Food & Drink

National museum gets ready to cook

Staff members load in new cooking equipment for the Smithsonian’s new demonstration kitchen at the National Museum of American History.
Staff members load in new cooking equipment for the Smithsonian’s new demonstration kitchen at the National Museum of American History. Jaclyn Nash, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

For months, Jessica Carbone’s office served as a de facto storeroom for the donated products that would eventually find a place in the demonstration kitchen of the new 45,000-square-foot “innovation wing” at the National Museum of American History. Those gadgets and pricy pieces of cookware soon became sort of stress-relief objects.

“Over the last six months, whenever anyone had a difficult meeting or something they didn’t want to work on, they’d come into my office and say, ‘I need some retail therapy. What can I look at?’” says Carbone, project associate for the American Food History Project.

While the staff may have found comfort in Le Creuset pots, Zwilling J.A. Henckels knives and Pyrex bakeware, those toys were not what paved the way for the demonstration kitchen and stage, a relatively rare ornament in American museums. The object that made the project’s cooking space possible hovers far above the pots and pans: It’s a massive Halton Ventilated Ceiling System, which sucks up cooking byproducts that could potentially harm valuable objects in nearby exhibits.

“We had to find the right hood vent to do exactly what we needed it to do, which is make sure there is no smoke and no smell and no grease of any kind in the building. We did, and it’s big,” says Susan Evans, the project’s program director.

It’s also noisy. Or was noisy in early June, when Smithsonian staffers, along with chef, cookbook author and TV personality Pati Jinich, a member of the Kitchen Cabinet advisory panel, were loading equipment into the kitchen. “We reconfigured the fan a bit,” Evans says a few weeks later, “and the sound is completely fixed.”

That means the demonstration stage, officially known as the Wallace H. Coulter Performance Plaza, is ready for its debut this month.

The stage will transform the project’s programming to engage all five senses of the museum’s nearly 5 million yearly visitors. It will not only allow chefs, farmers, bakers and teachers to share hands-on knowledge but will also provide space for food-science experiments and historical cooking demonstrations. It even has a built-in system to webcast programs.

Jinich is already devising ways to use the museum’s collection for her planned demonstration in October as part of the inaugural Smithsonian Food History Weekend, planned as an annual exploration of American food and the people and technologies that have influenced it. She has her eye on the world’s first frozen margarita machine, which is on display in the ongoing exhibit “Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000.”

“If you’re going to talk about Mexicans in the U.S. and who came up with the first frozen margarita and being able to show people this was the first margarita machine ...,” says Jinich, so animated she speaks in fragments. “Where else can you do that? That’s just mouthwatering to me.”

Want to go?

The demonstration kitchen at the National Museum of American History will hold food demonstrations on Fridays through December. Details: americanhistory.si.edu.

Smithsonian Food History Festival: Free and open to the public Oct. 24. Details: americanhistory.si.edu/events/food-history-weekend

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