-for-business hot dog carts on Fifth Avenue study their phones. The museum wouldn’t open for nearly two hours, but I had an appointment.

I’ve experienced a broad spectrum of New York City fitness classes, thanks in part to a brief but eventful stint on ClassPass. I’ve been whipped in the face by a pint of sweat from a neighbor’s ponytail in the grapefruit-scented candlelight of SoulCycle. I’ve pulsed and squeezed among the branded grippy socks and gravity-defying chignons of Physique 57. I even logged a memorable hour in a Midtown studio (that shall remain nameless) with a broken buzzer, a broken heater, and a curtain by the bathroom that seemingly concealed someone’s bedroom.

But The Museum Workout is a fitness class unlike any other. Even calling it a “fitness class” feels a little like calling The Met the world’s fanciest storage unit. This interactive piece takes place within the galleries of the museum before it opens to the public. Workout is a collaboration between the contemporary dance company Monica Bill Barnes & Company and artist and author Maira Kalman, who narrates the choreographed series of exercises and curated the artwork highlighted within it. Tickets are $35 — that’s 53 cents cheaper than the after-tax price of one NYC SoulCycle class — but be forewarned the entire four-week run has already sold out.

Inside, I signed a waiver and placed my coat and belongings in a storage closet. (Phones, in particular, were forbidden during the performance.) The two women waiting next to me — one of whom brought a SoulCycle tote, the other a coffee from Zabar’s — discussed the previous day’s Women’s March. In total, there would be 12 of us: nine women and three men, mostly in their 40s and 50s, with the notable exception of a pair of college-aged female friends. Robert Saenz de Viteri, Monica Bill Barnes & Company’s creative producing director, led us into the Great Hall. He wore a tuxedo and gray New Balance sneakers and cradled a laptop in his arms.

Awaiting us on the museum’s grand staircase were two women in sequined dresses — and New Balance sneakers identical to Saenz de Viteri’s — standing at attention, their hands clasped behind their backs. Choreographer Monica Bill Barnes wore gold, and her longtime dance partner and collaborator Anna Bass sparkled in a dark shade of copper.

The duo offered a brief introduction as to what we were about to experience, something “part performance, part guided tour, part workout.” Other than that we were to never, ever, under any circumstances touch the art (again: don’t touch the art), our only instruction was to do as the dancers do, exactly as they do it. With the press of a key on Saenz de Viteri’s computer, “Stayin’ Alive” boomed into the Great Hall. After stretching back on each heel, Barnes and Bass took off at a trot, their elbows bent at their sides and bouncing in time with the music.

What followed was, honestly, pretty magical — something like a grown-up, musical version of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, or maybe Sleep No More as a light comedy. We spent the next 45 minutes in almost constant movement, covering two miles through The Met at what they later explained was Kalman’s own brisk museum-going pace. Although prerecorded narration by the illustrator (who described their intended product as “a glorious walk through nature”) intermittently played throughout the workout, the dancers themselves were silent, acting as docents only by means of where they chose to pause. Their gazes were fixed on the art as they demonstrated exercises, not on the audience members behind them — it was almost as if they were inviting us to join them in a collective act of devotion.

We performed modified jumping jacks in front of Antonio Canova’s eight-foot-tall Perseus with the Head of Medusa. We lunged as Jean Antoine Houdon’s bust of Ben Franklin looked on. We strode through Arms and Armor with both arms raised overheard in a power pose. We squatted to the beat of the Commodores’ “Easy” in front of Madame X, positioned to make direct eye contact with John Singer Sargent’s decidedly unimpressed Lady with the Rose, who seemed to be judging my form.

When you’re marching in place or pumping your fists skyward, there’s no time to read labels, no time to interpret, intellectualize, or grasp for a clever observation to make to your companion. The art washes over you. And when the flesh-and-blood contingent is so vastly outnumbered by marble statues and portraits in oil, you begin to feel like maybe it’s you who’s on exhibit for their benefit. Frankly, I’m a little depressed to think that, the next time I visit a museum, it’ll be under very different (that is, very regular) circumstances.

The playful soundtrack, heavy on disco and funk—think ”Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and “More Than a Woman” — would be cheesy if Barnes and Bass weren’t so earnestly committed. Instead, the implicit suggestion is that Sly and the Family Stone are a worthy accompaniment to, say, Washington Crossing the Delaware. No argument here.

The high-art aerobics are user-friendly by design, although I definitely broke a sweat — but the performance’s biggest draw is, of course, its once-in-a-lifetime setting. I felt giddy in the early-morning stillness, like I was getting away with something wonderful. That’s not say there was any reason to feel unwelcome. Security guards grinned and waved as we pranced by them; one woman shook her hips along to Elton John. Within the group, the atmosphere was undeniably joyful. My fellow audience members slash backup dancers were totally un-self-conscious, quick with a giggle, and occasionally unable to resist singing along.

I only had one fear going into The Museum Workout, which was that I, being incurably clumsy, would topple over a priceless, fragile masterpiece and have to flee the country. I’m happy to report that I didn’t come close, although once, when my squats threatened to breach the rope barrier that protected a painting, a museum employee laid her hand on my shoulder and gently nudged me forward.

We took a shavasana beneath August Saint-Gaudens’ Diana, the bronze statue that once stood guard over New York City from the top of Madison Square Garden, then enjoyed a brief reception of coffee, tea, bread, and clementines. There was a “Keep Moving” card hand-lettered by Maira Kalman for each of us.

A ticket to The Museum Workout includes entrance to The Met, which I gladly took advantage of while the museum was still (mostly) gloriously empty. I found myself in front of a massive window that looked out on the obelisk in Central Park. A half-marathon was in progress, and runners in countless shades of neon streamed by — it was almost too beautiful a sight to be a coincidence. For a moment, I found myself wondering, idiotically, if this too was a performance. After the morning I had, anything seemed possible.

The Museum Workout runs Thursday to Sunday at 8:30 a.m. through February 12.


Female Drummers Take Over the Brooklyn Museum

On Saturday evening, the Brooklyn Museum was filled with beats thanks to the “Oral History of Female Drummers” museum takeover. Presented by Tom Tom Magazine, the event brought together female drummers and beat-makers of all backgrounds to explore the “undocumented history of female drummers using the oral tradition of performative exchange.”

Photos by Santiago Felipe for the Village Voice



Best Weekend Food Events: MOFAD Opening, Pierogi Day, and Boorito Halloween Deal

Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) Lab Opening, MOFAD Lab, 62 Bayard Street, Brooklyn, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, 12–8 p.m./10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The city’s first museum dedicated to the needs of foodies is now open — and showcasing the story behind smells for its first exhibit. “Flavors: Making It and Faking It” urges attendees to interact with food odors they know too well (and perhaps create new scents along the way). MOFAD Lab also offers guests the chance to sample MSG in tablet form to get a better understanding of umami, not to mention several historical artifacts and video presentations designed for food lovers. General admission for adults is $10, and additional information about the museum, including membership, can be found on its website.

Swiss Water Coffee Pop-Up, 300 Lafayette Street, Friday through November 8, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Thinking about switching from regular to decaf? If the thought scares you, consider a conversation and cupping demonstration that may persuade you to take the leap of faith. The decaffeinated celebration includes live demonstrations, art inspired by coffee, and free tastings of  espresso, cold brew, and other styles of coffee.

Pierogi Day, East Village Meat Market, 139 Second Avenue, Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Show the pierogi some love by heading out to the East Village for an unlimited free tasting of the Ukrainian specialty. Local businesses including Veselka will offer varieties like potato, cheese, short rib, and pumpkin for hungry customers. Attendees will also be able to snag pierogies to take home, too, if they don’t feel like chowing down in public.

“Boorito” Halloween Deal, all Chipotle locations, Saturday, 5 p.m. to close
Need a friendly place to grab a bite that will accept your Pizza Rat costume for the artistic genius that it is? All Chipotle locations will offer three-buck burritos, salads, bowls, and tacos to guests who arrive dressed in a costume that has an added “this doesn’t quite fit stylistically” element — think fake mustache or random eye patch.

Ho Foods Taiwanese Pop-Up, The Old Bowery Station, 168 Bowery, Sunday, 5–6:15 p.m.
Grab one of the remaining spots at this one-day affair, which offers a $40 five-course menu full of Taiwanese specialties. Beef noodle soup, sweet sausage with sticky rice, and preserved egg with tofu are a few warm dishes you’ll find, with cocktails and nonalcoholic drinks available for purchase. Reserve a seat here.

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MOFAD Lab’s First Exhibit Explores the Science Behind the Flavor of Dark Roast Coffee

It’s a bit surprising — before Wednesday’s launch of the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) Lab (62 Bayard Street, Brooklyn), no such venue existed, in NYC or elsewhere. As culinary historian Jessica Harris noted at the museum’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, “every day, we’re increasingly bombarded with more information from the food world…there’s a growing movement in which food is becoming our lingua franca.”

Indeed, we’ve become more enlightened and curious about eating in recent decades. Do you think the average American’s fridge contained fish sauce or miso paste even as recently as the Nineties? But at the same time, we remain in the dark about the science behind food and cooking. MOFAD Lab’s founders aim to address this with their first exhibit, “Flavor: Making It and Faking It.”


Executive director Peter J. Kim said that ultimately, the people behind MOFAD hope to make it a world-class institution, showing visitors the connections between food and cultural identity as well as where food comes from and how it’s made. “We envisioned a museum that would be for everybody, not just for foodies,” Kim said. “Because whether you’re rich or you’re poor, old or young, everybody eats.”

The debut exhibition (through February 28, 2016; $10), overseen by program director Emma Boast, focuses on how flavor is both engineered and experienced. Aptly, for a food museum, the interactive displays engage all the senses. Tasting stations allow guests to sample Tic Tac–size pellets, redolent with the flavors of everything from citric acid to MSG, the building blocks of what we identify as sweet or umami (MSG, as the exhibit gently suggests, may have gotten a bad rap).

The "Smell Synth"

Elsewhere, visitors can sniff various odors and guess which is real and which is manufactured, giving rise to questions of what terms like “natural” and “artificial” actually mean and how much they matter to our enjoyment of food. A “coffee smell machine” provokes discussion about how something perceived as disgusting on its own can, in small doses, enhance a pleasant experience: a “skunky” scent, when added to coffee, produces the rich aroma of a dark roast. And the “Smell Synth” allows visitors to test combinations of nineteen smells ranging from smoke to almond to nail polish remover.

An exploration of the history of vanilla

Founder Dave Arnold said that the flavor industry affects every part of our lives but that, until now, there hadn’t been an outlet to explain how. “This is the first great step in an ongoing quest to create even more venues like this,” he said.

Up next for MOFAD? The museum’s creators hinted at an exploration of the food culture of each of NYC’s five boroughs — as they continue with plans to open a full-scale museum. 


Dinner and a Show: Our Ten Favorite Museum and Restaurant Pairings

Maybe you can relate — pretty much any intention we make to go out and get some “cultah” requires an accompanying meal plan. How else to fortify the body while stimulating the mind? For your consideration, here are ten of our favorite museum + eating pairings.

Santina + the Whitney
The ever-evolving meatpacking district, barely registering in the city’s collective memory as the zone for the actual packing of meat and more recently associated with debauched nightlife, has received several reputation-improving upgrades of late. First, the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street; 212-570-3600), colloquially known as “The Whitney,” has classed up a previously desolate corner of Gansevoort Street. And now locals and tourists alike who’ve descended in droves to appreciate the Whitney’s collection of 20th- and 21st-century art — or, rather, to Instagram themselves feigning to — can relieve their museum backsides over a glass of Ligurian vermentino at nearby Santina. Another hit from the seemingly can’t-miss restaurateur trio of Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi, and Jeff Zalaznick, Santina (820 Washington Street; 212-254-3000) evokes the Italian seaside with its mood-lifting aqua-and-tangerine awnings, endless service of basil bellinis, and waiters garbed in breezy uniforms. Despite the mobs, the glass-box space manages to lull guests into a semi-relaxed state with its transporting atmosphere and vibrant food. The menu, dominated by seafood and vegetables, draws heavily from Italy’s coastal communities. Highlights include cecina, a thin Tuscan chickpea-flour pancake available with different toppings, and the spaghetti blue crab, a specialty of the “soul” of the boot. (Lauren Mowery)

Read Zachary Feldman’s review of Santina

The Islands + the Brooklyn Museum
A mere hundreds yards from the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn; 718-638-5000)The Islands (803 Washington Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-398-3575) serves the best Caribbean food to be found just about anywhere in town. The hole-in-the-wall restaurant serves authentic and downright delicious classics, from fiery jerk chicken to elegant calypso shrimp and fresh curried goat. Open from noon to 11 p.m., it’s a great stop before or after checking out the latest exhibition or show. Pro tip: If the weather gods are making it marvelous, order your food to go and enjoy it while parked upon one of Prospect Park’s many nearby benches. (Kevin Kessler)

Jams' roast chicken with tarragon butter
Jams’ roast chicken with tarragon butter

Jams + Museum of Arts and Design
A visit to the Museum of Arts and Design could get you thinking about how contemporary artists, crafters, and designers have influenced the way the world looks right now, how their innovations have shaped our perspective and influenced style, form, and function. In much the same way, a visit to Jams by Jonathan Waxman in the 1 Hotel (1414 Avenue of the Americas; 212-703-2001), an homage to Waxman’s Upper East Side restaurant from the Eighties, could stir up a hunger for the craft of cooking.

At the original Jams, Waxman blazed the path to baby vegetables, wood-fire roasting, and oversize white plates. He pioneered the movement in NYC — still going strong —for farm-to-table, Cal-Italian inspired food.

The interior of the restaurant, which opened late this summer, has an earthy-modern vibe, with concrete floors, a neutral color scheme, and textural elements — white oak, natural fibers, clay — in the furniture and dinnerware. The food reflects the organic West Coast–meets-Manhattan mantra of the décor: vegetable salads, short rib tacos, seasonal pastas and risottos, and main courses from the charcoal grill and plancha like duck breast with nectarine and grilled scallions, NY steak with bone marrow and purslane, and a roasted chicken with tarragon butter. Seating at the bar affords a view of the open kitchen and dining room, and access to the full menu. (Karen Tedesco)

The New Amity Restaurant + the Met
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue; 212-535-7710), in the midst of the western reaches of the Upper East Side, is both monumental and classically elegant, much like the neighborhood it calls home. To experience the full UES treatment, it’s best to head where the locals do: to one of the many old-school diners that pock the area. The New Amity Restaurant (1134 Madison Avenue; 212-861-3255) is one of the best. At this classic diner, you can order just about anything your heart sings for, from fresh lox-and-onion omelets to juicy medium-rare burgers to double-decker club sandwiches. The place is a trip — whether you sit in one of the many green-leather booths or at the few counter spots in back, chances are you’ll be rubbing shoulders with old ladies in mink coats and their (even older) husbands in Vineyard Vines. Insiders know to eat at the counter, where the service is always better. (Kessler)

Café Sabarsky's marillenpalatschinken
Café Sabarsky’s marillenpalatschinken

Café Sabarsky + Neue Galerie

A Fifth Avenue view overlooking Central Park usually comes with an eight-figure price tag. But Café Sabarsky (1048 Fifth Avenue; 212-288-0665), open six days a week and located inside the Neue Galerie, provides that and more, with a dining experience not to be found elsewhere. Designed like a Viennese café from the early 1900s, the spot serves excellent Bavarian fare for breakfast, lunch, and dinner — from marillenpalatschinken (crepes filled with apricot preserves) in the morning to roasted bratwurst with riesling sauerkraut in the evenings. After experiencing New York’s premier collection of German and Austrian art, there’s nothing like taking in the view while slowly sipping a perfectly made Viennese coffee served on a silver tray. (Kessler)

Freemans + the New Museum
As even a first-time visitor to NYC could surmise, the New Museum (235 Bowery; 212-219-1222) is all about appreciating and experiencing living in the now. New art. New artists. New ideas that may or may not be considered art years later but are pretty cool to look at nevertheless. That’s why one of the best places to eat nearby isn’t so much a hot new joint with more buzz than a beehive, but a neighborhood stalwart that will have you musing that this feels very…familiar. The owners of Freemans (Freeman Alley at Rivington Street; 212-420-0012), who decided in 2004 that a small, graffiti-filled alleyway tucked in the shadows of the Bowery would be the perfect spot for a colonial-style tavern, serve American food at its finest. Ipswich clam fritters, Cobb salad, and classic cocktails designed to be enjoyed at any hour of the day are all a person needs for sustenance whilst engaging in obligatory après-museum dinner conversation (e.g., WTF did I just pay to see?). Though art can be confusing, Freemans is not — save for the occasional patron’s wardrobe choice. You’ll be thankful the restaurant’s idea of interior design is a stuffed animal head and that lively chatter is the modus operandi, as opposed to silent contemplation — though the latter is perfectly acceptable for those who order a skillet of the restaurant’s mac ‘n’ cheese. (Billy Lyons)

Fette Sau + City Reliquary
From photos of Brooklyn Dodgers legend Jackie Robinson to the pre-MetroCard antiquities known as subway tokens, a floor of ancient items at City Reliquary (370 Metropolitan Avenue) has grown to include modern-day student exhibits from nearby P.S.132, not to mention rotating community collections. The mix of old and new is a theme you’ll want to continue after stepping out the door, where nearby barbecue joint Fette Sau (354 Metropolitan Ave, Brooklyn; 718-963-3404) permits you to taste the exhibit behind the glass. Giant cuts of brisket, ribs, and Berkshire pork, piled high on metal trays, reward your patience, while hearty potato salad and baked beans ensure no vegan goes hungry. If you’ve worked up a powerful thirst after a long day of museum squinting, grab a stool at the bar and enjoy a craft beer from taps shaped like butcher knives — they just might make their way down the block one day. (Lyons)

The Shtetl Board at Russ and Daughters
The Shtetl Board at Russ and Daughters

Russ & Daughters Cafe + the Tenement Museum
Take one of the handful of tours offered at the Tenement Museum (108 Orchard Street; 212-982-8420) and prepare to become fully immersed in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century life on the Lower East Side. From 1863 until the early 1930s, more than 7,000 working-class immigrants lived in the building while working, raising families, and assimilating. The five-story building houses three-room apartments that have been preserved like time capsules, offering a perspective on the origins of present-day New York City and its inhabitants. Just a block away, Russ & Daughters Cafe (127 Orchard Street; 212-475-4881), newly opened in 2014, is a sit-down adjunct to the landmark appetizing shop around the corner on East Houston (Russ & Daughter, which Joel Russ, a Polish immigrant, opened in 1914). It seems to make sense to continue the thread of history on the L.E.S. by finding a table in the café, which is designed to look like a cool, streamlined soda fountain from the art deco era. The café is open weekdays (except Tuesdays) from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and on weekends from 8 a.m. till 10 p.m. Nosh on an open-face smoked-salmon sandwich on toasted shissel rye or pumpernickel; feast on blini with a flight of caviar; or perk up post-tour with “Schmaltz & a Shot”: schmaltz herring with boiled potato, onion, and a shot of vodka. A full cocktail menu is available, as well as a selection of nonalcoholic seltzers with homemade syrups. And authentic egg creams! (Tedesco)

Tacuba Mexican Cantina + Museum of the Moving Image
Last year the neighborhood surrounding the Kaufman Film Studios in Astoria was designated an official arts district. New eateries have been popping up ever since, and the best so far may well be Tacuba Mexican Cantina (35-01 36th Street, Queens; 718-786-2727), located just around the corner from the Museum of the Moving Image (36-01 35th Avenue, Queens; 718-777-6800). Take in a screening or stroll through the fascinating permanent collection of film and television artifacts, then grab lunch. The restaurant is helmed by Julian Medina, who has built a mini-empire in Manhattan with his taqueria, Toloache; the pan-Latin Yerba Buena; and Coppelia, an all-hours upscale diner. Tacuba hews closely to Toloache’s style: Its capacious casual dining room is outfitted with Día de Muertos décor, and the menu covers cantina classics, plus a few surprises. There’s street food like elote (an ear of corn slathered with mayo and cotija cheese) and a variety of tacos served in soft corn tortillas. A standout is the pulpo y chorizo, a satisfying melding of tender octopus and savory Mexican sausage enlivened by pickled red onions. For something more unusual (to American palates), order tacos filled with chapulines — those would be grasshoppers. The dish, a specialty of Oaxaca, comes topped with guacamole to modulate the crunch. Wash it down with a beverage from the extensive tequila list. (Alanna Schubach)

Mozzarella & Vino + MoMA
Midtown Manhattan seems like a canyon of culture and shopping, but dining options in the neighborhood tend to skew toward the polished (and pricey) or the Irish-pub-like. And post-brunch on a Sunday afternoon is especially limited — many places are closed. Recently, looking for a bite to eat and a glass of wine before a film screening at the museum and coming up empty, we took the advice of a MoMA security guard and headed to Mozzarella & Vino (33 West 54th Street; 646-692-8849), an enoteca tucked into the lower floor of a townhouse just out the back entrance of the museum. We found a refreshingly spare interior with whitewashed brick walls, a compact bar area, and hospitable servers. The menu options revolve around casual charcuterie and cheese plates, salads, antipasti, and uncomplicated desserts, while the wine list features pours from small, independent Italian winemakers. (Tedesco)