You, too, can stand in the great marketplace at Tenochtitlan, capital city of the ancient Aztec empire, and absorb the sights and sounds of commerce. Acres of foodstuffs are spread out around you, all the bounty of the New World as it was just before the Spanish arrived, as a realistic hubbub of trade and conversation reaches your ears.
Just get yourself on down to the National Geographic to see their new exhibit, Food: Our Global Kitchen. In the grand old museum tradition, one of the showstoppers is a panorama with a painted background and very real-looking fake food just beyond the low Plexiglas barrier. (How did they know I would be tempted to walk around inside the exhibit?)
Of course, there were explanatory placards to break the illusion of time travel. Helpful factoids explain that the Mesoamerican Indians ate a lot of insects and raised very few animals for consumption. The turkeys, dogs and iguanas on view are lone examples of domestication for food.
The panel describing the cacao-turquoise trade between Tenochtitlan and Chaco Canyon resonated with the program at last year’s FUZE Conference. And, as a bow to a sense beyond sight and sound, you can push a button and smell the chocolate.
I had to tear myself away from the marketplace to take in the rest of the exhibit. Pitched to both children and adults, it contained some geeky exhibits on varied ways of farming, as well as eye-catching hydroponics, a taxidermied chicken, and extreme examples of humans changing plants and animals to suit our purposes.
There were square watermelons and a display of the many kinds of potatoes of the Andes, together with translations of their Quechua names: Siren, Sparrowhawk Nail, Dazzling Like The Sun, Cougar Paw, Sleep In Your Eyes.
There were surprising facts, such as that, although India produces nearly 30% of the world’s bananas, more than 99% of those are consumed there; almost none are exported. And, while Holstein cattle comprise 90% of the U.S. dairy herd (an example of lack of genetic diversity), there are forty thousand known varieties of beans (an example of the opposite).
And so from the Farming section of the exhibit to the Cooking. I was again transfixed by the Great Wall O’Gadgets (and again, tucked away behind Plexiglas, so no touching). I indulged in a game of How Many Do You Own? with myself. Answer: many.
There were reproductions of ancient cooking implements from Chinese tombs and South American sources. And there, plopped in the middle of a photo-mural of copper pots, was Julia. Of course.
There were some more smell machines (herbs and spices), and an interactive table of virtual cooking. This worked by you pressing buttons, and the table sprouting arms and cooking. There were the appropriate sounds of chopping and sizzling as the food was prepared. It was mesmerizing, and only a little bit creepy.
And then, just as I was asking myself, “This is all very well, but what about that other sense – you know – taste?” I looked up, and there was the demo kitchen. Every hour on the hour, Meghan or another cook prepares a dish and provides samples. They are pretty basic during the week: today it was pumpkin smoothies (dump everything in the blender; blend), but Meghan assured me that it got more elaborate on weekends, when the exhibit draws its biggest crowds.
Fortified by a smoothie sample, I took in the remainder of the displays. There were historical tableaux and displays of meals to show how our consumption varied over time and space. An ancient Roman hostess’ parlor, tea with Jane Austin, and a meal in Kublai Khan’s tent; and then celebration food from around the world closed out an afternoon both educational and amusing.
The exhibit was a mostly-successful mix of old and new museum design. I would have appreciated more things to handle – pushing buttons doesn’t really satisfy that fifth sense. And, there could have been at least one docent to answer questions (Meghan assured me that they appeared on weekends, but I was there on a Wednesday). I’d really like to know if that was a basket of magnolias in the Aztec marketplace, or some other white flower!