Dining

Uncommon Scents

The new MOFAD Lab is a sensory delight
MOFAD Sensory Lab
Photos: MOFAD

After many years of mobile exhibitions and brainstorming from founder Dave Arnold and crew, the Museum of Food and Drink finally opened in New York City on October 28, welcoming food enthusiasts to its first exhibition, Flavor: Making It and Faking It.

I stopped by the MOFAD Lab last week for a tour with Arnold, executive director Peter Kim and program director Emma Boast. The current show examines the history of the modern flavor industry, with the ultimate goal of showing how "faking" a flavor isn't always bad. In fact, Boast says they're finding that people actually prefer lab-made vanillin to actual vanilla orchid—perhaps due to the nostalgia of food like boxed cake mix. There's also a strong defense of the "third shaker" that never was—MSG. Giant pieces of kelp imported by a Japanese food writer hang from the ceiling, proudly displaying the glutamate crystals glistening on the surface. It's a reminder that Chinese restaurant syndrome might be a fallacy distracting us from the realness of this flavor-packed molecule.

Smell synth machine at MOFAD. Photo: MOFAD.

The history on display is fascinating, well researched and presented clearly, but perhaps the most striking part of the exhibition is its incorporation of smell. The museum's main attraction is the Smell Synth, a large scent-emitting machine that looks like a four-tentacled octopus. It was custom built in large part by Arnold himself and can release 19 scent chemicals with the touch of a button. I asked how many possible combinations it could make, and after some impressively quick math, Arnold told me it's an astounding 524,286 variations. The machine brings to mind visions of Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans, with options ranging from pleasant (coconut, cinnamon) to mildly repulsive (nail polish remover, vomit).

Navigating the expansive machine together like a game of interactive Twister, Arnold and I made green bananas and smoked cinnamon-almond popcorn. If it sounds like cooking, that shouldn't be too surprising. Taste and smell are 70 percent related, after all, which accounts for the fact that when you have a cold, nothing tastes as good, or if you eat an apple, onion and potato while holding your nose you can't tell the difference.

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There are also smaller versions of the Smell Synth, instructing you how to make a cola scent, for example, by conducting an orchestra of cinnamon, orange, lime and vanilla scents. You can then put your nose to the test and see if you can distinguish between strawberry purée or its artificial counterpart. Other machines blow out Concord grape that smells like having the flu as a kid and a puff of Citrol that makes you think you should really clean the apartment.

MOFAD has the space for a few years and plans to rotate through other exhibitions and experiments. This location is only a stepping stone until the crew can open a large-scale space. But the concept of "faking it 'til you make it" is strangely apt for this grassroots organization, which spent years searching for a home.

And we think it's safe to say they've made it.

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