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Virtual museum gives food its due
By Abby Wihl | Scripps Howard News Service
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Published: 10/23/2007 2:58 PM

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Different types of salt have distinct perfumes. The oldest domesticated food is the date palm found in Iraq. The licorice plant is a member of the pea family.

If any of this counts as news to you, there's a virtual food museum waiting for your visit.

The Food Museum is the work of Tom and Meredith Hughes, a food researcher and food writer, respectively, whose work takes them all over the world.

The two live in Albuquerque, N.M., in a home filled with food memorabilia, food books and food art. There's also plenty of homemade iced tea.

Their museum, on the other hand, exists at foodmuseum.com, but the two are looking for a permanent physical location.

They acknowledge that food is a somewhat obscure topic for a museum, but say that ought to change.

"It is overlooked in museums, even until recently in the academic field," Tom Hughes said.

The Food Museum grew out of Tom Hughes' first endeavor, the Potato Museum, he said. In 1975, the fifth grade class he taught at the International School of Brussels studied the potato because of the magnitude of the world crop, he said. In 1976, Hughes started to collect potato memorabilia, according to the Potato Museum Web site.

In 1985, the artifacts were displayed in a small gallery space in Washington, D.C., according to the Web site.

The Hugheses moved to Albuquerque in 1993 because they liked the area and the vibrant culture, they said.

In the same year, the Potato Museum spun off into the Food Museum. In 1996, the Food Museum was launched on the Internet.

The potato artifacts are in storage now, and they number in the thousands, Tom Hughes estimates.

Artifacts, by the way, do not mean old potatoes -- although they fit a broad definition of potato-related items and include potato harvesting tools and chocolates shaped like French fries.

Clearly, the Hugheses have a passion for food. Meredith has written 12 books on food and does gardening for hire, she said. Tom does most of the research for Meredith's books. They recently traveled to France's food heritage sites, and Meredith just published "Gastronomie! Food Museums & Heritage Sites of France."

The two have looked into a brick-and-mortar museum, and some potential partners have popped up abroad, Tom Hughes said. Another option is to continue to lend artifacts to other museums, he said.

But for now, he said, they like the Internet because it is very 21st century, allows access around the globe and around the clock, and provides easy interaction with the public.

The museum designates cities, ranches and farms as food heritage sites based on how well they preserve food history, and some exhibits rotate.