Stories of the Foods We Love at NYBG

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Food is at the heart of the New York Botanical Garden’s (NYBG) institution-wide grand exhibit Around the Table: Stories of the Foods We Love. It turns out that travel is too, because NYBG exhibits plants from all over the world. Within minutes, a visitor is transported to South America, Southeast Asia and the Southern United States, all just 20 minutes from Midtown Manhattan. It’s a deep dive into mundane and unusual plants from around the world.

“Some of these plants have been cultivated for food for thousands and thousands of years,” said Marc Hachadourian, director of greenhouse horticulture at NYBG and senior curator of orchids. “They originated in one part of the world and then moved to another, and the way they moved is through the movement of people, as they brought their food plants with them.”

The exhibition, which opened on June 4 and will run until September 11, 2022, examines the art and science of eating habits and food traditions, many of which date back thousands of years.

The idea is that visitors can explore the rich cultural history of what we eat and learn about global staples such as rice, beans, squash and corn, as well as regional spices and flavors of peppers, green vegetables and tomatoes, not to mention many exotic varieties. One of the messages of this expansive exhibit that resonates throughout NYBG’s 250 acres is that plants and their movements are the basis of all culinary customs. Hundreds of varieties of edible plants are on display, including installations in and around the Haupt Conservatory.

“We hope that when visitors look at the exhibits, they will recognize things that are familiar to them,” Hachadourian said. “It’s the idea of ​​sensory memory. We all have a connection with food. When we smell cinnamon, for example, it may remind us of the baked apple pie our mothers made. A plant can trigger our sensory memory and nostalgia is a very important part of this memory process.

As a timely reminder of Juneteenth, NYBG has created a Afro-American Garden: Remembrance and Resilience at Edible Academy on the grounds of NYBG. It was organized by Dr. Jessica B. Harris, America’s leading researcher on African Diaspora foods. She worked with historians, heirloom seed collectors and staff at NYBG’s Edible Academy to create a sequence of eight garden beds arranged in a semicircle that celebrate the stories of African American food and gardening and their ongoing contributions to American plant and food culture.

Art also features in the exhibition. Works of art have been created by Bronx artist André Trenier and in the Art Gallery of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library Building, visitors can examine the social and cultural impacts of the American food system in the works of Colombian-American artist Lina Puerta in Lina Puerta: Accumulated wisdom.

NYBG also selected 30 local artists, living or working in the Bronx, to design and create picnic tables that explore central themes of Around the table. Some are inside the Conservatory while others are scattered across the garden.

“Each person interprets a space in their own way,” says Hachadourian. “You can sit at each table to understand the artist’s message.”

During a walk in the garden with Hachadourian, I explored the variety of edible herbaceous plants and fruit trees in the Conservatory. Curators have created overhead trellises and green walls to emphasize that edible plants are all around us. There were figs, citrus fruits, peppers and tomatoes and other nightshades, grapes and olives. Not to mention a calabash trellis and a spirits garden with plants used in the creation of beer, wine and liqueurs. A remarkable aspect of the exhibit is that everyday plants often have properties that most of us are unaware of.

“It’s a deliciosa monastery, a common houseplant but with edible fruits,” Hachadourian pointed out inside the Conservatory. “These are breadfruit and over there is a herbaceous plant, the water chestnut. We eat the tuberous roots. They are cranberries, one of the few native fruits of North America. Here, it’s wasabi, real wasabi, which is kind of a food rarity in the U.S. Most of what we eat, called wasabi, is derived from horseradish.

Hachadourian was also keen to show the connections between what appear to be disparate plants.

“It’s a cashew tree,” he noted. “See how the seeds grow out of the fruit. Cashews are related to mangoes and, ready for that, poison ivy. Some plants are completely utilized by the crops in which they grow, such as the banana. Besides bananas, they eat the stems of banana trees as vegetables, eat the flowers, and use the leaves to wrap food, such as in tamales. Every piece is used.

Around the Table: Stories of the Foods We Love is at NYBG until September 11, 2022.


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