Tuesday, October 23, 2012

MOFA: Museum of Food Arts - NYC's unique tribute to peculiar food.

Museum of Food Arts logo
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.
One Whole Chicken in a can, 3lb 2 oz
AMK: When did you acquire the first Food Museum piece,  and what was it?
GS: I can't remember the 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?
A can of Popeye spinachGS: 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.
Three soda bottles with labels that read Lift Boing! Squirt
GS: I don't see any. What are you seeing?  (chuckles)
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.
A box of dates labeled Eat MeGS: Well we'd like to get a 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
A can of Ma Ling brand bran dough
My favorite Food Museum item ever.  Read the brand name and product name together.  Side-splitting!
a can of squid in its own ink
A can of lunch tongue
A Heinz brand can of Spotted Dick
A jar of Climax brand spice rub
A can of Baxter's Cock-a-leekie soupFrank brand hot dog in a pouch
Cock Soup soup mixSweet chilli-flavoured nutsMr Porky brand pork rinds
Crunky barnd chocolate snack bar
Corny brand peanut snack bar
Bible Bar snack bar and The Last Supper Bar snack bar
Big Shock Energy Bar
A bag of Fartless Popping Corn
A jar of Shippam's Bloater
A box of Little Debbie brand Nutty Bars

This was worth a really close look!

Sun Dired & Road Tenderized -Only the best for the museum!
When plain old salt just won't do!

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. Earlier this year, 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. This summer, Gary and his writing partner Curt Sobel licensed music for the movie "Parker" starring Jason Statham and Jennifer Lopez, with a release date in January 2013.
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 by John Bellacosa


  1. Cock soup packets can still be bought in Astoria at least... :)

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  3. Gary, LOVE THE KITCH! I was in Jamaica and saw the Grace Cock Soup and started to laugh my ass off. I have a hilarious childhood friend and we used to exchange great "gag" gifts. His real last name is GRACE! When he opened his gift of "Grace Cock Soup," he screamed with laughter so hard he fell over backwards in his chair. To this day, it's the best gag gift I've ever given him. Glad to see you have one too! Now that I have visited your VERY FUNNY museum I'll keep my eye out for fun-food-stuff.

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