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Oysters, Ostrich and Jazz Flute

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At some point onSunday afternoon, I descended the staircase to the catacumbal dining rooms ofMario Batali’s Del Posto. It might as well have been a rabbit hole, and I Alice,if not for the ornate marble staircase and the trays of Perrier-Jouët, Plymouth gin, celery and lemoncocktails that were proffered on arrival. It was a curiouser and curiouserafternoon I was in for. Eat me! Drink me! Holy what?!?!

The reason I andabout a hundred other guests had assembled was to raise funds for the Museum of Food and Drink, an ambitious museum thatexists, at the moment, only in the mind of Dave Arnold, head of the CulinaryTechnology department of the French Culinary Institute.  But what a mind it is!The museum, when it opens, says Arnold, “will rival the American Museum ofNatural History.” A tall order, but in a city like New York—where eating out isitself an Olympic sport and provides fodder for millions of conversations,arguments, friendships, love affairs and marital dissolutions—it’s notimpossible. The museum will host classes, and rotating exhibitions.

The invited chefs—amongthem David Chang, Wylie Dufresne, Carlos Mirarchi from Brooklyn’s Roberta’sPizzeria (Chang is from Momofuku; Dufresne from WD~50 and if you didn’t knowthat, well, now you know.)—were each given a specific period from which to drawinspiration. To a man, they geeked out.

Arnold startedthings by dwelling upon food as medicine with anamuse-bouche he called Rhubarb and Mummy. The thing, served on a tongue depressor,was a play on mummy powder—powder made from mummies—which medieval doctorsthought was a panacea after thoroughly misunderstanding traditional Egyptian medicines.Fools. Arnold’s dish—strawberried rhubarb, mummy powder yogurt, pine nuts,cucumbers—had no mummies and was good.

Next up was NilsNoren, whose assignment, “Fad Diets,” prompted him to Google “fad diets.”Gastronomy by Google. The top result was “South Beach Diet,” so Mr. Noren—whosebirthday it was, Happy Birthday, Noren—deconstructed cabbage soup and a Cubansandwich, served one in a bitsy cup and the other, sans bread, beside it.

More things cameand went, and I should hasten to mention each course came with a cocktail, wedto the culinary offering by theme. Damon Boelte served Martell VSOP with orangesas an homage to the cocktail life of New York City, 1784; Thomas Waugh served aCave Man cocktail of Perrier-JouëtChampagne and Lindemans PêcheLambic Beer to accompany Wylie Dufresne’s Bone Appetite (bone marrow, scallops,potatoes, beets, powdered genius) inspired by Cave Man food.

There was a jazzflautist.

There was also asilent auction at some point later on when we were all soused, for which Ithink I bid $800 for a private pastry session by Brooks Headley, Pastry Chef ofDel Posto, and $700 for an immersion circulator (which looks like an ATM butallows perfect sous-vide). Thank God I won neither. My wife wouldhave killed me.

David Chang,always a pleasure and a provocateur, was assigned “American Food, 1491.” Hecalled his dish “It’s a Shame We Know More About Dinosaurs Than About WhatNative Americans Ate,” which is funny and then, wait ten seconds, really sad.He served very large oysters—“Indians prized large oysters,” he explained, “sowhen we knew we were doing this dish, we asked the oysterman to allow hisoysters to grow. These are a year to a year-and-a-half old”—with acorns andberries with some scorched hazelnut breading.

But the pièce derésistance belonged to Mark Ladner, Del Posto’s executive chef. Inspired byAncient Rome, Ladner presented boiled ostrich. He called it “BIG BIRD.” Infact, he prepared two, ostentation being very much a part of ancient Rome. Onewas chopped up and served on a bread plate, meant to be eaten with one’s hands.It was okay. But the other—a huge, raw thing—was decorated with fake yellowfeathers and was wheeled out to be gawked and gaped at.

I flashed backto Don’t Eat the Pictures: Sesame Street at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.Remember that special from 1983? Big Bird goes on a field trip to the Met, thenSnuffy gets lost—typical—so Big Bird looks for him and is left to roam thehalls of the museum at night. Then the others look for him and Cookie Monstertries to eat the pictures. [Not Allowed.] Anyway, if Big Bird thought he hadit bad at the Metropolitan, he should steer clear of the Museum of Food andDrink when it opens. The rest of us, though, should show no such restraint.

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