The camera hovers inches above the lush tallgrass, the shot panning past the gold prairie that sways to the wind. This pastoral video imagery, projected on walls at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, represents time zero in the exhibit's narrative. We are in what is now Illinois, 200 years back, when 60 percent of the land was this verdant landscape.
And then, in 1837, a blacksmith in the town of Grand Detour named John Deere took steel and wood to assemble a contraption that efficiently cut through black soil. It was innovative in that the steel was polished and smooth, ensuring the Midwest's notoriously sticky prairie soil would easily slide off the blades. The phrase is overused, but in this case it was warranted: It was the moment everything changed.
Farming changed. The way people ate changed. Economic engines changed.
The Notebaert's newest exhibit is "Food: The Nature of Eating," an Illinois-centric history of changes in the food industry, from the moment Deere invented the plow to present day. Depending on your perspective, the consequences of the plow are either depressing (the biodiverse prairie dwindled to 0.01 percent of Illinois land) or a boon (Chicago became the prosperous metropolis it is today).
"We want to be apolitical. Museums are in the business of knowledge dissemination," said Steve Sullivan, senior curator of urban ecology at the Notebaert. "We want people to walk through the exhibit and make informed decisions, not just about physical health but to create more sustainable relationships with the world around them."
The exhibit, which runs through Labor Day, presents both sides as objectively as a museum with "nature" in its name could venture. Which means one can't help but walk away lamenting the ecological consequences. On display is a furry life-size buffalo, a prairie chicken, an Eskimo curlew and the skull of a black bear — all native species to the Illinois prairie, all virtually gone today because, the museum claims, 80 percent of the state is under plow. Let's just say it's no surprise Monsanto isn't a sponsor of the exhibit.
As one wall panel timeline chronicled: Deere's steel plow begot gasoline-powered tractors, which begot nitrogen fertilizers, which begot farms focusing exclusively on high-yield crops such as corn and soybeans, an exponential curve in growth driven by commerce.
The flip side of industrial-scale food production, the exhibit asserts, is that Chicago — population 5,000 when Deere invented the plow — became the hub through which most food in America passed. The city flourished when rail lines from all points converged on the shores of Lake Michigan. Texas cattle ranchers would drive their stock to Kansas, where the cattle would board rail cars bound for the Union Stock Yards on South Halsted Street. (A replica of the Union Stock Yards entrance gate arches over the center point of the 5,000-square-foot exhibit.) And so as the price of meat fell, portion size increased, and perhaps consequently, as have waistlines.
The exhibit is divided into three sections, proportionally representing the three words of "farm to table." One noteworthy panel of the "to" process examines the distance food travels before it arrives on your dinner plate. Much of our Alaskan salmon, for example, first travels to China, where it's hand-filleted before it arrives in Chicago. Total distance: 11,000 miles.
What's less interesting is the latter third — once consumers get the food. The exhibit's corporate sponsor is Dominick's, made apparent by the large mural of a Dominick's store with photos of smiling shoppers pushing carts. I can understand appeasing sponsors, but this feels extraneous and somewhat ironic, given that chain supermarkets have enabled the eating and purchasing behaviors this exhibit implicitly bemoans. Visitors are asked to upload pictures of their shopping lists onto Twitter; it feels like forcing a square corporate peg into a round social media hole.
Far more compelling are the interspersed profiles of Illinoisans who've left their mark in the city's food landscape. There's the Lee family, whose Quong Yick Foods in Chinatown was a progenitor for Asian food importers in Chicago, and Iliana Regan, chef of the Lincoln Square restaurant Elizabeth, who's become the city's biggest proponent for ingredient foraging.
These are heady, important themes, and children younger than second-graders might not grasp these notions of cause and effect. Then again, with kids and museums, it's 95 percent about the tactile experience: buttons to press, levers to pull. And there are replica plows to push around, tunnels under the Union Stock Yards to crawl through and a dining table with a dry-erase surface where children are encouraged to draw what they eat for dinner.
Yes, we're talking the artistic interpretations of 6-year-olds, but what they drew during a recent weekday visit is particularly analogous: mammoth chicken drumsticks filling up the length of the entire plate.
'Food: The Nature of Eating'
When: Through Sept. 2
Where: Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 2430 N. Cannon Drive
Tickets: Included in regular admission ($6-$9); more information at 773-755-5100 or naturemuseum.org