Making the Nation’s Table: Celebrating Black American Food Contributions

Read Time: 5 minutes

In celebration of Black History Month, SEGD is sharing stories of Black History-themed projects all throughout February. Next up: SEGD member firm Blue Telescope’s partnership with the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) and the design inspirations behind
African/American: Making the Nation’s Table billed as “the first-of-its-kind exhibition celebrating the countless contributions of Black chefs, farmers, and food and drink producers who have laid the foundation for American food culture.” Read on! (And try not to get too hungry!)

“To talk about the movement of food, you need to talk about the movement of people,” contends Nazli Parisi, Executive Director of the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) in New York City, a cultural organization dedicated to bringing the world of food and drink to life.

And a new exhibition developed by Nazli’s team at MOFAD does just that. African/American: Making the Nation’s Table carries visitors on a four-century-long journey that chronicles how the movement of people—whether enslaved Africans crossing the Atlantic or the six million Black Americans traveling from the South to the North during the Great Migration—brought their food traditions across place and time.

MOFAD partnered with the African Center at Aliko Dangote Hall (located near the northeast corner of Central Park at 1280 5th Avenue, New York) to host the exhibition which presents the influence of Black Americans and African foods on American cuisine through the lenses of agriculture, culinary arts, brewing & distilling, and commerce. It is a subject that has often been overlooked or underplayed in American history. Yet many foods that Americans might take for granted—including watermelon, okra, yams, and black-eyed peas—originated in Africa and became staples of the American diet. Even kola nuts, the basis for the original Coca-Cola recipe and other cola recipes, came from Africa. 

MOFAD began by engaging Dr. Jessica B. Harris to curate the exhibition and to help bring this story to life. Dr Harris is a professor emeritus at CUNY, culinary historian, and author of the book High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America (2011) which inspired the 2021 Netflix documentary series of the same name. But even though this food history has been well documented in books and media, African/American marks the first time the subject has been presented comprehensively within a dedicated museum exhibition—and in a fun and meaningful way. 

MOFAD enlisted SEGD member firm Blue Telescope to design African/American’s graphics and exhibits and interactives which bring to life key artifacts such as the original Ebony Test Kitchen, an icon of mid-20th-century modern design, where Ebony Magazine tested recipes for its “Date with a Dish” column, and the Legacy Quilt. 

Trent Oliver, Principal and Managing Director of Blue Telescope, spoke to SEGD about giving African/American a fresh look and also getting visitors excited about the exhibition’s topics through dynamic elements such as the Digital Dinner Table. This experience conveys one of the main themes of the exhibition: how cuisines moved throughout the country along with millions of Black Americans from the times of Emancipation through the Great Migration—and up until today—and brought with them iconic recipes for pepper pot, son-of-a gun stew, shoebox lunch and barbeque, all meals that museum visitors can explore at the Digital Dinner Table.

“You’re able to come up to the table and select the meal you want to explore, but also learn how the stories of those meals relate to today.” says Trent. “Yes, let’s talk about how foods got here, but also how these cuisines are thriving now.” 

A series of artifact displays—including agricultural tools, cookbooks and objects from the Civil Rights era—form the central part of the exhibition, telling a more detailed history of African foods in the United States. Wendy Wen, lead graphic designer on the Blue Telescope team, created the graphics in this section, marked by banners relating to Agriculture, Culinary Arts, Brewing & Distilling, Commerce, and the Ebony Test Kitchen. In a recent interview with SEGD, Wendy talked about using the exhibition’s Legacy Quilt as a source of inspiration in designing the show’s graphics.

The Legacy Quilt is a key artifact in the exhibition, sewn by the quilting collective Harlem Needle Arts using period-appropriate fabrics, and is composed of 406 hand-sewn blocks each representing an individual African American contribution to “the fabric of American cuisine.” 

But one of the biggest challenges for Wendy and her fellow designers on the team was creating a design aesthetic that worked cohesively and linked all the different elements within the exhibition.

“We have a quilt, but we also have the inside of the Ebony Test Kitchen, which has its own color palette, and it’s groovy and really cool,” says Wendy. “And so, these are two separate things, so it was marrying all that together in the design of the banners and the digital table. And I feel that we successfully captured that in the final choice of color palette and overall design aesthetic.”

SEGD member Stuart Fox, Design Lead and Project Coordinator, commented on how the success of this cohesive approach in designing African/American can be beneficial for other museums and cultural organizations. “Graphic design led the way for this stylistic integration and allowed this smaller exhibition to punch above its weight,” says Stuart. “It provides a model for exhibition design and development for museums with smaller budgets.”

Summing up Blue Telescope’s work on African/American, Trent explained how the project was “a crazy labor of love” for everyone in her studio. “Letting people come visit the exhibition and then share and be part of a community—it’s really powerful,” says Trent. “Gaining a new audience that is hooked on museums will have an impact on their culture and the conversations going into the future.”

And supporting those conversations is one of MOFAD’s goals in presenting African/American to museum audiences by highlighting that African American history is American history and recognized and celebrated as such.

“African/American: Making the Nation’s Table” opens on February 23 and runs through June 19, 2022, at the African Center at Aliko Dangote Hall, located at 1280 5th Avenue, New York.