A Museum, A Community, A Festival

How interesting to embark on a project developing the menu for a museum whose surrounding neighborhood -- El Barrio -- has been described as a food desert.
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A year and a half after closing for renovation, El Museo del Barrio is back. And what a reopening it has been. Culinary fare does not vary much museum to museum (do you see a difference between the sandwiches at the Guggenheim and the Whitney or the Met?) but we wanted this to be noticeably different. So did Director & CEO Julian Zugazagoitia, a passionate culinarian with a knowledgeable palate.

How interesting to embark on a project developing the menu for a museum whose surrounding neighborhood -- El Barrio -- has been described as a food desert. Its immediate southern neighbor, the Upper East Side, has an abundance of supermarkets with a comparative embarrassment of riches: fresh fruits, vegetables and nutritious selections. East Harlem has more bodegas, fast food restaurants and emergency food programs. I have toured East Harlem neighborhood as a member of the Governors Council on Food Policy and have seen the glaring disparity in food markets -- shops with a paltry amount of fresh produce; very limited selections of diary and meat products; and higher prices and limited options across the board on staples as well. (See our press release )

East Harlem was established in the late 1800s following the construction of the El. Its first dominant ethnic group was Italian, and the neighborhood was known as Italian Harlem. To this very day, Rao's on Pleasant Avenue and the original Patsy's Pizza on 118th and First Avenue still operate. Between World War I and II, the neighborhood transitioned to Spanish Harlem with the largest Puerto Rican population in the city. Today there are 24 New York City Housing Authority developments in East Harlem, a feature that defines a part of the character of the neighborhood. The Latino community has increased its diversity as well.

According to a 2006 report from the NYC Department of Health, residents of East Harlem have a higher rate of obesity and diabetes than other parts of Manhattan or NYC. And while the death rate has been dropping city wide, it is still higher in this community (according to the Department of Health) and a recent Mt Sinai Hospital report (online) highlight the health hazards facing neighborhood children.

All this is true -- and it is in contrast to the abundance at el Café, the newest entity within El Museo. The museum reopened to the public on Saturday morning and over 4,500 people poured into the building. The café lines were constant as hundreds of visitors came to sample the pan-Latino menu. Who were they? New Yorkers from all over the city as well as many of our new neighbors from the immediate community. It was an amazing few hours. The response to the menu was enthusiastic -- and everyone was so eager to taste familiar offerings -- men and women of all ages, children -- families and individuals. This café belonged to them.

I am struck by the chronic food-related illnesses that plague this community yet I have repeatedly witnessed the vibrant Latino food heritage that is also an intense part of the neighborhood as well.

So one challenge will be how to serve museum-goers (an international community), maintain culinary authenticity while meeting the community level needs at the same time. It is an interesting paradox for a food service operator in a cultural institution. Director Julian Zugazagoitia, in addition his efforts to fundraise for the renovation and direct an institution, has participated in Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's "Go Green East Harlem" Cookbook. (details here ). He too is passionate about connecting with both the community and its vibrant culinary heritage, while responding to the health crisis.

So, this is a new beginning for El Museo del Barrio as it celebrates its 40th year. It is about connecting the neighborhood, the art and the spirit of el Barrio with the world at large -- a gift from artistic voices who now have a new home. (The opening exhibit is breathtaking and inspiring.) The reopening also is a gift to the community. It is a place to gather and view art; or participate in a wide range of programs; and a new meeting place for an espresso, a freshly cooked tamale, a jar of locally grown salsa verde and some conversation. And it will be a place for cooking demonstrations, be it visiting Latino chefs showcasing their talents or visiting classes or local families, coming to learn from the cooks in the café.

In the café, one will find a list of local restaurants -- a nod to our commercial neighbors and our way of supporting their efforts. Additionally, local bakers will supply various goods in El Café. We will all be stronger and more successful when we support and help each other. That goal is on our personal "menu."

And of all the cultural institution partners we contract and cook for, this is the institution that has won the hearts and minds of the chefs and cooks at Great Performances, as they come from a range of South American countries including Brazil, Dominican Republic, Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, Puerto Rico and more. So this time, when they are cooking, it is the flavors and tastes of home in the pots on the stove.

As food nurtures the body, art nurtures the soul. Keep your eye on El Museo as the journey continues.







El Museo Café Menu

From the Chef Table
Prepared to order Ceviche
Shrimp, Red Snapper, or Scallop marinated in Lime, Ginger, Jalapeño, Tomato, Cilantro, Poblano Peppers, and Red Onion and served with Plantain Chips

Taco Taco
Weekly Tacos such as Grilled Beef Tips, Cilantro Chicken, Smoked Fish, or Ground Chorizo with choice of Crispy Corn Taco Shell or Soft Flour Tortilla filled with Mixed Greens, Shredded Carrot, Pico de Gallo, and Cheese

Hot Lunch Entrees - all entrees served with rice and beans, sweet plantains -
Sample Daily Lunch Plates: Roasted Green Chili Chicken, Plantain-Crusted Cod, Glazed Skirt Steak Sofrito, Pork Mofongo, Chili-Glazed Ribs, Braised Chicken with Black Mole, Chayote Casserole with Poblanos, and Corn and Two Cheeses
served with Rice and Beans and Sweet Plantains

From the Warmer
Daily Selection of Grilled Chicken with Roasted Corn and Black Beans, Chipotle Skirt Steak with Avocado and Rice, or Butternut Squash with Roasted Squash Blossoms and Salsa Fresca

Daily Selection of Chicken and Chocolate Mole, Duck Chimichurri, or Cheese and Guava

Daily Selection of Shrimp Tamale, Chicken and Spicy Tomato Tamale, or Red Mole Enchiladas with Shredded Chicken

Home Made Soup
Spicy Black Bean Soup with a rotating soup like Tortilla Soup, Rustic Ranch-Style Soup, Red Beef Chili Soup, Smoked Corn Chowder, or Stewed Chick Peas and Salsa

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