Saturday, November 19, 2016

The National Museum of American History's 2nd Annual Food History Festival!

Politics on your plate!

Alright, back to business.

I've been fortunate enough to attend a couple really fun events since moving to DC. The Library of Congress' National Book Festival and the recent used book sale at the National Museum of the US Navy have helped boost my collection of signed books quite a bit, and of course I got to go see the African American Museum of History and Culture. One such event I've been meaning to tell you guys about since the end of October, but then my parents came to visit, the election happened, school got busier, and... yeah. Now it's almost the end of November and I still haven't shared it with you. Sorry about that.

The National Museum of American History had its second annual Food History Festival during the last weekend in October, and after a vote on my Instagram, I decided Kit would be the one making the trip down to the mall to go check it out. I had very little idea of what to expect, and while I feel like this event wasn't as fun or awesome as it could have been, it was definitely worth going to and I'll be happy to attend next year's, assuming I'm not swamped under piles of homework.

As I've mentioned before, I'm actually not a huge fan of the National Museum of American History. It's a decent enough museum, but I feel like it fails in telling the story of the United States from the ground up, just featuring a lot of random exhibits about different topics that don't really come together to form a coherent narrative. It does boast a lot of cool artifacts, though, and it's not that I don't enjoy visiting, I just like a couple other museums a lot better.

This is the second year they've done a food history festival, and this year the theme was "Politics on Your Plate". All the events were advertised online and included a gala (way too expensive for a grad student to attend!), a partnership with some local restaurants, round table discussions and an after hours event at the museum talking about the history of brewing. All these events were either sold out, too expensive or not of interest to me, so I stuck to just going to the museum on Saturday to see what they had out on display for people to look at and learn about.

The National Museum of American History features food history in a couple different places in their exhibits. Most prominent is Food: Forming the American Table 1950-2000. The biggest draw here is Julia Child's kitchen!

Although I kind of wish they had the space to go farther back than 1950, this is still a neat exhibit that discusses recent changes and tends in American food culture. There are tables running down the middle with some interactive graphics to study.

And galleries of interesting food artifacts like a fondue pot that would be totally at home in Julie's kitchen and a Trader Vic's cookbook. My random favorite artifact here is the piece of Corning Glassware because my dad's dad worked for them pretty much his entire adult life. I've been impatiently waiting for AG to come out with something like this for Maryellen.

I've already shown some of the food artifacts featured in The Price of Freedom: Americans at War as well as the famous Woolworth's lunch counter, but there's also refrigerators, cookbooks and food packaging in many of the other galleries. Part of a kid's area on the lowest level of the museum is designed like a retro kitchen.

Although there were a decent amount of events scheduled for the weekend, they were pretty widely dispersed and didn't seem to be that well advertised. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but to be honest, if I didn't know there was an event going on at the museum, I'm not sure I would have immediately caught on that there was an event going on. I'm not an expert on how to advertise this kind of thing, but I'd think it might help if there were more signs right near the entrance saying it was going on. Some of the signs outside the building were advertising it, but if you missed them, I still think you'd have been a little surprised to find out there was something special going on at the museum.

 One of the biggest draws were the cooking demonstrations and book signings. For what I assume are safety reasons as well as cost, there was no food to actually consume at any of the events, but you could watch authors discuss their most recent cookbooks and cook one of their recipes, or something historical. I had intended on going to more than one, but got a late start and had to settle for only attending The President's Kitchen with Adrian Miller and Ailsa Von Dobeneck. Miller recently published a cookbook about soul food and has done a lot of research into White House chefs, and Von Dobeneck was a contestant on MasterChef who now does a column about presidential recipes.

 They focused on Lyndon Johnson's favorite recipe for chili, which you can find a PDF of on the festival's website. Apparently, controversy broke out when the American public realized Lyndon Johnson didn't put beans in his chili. This is totally normal for Texas style chili, but people get pretty tribal over what qualifies as a "true" chili, so I'm not shocked to hear that people got really upset about the president's choice in chili recipe.

To show us how big a deal this was, they played us a clip from a phone call to Johnson's cook to ask her if the President liked beans at all. Rest assured that he did, just not in his chili! It was a really interesting presentation that featured a lot of food trivia I'd never heard of before.

Von Dobeneck made Johnson's Pedernales chili alongside a healthier option with turkey and beans, as Johnson's literally has beef, tomatoes, spices and... that's about it. I'm definitely a fan of beans in my chili, but I'm also not all that picky about it, so I was definitely sitting there wondering how quickly I could get my hands on some of this.

Imagine my delight when they announced that the chili was the soup of the day at the museum's restaurant! I'd actually never eaten at the museum before, and I can't say the reviews I'd been given made me all that excited about giving it a shot. Still, I figured today of all days made sense to head down there and see how things were for myself, right?

And I really wanted that chili.

I was a little surprised by the cafe, but mostly underwhelmed. They had some really interesting options, but the cafe itself was really drab looking, especially when compared to the offerings at the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. They did have some retro candy options and sold Coke in glass bottles, so that was kind of neat! But for the most part, I feel like this could do with a little love at some point.

But they did have the chili, and I might have grabbed a spice cake, too. I do really enjoy all those fall flavors.

The chili looked and smelled really good!

So again, this isn't the healthiest of chilis, but man, it was tasty. LBJ (both Mr. and Mrs.) really knew chili. It was spicy and flavorful, and I definitely think this is going to get a feature on the blog at some point. I've basically been living on chili since August, and I'm always looking for new recipes to try out. Like I said, I'm not picky when it comes to chili.

The cake was pretty good, too.

Not too much frosting, just the right amount of spice... mmm, spice cake.

(I might be watching The Simpsons as I type this.)

So overall, not a bad experience, but I'm definitely less willing to pay crazy museum cafe prices for food that isn't something LBJ and his family would have enjoyed. I feel like I, personally, would be more willing to spend money at the cafe if they did stuff like this more often rather than sticking to generic American fare, but again, I don't frequent the cafe enough to know if this definitely doesn't happen outside of Food History Weekend. From what I hear, the cafe doesn't tend to do historic recipes often, and thus I kind of don't see the point in paying high prices for an average quality burger, if you catch my drift.

After lunch, we had some time to kill until the curators finished setting up their tables to show highlights from the museum's archives.

They had some really interesting stuff on display, including a preserved piece of FDR's birthday cake, the recipe card for Johnson's chili, and Martha Washington's recipe for pickles! They also have the collection of a woman who used to travel to rural areas that were just receiving electricity to show them how to use things like toasters and electric mixers, which sounds like a really unique job.

Obviously you weren't allowed to touch anything - a concept a few visitors didn't seem to grasp... - but it was great to have the curators on hand to ask them about different artifacts and hear about how the museum came to have them. Apparently it was a little tricky to find artifacts that directly correlated with the theme, but I think they did a good job pulling unusual objects with interesting stories. I'd love to attend more events like this!

Our final stop of the day was the Warner Brother's Theater for a Deep Dish Discussion about food on film with archivist Wendy Shay. We got to watch a bunch of interesting food advertisements and a silent film that had been restored and shown for the first time since 1918 at the event! Pretty cool! Ms. Shay was kind enough to take a picture with Kit before we left.

Before heading to the metro, a quick detour to the museum's victory garden was in order!

Located on the east side of the building, the museum's victory garden is a nice quiet place to visit most of the time. It seems like most visitors aren't really aware that it's there, or that they're actually allowed to visit it because it's near the employee parking lot. I know the first time I went to check it out, a security guard basically chased me down and asked if I was lost, which was a little awkward. Nope, I just want to look at the plants!

They held tours, flower pressing and a couple other activities at the garden during the festival, but because going outside would have meant going through security again, I decided to skip out on them. They sounded like fun though, and it was definitely a nice day for it.

Overall, I had a good time at the festival, and like I said at the beginning of this post, I'd definitely like to go again next year. A part of me wishes this was a slightly bigger deal or had a little more programming at the museum, but at the same time, this is only the second year. Maybe as it picks up momentum, it'll become even bigger and better!

What do you think the theme will be next year?

Is it too much to ask for it to be all desserts?


  1. It's too bad they can't take you on as a consultant, I am sure you would be the perfect person to take this event to its fullest potential! Getting to see the themed artifacts displayed by the curators seems like a really great experience, hopefully that will continue each year.

    1. Maybe someday! If they're willing to give me a job I'm definitely not saying no!

  2. Looks like fun! I want to come see Julia's kitchen :)

    Somewhere I use to have a great green chili recipe...

  3. Aw man once again I miss an awesome NMAH event. When I interned there, the cafe was basic cafeteria food. It was expensive and the food wasn't great. The employees preferred to go to the Air & Space cafeteria. I wasn't impressed with that one either. The NMAI wasn't built yet. The only other time I ever ate inside the NMAH was long before that when they had the Palm Court Cafe. I felt like Samantha ordering peppermint ice cream.