Ever wished you could experience Willy Wonka’s factory? This new interactive museum is for you.

By Alex Van Buren
October 30, 2015
Shannon Sturgis for the Museum of Food And Drink

New York City is abuzz about its first Museum of Food and Drink, which opened Wednesday in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The nascent museum—called MOFAD for short—is calling its launch exhibit “Flavor: Making it and Faking It,” examining the intersection of natural and manufactured flavor.

The space has a sleekly designed but oddball, Alice-in-Wonderland feel: There’s a “smell synthesizer” where you can push a button and smell scents like smoke, or butter, or bananas, or nail polish remover—or all four at once. Long strips of seaweed imported from Hokkaido dangle from the ceiling. Visitors walk about thoughtfully sucking on tablets containing the essence of tomatoes, mushrooms, or salt.

It’s an unusual space, and the founders have designs on eventually having MOFAD be the biggest museum of its kind, and the size of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here are a few things we learned about MOFAD.

It came to life thanks to Kickstarter and a 3,200-pound cereal gun called “Puffy”

Enamored of the history of the puffing gun—an early-twentieth-century contraption used to explode cereal into being out of whole grains—founder Dave Arnold and executive director Peter Kim decided to get their hands on one. They, along with program director Emma Boast, needed something splashy with which to launch a Kickstarter campaign and eventually create the brick-and-mortar space. It worked. The crazy-looking contraption was a hit with kids and adults alike.

There are 80 pounds of Manischewitz potato starch on the premises

The edible tablets, which are dispensed from gumball machines, evoke flavors such as “salty” or “umami,” and were carefully constructed by museum staff. The base of each tablet? The most neutral thing the team could find: Manischewitz potato starch.

Your palate will be a hot mess afterwards

After eating tiny tablets flavored with tomato and mushrooms—which together sort of make one vaguely crave Italian food—followed by one of saltiness, and another of vanilla, you may feel a little weird. Especially after traipsing by the grape smell station, where people press buttons to release the smell of grapes into the air. You’ll be walloped by the sensation that you’ve just walked by a pond full of grape juice. “You might need to step away for a minute” afterwards, laughs Kim, before grabbing a bite afterwards.

There’s really good food and drink nearby

Unlike New York’s famed Museum Mile, one can visit MOFAD and not spend a mint on a meal afterwards. Kim likes old-school Lorimer Market for Italian sandwiches, which you can take to nearby McCarren Park and enjoy al fresco, or Krolewskie Jadlo, which dishes out super-satisfying Polish fare, or Kings County Imperial for Szechuan. There’s even a “fancy beer” joint nearby—Torst—and a cocktail bar, Night of Joy, with a solid happy hour. Or check out one of Williamsburg’s best new restaurants, all of which are very affordable.

Shannon Sturgis for the Museum of Food And Drink

This museum has weirder problems than some do

Asking Kim whether anything went awry at the last minute, we learned that the strawberry “smell machine”—where visitors can sniff and test themselves on whether they can distinguish between natural and artificial strawberry overtones—went on the fritz. Something was “fried” on the electronic level, said Kim, and every time someone went to smell strawberries “all the lights in the place flashed like disco lights.”

Staffers call the smell station the “Wonka Synth”

Kim admits that staffers quietly call the “Smell Synth,” the loopy-looking station where you can press buttons to release any of 19 scents, the “Wonka Synth” in homage to the classic film.

Even breast milk is umami

“Umami” is the Japanese word used to describe something with a super-savory, mouth-watering flavor. Classic examples include tomatoes and mushrooms, which is why the museum has tablets of both. But the compound at play, glutamic acid, is also present in amniotic fluid and breast milk. As a clever MOFAD sign-writer punned: “You could say we learn to enjoy umami long before we can say ‘mommy’.”

You can buy condiments at the merchandise tables

Speaking of umami, our favorite fish sauce—Red Boat, which has gotten expensive and can be difficult to find in New York City—is on sale for a mere $10, right alongside Worcestershire sauce and vanilla extract (both of which make cameos in the exhibit.) If you’re visiting from out of town and don’t want to check fish sauce in your baggage, there are plenty of little magnets and cutesy postcards, too.