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Emma Boast: Celebrating and Changing the Culture of Food

by Dorsia

posted on November 13, 2017

Photo Courtesy: Brooklyn Magazine

By now you've probably realized that we are obsessed with all things food and drink. So it's only fair we love people who are as obsessed as we are. That's where Emma Boast comes in. We had a chance to talk with the former program director of the Museum of Food and Drink to see what she's been up to, how she got into food in the first place, and where she thinks food education is headed in the future. Plus, she suggested a few places we should check out.

I could go in a thousand directions with this one! I've been in the kitchen for as long as I can remember. I started out by helping my parents with cooking, as many children do. As an only child, I also found cooking to be a great source of amusement; on the weekends, I pretended to run my own "restaurant": I'd design a menu, ask my parents to "order" from it, and then cook them breakfast. In high school, I realized I had a knack for baking. The precision and technique that pastry requires came naturally to me, and I found the process incredibly soothing. After briefly considering going to culinary school, I decided to pursue a more traditional tack. During the summer after my first year of college, I wound up working for Melissa Clark, who happened to live next door. Thanks to her willingness to hire an (admittedly pretty inexperienced) 18-year-old and encouragement, I realized that it was possible to pursue a career in food beyond cooking.

Every day was wildly different! My work really varied depending on what projects were in the works. When an exhibition was in development, much of my day was spent reading, researching, writing, and meeting or otherwise communicating with various collaborators (advisors, content experts, designers, fabricators, etc.) I met weekly with my colleagues to ensure that our public and school programming activities were proceeding apace, as well as to brainstorm ideas for new events and activities. Often, I ended up doing things that I could never have foreseen: stringing together thousands of Chinese takeout boxes with my colleagues and dozens of dedicated volunteers, or visiting a flavor factory to get an inside look at the world of flavor creation. None of these tasks - nor the growth has MOFAD experienced over the last few years - would have been possible without the tireless efforts of my colleagues to raise funds, organize events, and keep the space running smoothly.

As I've gotten older, I've realized that food intersects with so many of my interests. On a more personal level, I've developed a much more relaxed relationship with food. It's still a big part of my life, but I don't obsessively read food media or cookbooks anymore. As a professional and now a graduate student, having the opportunity to come home after a long day to cook dinner -- even if it's absurdly simple -- is relaxing and gratifying. Food is grounding. The acts of cooking and eating bring us together, add pleasure and meaning to everyday life, and help us slow down and simply be, even when life moves too quickly to take notice.

I grew up in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, close to what is now Barclays Center. (Believe it or not, that was all empty lots when I was growing up!) I have no doubt that growing up in New York helped me appreciate that food means many things to many people. I was lucky enough to be able to dine with my parents at some great restaurants, but I also ate plenty of pizza, bagels, and every form of takeout you can imagine. Thanks to this exposure, I eat pretty much everything. "Eclectic" would be a good way to sum up my tastes, and perhaps also a good way to describe the culture of New York.

If you must know, I ended up in Japan to be with my (then) boyfriend, whom I had met in college. While he was the primary reason I went there, I also had an opportunity to visit before I decided to move. I was blown away; everything about Japanese culture - the mindfulness towards others, the intense appreciation for food, and the premium placed on public transit - resonated with me. I felt like I was home. During my time there, I noticed something interesting: no matter where one went, the food was very good. Maybe not amazing, maybe not great, but good. And people seemed to care about food. There were dozens of TV shows dedicated to food, seemingly hundreds of food magazines, and robust cultures of both home cooking and restaurant dining. Coming from the US, this was unusual. To care about food, to devote so much attention and energy to it, seems odd to Americans. After all, isn't it just food? And doesn't caring about food make you a snob? (Sometimes the elitism accusation makes sense; after all, good food is out of reach for many Americans.) Yet Americans harbor a pervasive distrust of food that seems to transcend rational economic reasons. There are many reasons for this distrust (and it's certainly changing) but I would love to see our country embrace food in the way Japan does: as a source of both pleasure and health; as something to be respected, not wasted; as the currency of culture.

We all have an inherent interest (material, cultural, and otherwise) in food. This makes the project of food education both easier and more difficult - easier because there's a natural reason why people should care, and more difficult because food is so intensely personal. Unfortunately, the project of food education in this country has some unpleasant history. For example, some social reformers in the early 20th century made a project of "educating" immigrant communities about "proper" dietary habits. In reality, this was really a project of assimilation, which had some unfortunate consequences in terms of cultural erasure. While I recognize that culinary knowledge and practices have been lost in many parts of this country, I think the project of reviving them should entail the cultivation of both skill and wisdom. What MOFAD is doing -- telling the stories behind what we eat and drink, preserving that knowledge, and thinking about how these stories might shape the future -- has immense potential as an educational project.

There has been a lack of food education, though this is obviously changing today, thanks to projects like Edible Schoolyard. Many teachers are already integrating food into formal learning curricula in the social sciences and other disciplines. I would love to see a gender-neutral curriculum of "life economics" (as opposed to the female domain of "home economics") integrated into our schools. Ideally, this would be a gender-neutral curriculum that includes culinary skills, as well as subjects like financial literacy and practical legal knowledge.

I'm currently pursuing an MA in Public Humanities at Brown University. Public Humanities is a large and diverse field, but it's centered on the idea of working with the public to make various forms of knowledge and cultural production more accessible and engaging. (Just to offer an example, I'm currently taking a course that explores how to unite the seemingly disparate fields of community organizing and curation.)

Lastly, even though you're Providence right now, can you recommend some great places to grab a bite in NYC? Absolutely. You can check out my guide by clicking here.

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