As a genuine born and bred Malaysian, I’ve always believed that when it comes to weird food, we’ve got the market cornered. A walk around my hometown’s wet market would prove that in a matter of minutes – pig knuckles, ears and snouts, yardlong beans, stinky shrimp pastes, dried fish large and small, durians, rambutans and mangosteens, century eggs and black salted duck eggs, beef tripe and tendons, and all manner of packaged strangeness. I’m rather proud of said strangeness and love taking visitors from across the seas to the Pasar Besar Seremban (which translates to “Seremban Big Market”)
Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting NY’s latest destination museum – the MoFA. The Museum of Food Arts blew away all my closely held ideas of us Malaysians being the authority on bizarre foods. Apparently, crazy food items are found pretty much everywhere in the world, and they are by turns delightful, downright funny or completely gross. Sometimes all at the same time!
The MoFA was started by my dear friend Gary Schreiner sometime in the mid-90s. A collector at heart, Mr Schreiner’s home boasts a variety of collections – from his youth, there are the expected stamp and coin collections. In 2004, he began collecting beautiful Bakelite radios, which proved to be quite a costly pastime. The Food Museum collection came about when he discovered his fondness of peculiar food items that he found on his travels across the globe and brought home with him. These first few items were placed prominently in his kitchen and Gary delighted in showing them to his friends, talking about the origins of the pieces and enjoyed watching his guests marvel at them.
AMK: When did you acquire the first Food Museum piece, and what was it?
GS: I can’t remember the very first one. I’m sorry. The first really big item was the One Whole Chicken in a can. I was visiting Mike Braun in Portland Oregon, and I told him I had to stop at a supermarket, that I’m starting a food museum and he said “Alright, I don’t know what you’re looking for”. So we kept walking up and down aisles and he kept pulling things out and I said “nah, nah…” and then all of a sudden, he pulled out One Whole Chicken in a can. I looked at it and I said “that’s it!” and he said “Oh, I see where you’re going with this.” That must have been in ’96. But that can’t have been the beginning, I must have had some items before then because I said to Mike “I’m starting a food museum”. Unfortunately anything pre-One Whole Chicken in a can, I don’t recall. That was one of my most prized acquisitions, and probably solidified the idea for me.
AMK: So you had the idea for the Food Museum….
GS: In my youth.
AMK: In your youth. When you were a teenager?
GS: In the 90s, yes.
AMK: That’s what I want to go back to – when did you know that you were going to have a food museum, and how did that come about?
GS: I’ve always liked kinda campy, offbeat things. I don’t know what hit me first. Some of the oldest pieces are the Cock Soup, the Chicken in a Can.
AMK: I’d love to know at what point you knew you were going to have a Food Museum?
GS: Oh, once you have three or four of something, then it becomes a collection. I’ve been sucked into some other collections like, for a while I had some really pretty old radios, Bakelite radios. I still have them, but at some point I just pulled the plug on collecting those. At some point, you have to say “enough”, because then it becomes an obsession, your collecting.
AMK: What one item in the Food Museum required the most effort on your part to acquire?
GS: Well, it’s always stumbling upon things. It’s not like a struggle. It’s not like I’m trying to buy a Picasso and I have to go to Sotheby’s and … you know. It’s basically traveling the world, and every country I go to, just going into supermarkets. Also people that know I have a Food Museum showing up from their travels and bringing me unusual things. And then being the curator, I have to decide whether it’s worthy of the Food Museum, whether it meets the qualifications and high standards that I have. And I can be a tough curator. People bring me things that they think would be perfect and sometimes I have to make the difficult decision of putting them aside. At this point, people just bring or send me things. For example, the Popeye Spinach is from Joan Osborne – we were working on a project and she showed up one day with the can of Popeye Spinach.
AMK: Did she know you had a Food Museum?
GS: Oh yeah, she was very excited to be able to contribute to it.
AMK: Let’s discuss the, sort of, sexual undertones that are apparent with some of the items in the collection.
GS: I don’t see any. What are you seeing?
AMK: I’m talking about the Soda Bottle Triptych that tells a narrative “Lift, Boing!, Squirt”, and the box of dates that say “Eat Me.”
GS: Oh, these are all coincidental.
AMK: Nothing to do whatsoever….
GS: There’s nothing sexual.
AMK: There’s no connection to your personality, your … particular way of seeing things?
GS: Well, food is sensual, no? Food is very sensual but there’s no, if there’s anything it’s just accidental. The Frank in the Pouch, and the Spotted Dick, the Lift Boing! Squirt and the Eat Me, and all that stuff – they’re just foods that are funny. But, you know, I let the museum-goer come to their own conclusions.
AMK: Let’s talk about where you see the Food Museum going from here.
GS: Well we’d like to get an official space at some point. And then, it’d be nice to get a freezer so we can get some perishable foods as well. And I’m talking to Target right now about doing a Free Friday night, like they have at the MoMA. And I’d like a roof garden like they have at the Met, where we can serve cocktails and have food and ice sculptures, maybe overlooking Central Park. And maybe we could have guest chefs – people who do weird food. The one thing to remember is the museum’s main rule: We DON’T eat the museum.
If anyone has an interesting food item that’s non-perishable and fits the gestalt of the collection that they would like to donate to the MoFA, please send it to PO Box 299, New York, NY 10025
Scroll down for an in-depth look at the collection.
Update, July 22nd 2014
Last week, I was invited back to the MoFA to view the recent additions to the collection. It’s been about 21 months since I last visited and in that time a large number of new items have been acquired, both through donations as well as from the extensive travel by the curator. The sheer number of new pieces made it necessary to add two wings to the museum. Now, the collection covers the main floor and two new wings – The Chicken Wing and The Jackie Gleason Wing (for items of a certain heft.) I was delighted and honored to have a private viewing with the curator last Tuesday and even more delighted to be able to share my adventure here with you.
“In the last couple of years, I’ve been to the Czech Republic, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Germany and Morocco and curated many an interesting item from far-flung places. In addition, as the popularity of the museum has increased, fans and friends have sent food in. Through my association and work with The Nutopians, items such as the “Squeal like a Pig” and the “Professor Phardtpounder’s Colon Cleanser” hot sauces have come from fans of the band. Not everything that’s sent to the museum makes it into an exhibit though. Like most museums, we have an on-site storage and study room that is able to maintain the stable conditions necessary for the preservation of objects.”
A number of new items were bestowed upon the museum by celebrities and musicians. For example, the “Orthodox Chews” were donated by Rick Moranis, whose recent album “My Mother’s Brisket & Other Love Songs” was produced and arranged by Mr Schreiner in 2013. Gary was happy to be putting his extensive musical skills to work on a project with Mr Moranis, but upon learning that the title of the album was food-related, he lost his marbles with glee. When asked for a quote about the museum, Mr Moranis said “Gary Schreiner’s Museum of Food Arts is the only museum in a city full of them that has informative, educational and comedically caloric exhibits. I can’t wait for him to open a cafe.”
As for his plans for the future, Gary is currently developing an exhibit titled “Fast Foods: A Quick Restrospective” which will be the museum’s very first photographic exhibit.
Scroll down to view the new additions to the collection, and feel free to leave a funny, snarky, or clever comment or caption. All material becomes the property of Auria’s Malaysian Kitchen and may be used in social media in promotion of the MoFA and this blog.
In Gary’s downtime from his role as the Curator/Museum Director of the MoFA, he is an Emmy Award-winning composer for TV & Film. He has single-handedly scored over a thousand TV commercials and contributed music to countless TV shows and movies. He performed at Sting’s benefit concert for the Rainforest Fund as a featured guest artist, playing chromatic harmonica with Rosanne Cash on a couple of songs and then sharing the stage with Elton John on a duet of “Moon River”. His favorite part of the experience was when Sting & Meryl Streep summoned him into the green room to play piano for them to rehearse a number. Gary and his writing partner Curt Sobel recently licensed music for the movie “Get On Up – The James Brown Story” with a release date in August 2014.
As if all this wasn’t enough, Gary has authored a number of popular instructional books such as “Slow Way to Get Rich Quick”, “Fast Track to Speaking Slowly” and “101 Ways To Be Indifferent”. He is also an avid inventor and is currently working on a one-way Ziploc bag for people on diets.
MoFA logo kindly created by John Bellacosa.