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Food in the Garden: Science and Sustenance at the Smithsonian

Food in the Garden: Science and Sustenance at the Smithsonian

How often do you get to walk around a world-renowned museum after hours, sipping on a gin cocktail, rubbing elbows with plant geeks, academics, and foodies alike? Well, if you attend the Smithsonian’s Food in the Garden events, you get to do it more often than you’d think.

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Once a year, as the summer draws to a close and the National Museum of American History’s Victory Garden is bursting with heirloom veggie goodness, Smithsonian Gardens invites visitors to enjoy an evening of food, education, and fun. The event is usually held in the Victory Garden itself, which features a curved, rustic design that naturally encourages meandering.

Full disclosure: I’m married to the guy who designed and curates it, so I’m a bit biased.

Smithsonian Gardens pursues its mission to “engage, inform, and inspire” by installing landscaping and cultivating gardens that serve as an extension of the exhibits within the buildings they surround. For example, the native plantings around the National Museum of the American Indian are meant to reflect what the local landscape looked like before Europeans set foot on these shores.

This year, Smithsonian Gardens teamed up with the National Museum of American History to revamp the terrace garden to create the Common Ground: Our American Garden installation. To help promote it, the Food in the Garden event hopped onto the elevator, pressed “2,” and put on a show.

Common Ground tells the story of America — one of immigration, innovation, and inspiration — through plants. The garden features plantings inspired by four themes: Memory (honoring our diverse heritage), Healing (using plants in both traditional and modern medicine), Discovery (introducing new plants to America’s native landscape), and Ingenuity (using plants in production and industry).

I attended both events in the series, but will focus on the second — “Fermentation Nation.” In case the name didn’t clue you in, the theme was fermentation — if it involved bacteria and food coming together in tasty harmony, it was discussed (and/or eaten) at this event. The discussion panel included a brewer, a probiotic food/drink company founder, and a doctor of fungal genetics (seriously — and she rocked it). Topics discussed ranged from brewing technique, to gut bacteria, to how properly fermented foods are vastly different from the pickles and sauerkraut you normally encounter on grocery store shelves.

Outside on the terrace, the probiotics (and their naughty cousins) were plentiful. There were pickles. There was kimchi. There was cheese. There was gin. There was beer. There was kombucha. Copious amounts of kombucha. And it was all delicious.

The official menu, prepared by the museum’s chef, Kristy Cleaveland, was a fermentation cornucopia: miso-marinated short rib that melted in your mouth, a kimchi and radish salad and lactose-fermented wild mushroom medley that made your lips pucker in delight, all topped off with a deliciously sharp lemon kefir tart.

Lest we forget, this entire event was held within one of the most famous museums in the world, which houses an unparalleled collection of memorabilia and artifacts. Not only were we permitted to tour the Many Voices, One Nation exhibit — the very exhibit the Common Ground garden complements — but the museum curators also reached into the vaults and pulled out some pieces to fit the evening’s theme. We were able to peruse a table that featured chocolate-coated “anti-fermentatives,” several yeast tablets (yeast vitamins!), and a few gadgets, including a saccharometer and a refractometer.

Are you geeking out yet?

Apparently, the two devices can be used in winemaking to help determine the sugar content in grape juice. The saccharometer measures liquid density, while the refractometer somehow determines sugar content by how the light bends when you shine a light through it. Don’t ask me to explain any more. My brain hurts just trying to wrap itself around this much, which reminds me of how knowledgeable the curators were that evening. Impressive as always, Smithsonian.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of walking around a museum after all the tourists have left for the day, when the sun is going down but the city is still teeming with life. The sound of clinking glasses, inquisitive conversation, and easygoing laughter. Something special happens when people come together in the name of knowledge and nourishment. Mark your calendar to see what’s on the menu next year.

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