Food is at the heart of The New York Botanical Garden’s (NYBG) major, institution-wide exhibition Around the Table: Stories of the Foods We Love. As it happens, so is travel, as NYBG is exhibiting plants from all over the globe. Within minutes, a visitor is transported to South America, Southeast Asia and the American South, all of it just 20 minutes from Midtown Manhattan. It’s a deep dive into both commonplace and unusual plants from all over the globe.
“Some of these plants have been cultivated for food for thousands and thousands of years,” said Marc Hachadourian, NYBG’s Director of Glasshouse Horticulture and Senior Curator of Orchids. “They originated in one part of the world, and then moved to another, and the way they’ve 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 foodways and food traditions, many dating back thousands of years.
The idea is that visitors can explore the rich cultural history of what we eat and learn about global dietary staples such as rice, beans, squash, and corn, as well as regional spices and flavors of peppers, greens, and tomatoes, not to mention many exotic varieties. One message of this expansive exhibition that resonates across NYBG’s 250 acres is that plants and their movements are at the base of all culinary customs. There are hundreds of varieties of edible plants on display, including installations in and around the Haupt Conservatory.
“We’re hoping that as visitors look at the exhibits they recognize things that are familiar to them,” said Hachadourian. “It’s the idea of sense memory. We all have a connection to food. When we smell cinnamon, for example, it might remind us of the baked apple pie our mothers used to make. A plant can trigger our sense memory and nostalgia is a very important part of that memory process.”
As a timely reminder of Juneteenth, NYBG created an African American Garden: Remembrance & Resilience at the Edible Academy on NYBG’s grounds. It was curated by Dr. Jessica B. Harris, America’s leading scholar on the foods of the African Diaspora. She worked with historians, heritage seed collectors, and NYBG’s Edible Academy staff to create a sequence of eight garden beds arranged in a semi-circle that celebrate African American food and gardening histories and their ongoing contributions to America’s plant and food culture.
Art also figures in the exhibit. Artworks have been created by Bronx-based artist André Trenier and in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library Building Art Gallery, visitors can examine the social and cultural impacts of the American food system in works by 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 from Around the Table. Some are inside the Conservatory while others are scattered across the garden.
“Each one interprets a space in their own way,” Hachadourian points out. “You can sit at each table to understand the artist’s message.”
On a stroll through the garden with Hachadourian, I explored the Conservatory’s variety of edible herbaceous plants and fruit-bearing trees. The curators created overhead trellises and green walls to make the point that edible plants are all around us. There were figs, citrus, peppers and tomatoes and other nightshades, grapes and olives. Not to mention a gourd trellis and a spirits garden featuring plants used in the creation of beer, wine, and liquors. One aspect of the exhibition that’s remarkable is that everyday plants often have properties most of us know nothing about.
“That’s a monastera deliciosa, a common houseplant but one with edible fruit,” Hachadourian pointed out inside the Conservatory. “Those are breadfruit and over there is a grassy-leafed plant, the water chestnut. We eat the tuberous roots. Those are cranberries, one of the few North American native fruits. Over here is wasabi, real wasabi, which is kind of a food rarity in the United States. Most of what we eat that’s called wasabi is derived from horseradish.”
Hachadourian was also keen to show the connections between what appear to be disparate plants.
“This is a cashew tree,” he noted. “See how the seeds grow on the outside of the fruit. The cashew is in the same family as mangos and, ready for this, poison ivy. Some plants get completely used by the cultures where they grow, like the banana. Besides the bananas, they eat the banana plant stems like vegetables, eat the flowers, and use the leaves to wrap food, as in tamales. Every bit of it gets used.”
Around the Table: Stories of the Foods We Love is at NYBG through September 11, 2022.