Until the opening of the Museum of Food and Drink in Brooklyn, New York, last year, food museums were largely niche - dedicated to the likes of SPAM and mustard, for instance. But niche isn't a bad thing (not for us, anyway) - after all, doesn't it show the incredible power of food that someone will spend their days collecting a particular item and showing it off to the world? And as visitors, these museums – quirky as some of them might be – explain so much about who we are, from a fast food burger we've all probably eaten at least once to the two things that are always on our dining tables. At places like these museums, food shows its power to be at once deeply personal – and ubiquitously global.
The SPAM Museum, Minneapolis, USA
Did you know there are 15 different types of SPAM (including teriyaki and jalapeno varieties)? Did you know that, during World War Two, Hormel Foods (which owns SPAM) sent 100 million pounds of the cured pork product to American troops? This is the kind of trivia you'll learn at The SPAM Museum. Affectionately known as the “Guggenham”, the museum features a Monty Python exhibit and SPAMbassadors to help you learn more about meat-in-a-can. The only rule? Don't eat the exhibits.
The Frietmuseum, Bruges, Belgium
No offense to the Yanks (or the French) but Belgium has laid claim to the humble chip. Here at the Frietmuseum (the only dedicated potato fry museum in the world), you'll learn all about the history of the storied chip, including its origins - in Belgium. There are varying theories about how, exactly, fries were born in Belgium (one journalist claims that they were invented around 1680, other reports allege that French and American soldiers found them in Belgium in World War One). Whatever their history, one thing is for sure - they're delicious, and the Frietmuseum is the perfect place to sample them.
Museum Kimchikan, Seoul, South Korea
Long before fermented food became a hipster accessory, Korea had perfected kimchi - that staple salty-sweet pickled cabbage condiment that pairs so well with grilled meat and fish. The Museum Kimchikan (formerly known as the Kimchi Museum) was the first food museum in Korea, opening in 1986, in time for a huge influx of visitors during the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The museum has over 80 types of kimchi on display, and while you're there, you can learn to make your own. There's also films about the history of the side dish and an entire room dedicated to kimchi's designation as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage item.
Burnt Food Museum, Boston, USA
Let's get this out of the way before we go any further: the Burnt Food Museum is weird. Yes, it's exactly what it sounds like: a gallery space focussed on food that's been burnt (accidentally, usually). Founded in the late 80s after creator Deborah Henson-Conant made a cinder from accidentally burning some hot apple cider, this museum is dedicated to culinary disasters - like the “thrice-baked potato.” With over 49,000 burned specimens (including more than 2000 items in the Hall of Burnt Toast alone, a wing dedicated to Burnt Legumes and a new exhibit all about Burnt Condiments) this is kind of wacky, but strangely appealing.
Museum of Food and Drink, Brooklyn, USA
Launched with the help of a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, MOFAD is the world’s first large-scale museum with edible exhibits. It runs tastings, workshops and lectures with academics and chefs. Its current exhibition, Flavor: Making It and Faking It, is all about the science and history behind flavours, and the many associations we bring to them (consciously or not). There are smell machines and dispensers filled with small tablet-like pellets to demonstrate flavor tangibly. The exhibit has been thoughtfully curated, with elegant, sensible explanations of how scientists are able to replicate flavours naturally (like using vanillin from pine bark to make vanilla extract and essence, rather than the much more expensive vanilla bean) and the complex chemistry of umami.
National Mustard Museum, Wisconsin, USA
Billed as America’s “favorite condiment museum” (and perhaps its only?), the site is home to more than 5500 mustards from over 70 countries. Run by the former attorney general for Wisconsin, Barry Levenson, the museum features a bust of Michelangelo’s David in its foyer, and this sets the tone for the whole place. It’s fun, quirky, anything-but-earnest. But mustard is serious business – after all, Levenson once used a small jar as a talisman while appearing before the Supreme Court, and his museum is testament to that. In Europe, mustard lovers can visit Moutarderie Fallot, Beaune, which offers a tour showcasing the history of mustard making in Burgundy. Can’t get to Wisconsin or France? Celebrate at home on August 6 - it’s National Mustard Day in the US.
Lindt Chocolate Museum, Cologne, Germany
A fascinating look at the history of chocolate - from the ancient Mayans to today. It’s probably unsurprising to hear that this is one of the most popular museums in Germany – but perhaps a little more surprising to hear that, unlike the vast majority of museums, it’s entirely self-sustaining. That’s right: the museum receives no public funding. As well as an exhaustive history of 3000 years of chocolate, the museum features 10 cacao trees, a three-metre-high chocolate fountain (yes, you can sample from it, with help from an employee) and of course, a shop. No visit would be complete without a visit to the Grand Cafe.
Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum, Tennessee, USA
Run by husband and wife Andrea and Rolf Ludden, there are around 1500 salt and pepper shakers on display, collected over 25 years. Made from materials as mixed as gold, silver, fur, eggshells, wood, porcelain, plastic and more, in shapes like doughnuts, castles, flamingoes, hotdogs, bananas, teapots, beer steins, kings and queens, and dogs, there’s truly a salt and pepper shaker for everyone. A museum dedicated to salt and pepper shakers sounds kind of crazy, but it’s the kind of crazy that works – the museum averages 200 visitors a day! The question the couple are asked the most: who decides how many holes to put on the lid of the shaker? The answer isn’t as straightforward as you’d think.
Museum of Prosciutto di Parma, Langhirano, Italy
A museum dedicated to ham? Sign us up. Part of a network of Italian food museums (that also includes museums on Parmigiano-Reggiano, salami and tomatoes), exhibits here mostly detail the long process of curing pork to make it into the delicious salty sheets we know as prosciutto. It’s also the site of the Annual Prosciutto Festival. Every tour ends with a sampling, which you can upgrade with local wine, if you wish.
The Big Mac Museum, Pennsylvania, USA
While the original Bic Mac was created by a McDonald’s franchise owner in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, this museum dedicated to the burger stands in nearby Irwin - a point of contention for many residents of Uniontown! Still, if you’re a burger freak, this place is fun - if only to have a pic with the four-metre burger sculpture. And there’s even a 24-hour drive-through, if a visit makes you hungry. There’s also an unofficial McDonald’s museum in San Bernadino, California, on the site of the first restaurant run by the McDonald brothers. It houses thousands of pieces of McDonald’s merch, in case you need to complete your Happy Meal set from 1989. And yes, its official name is The Unofficial McDonald's Museum. Owner Albert Akura told VICE that he's wary of a lawsuit from the famously litigious fast food empire. "They don't officially recognise us and they haven't made official contact, but I know they're monitoring us. …. I just see this as such a historically significant place."