World Expo 2015 in Milan

Photograph by Mary Beth Albright. Vertical gardens cause people to look up at World Expo, Milan 2015. In Italian, it’s generally an insult to be called “bacchettone,” a word for someone who is fanatically old-fashioned to the point of being closed-minded. I think it’s a little bacchettone to criticize the World Expo (a.k.a. World’s Fair) for being filtered, because the pavilions are all sponsored and paid for by countries or corporations. To some extent, of course, everyone is putting their best faces on. But the beauty of Expo lies in the ability to get a sense of the world in one place, gathered this year over food as we did in the past around cooking fires. Then too, we told stories of our pasts, presents, and futures.

But there are big ideas and activities from Expo. They are entertaining, yes, but and have the added benefit of provoking deeper consideration of the future of food. They are examples of balancing entertainment and education at an event like Expo which, after all, is a fair. Most attendees are tourists looking for leisure and—especially when the topic is food—at least some degree of pleasure with their learning. Anything less would be, well, bacchettone.

Pollution-Absorbing Concrete. Climate change has a huge impact on food and agriculture, with some food scientists already developing new varieties of heat-resistant vegetables in anticipation of a warming planet. Pollution awareness is featured throughout Expo—most strikingly in the stark-white concrete that spatter-coats the Italian Pavilion like a Jackson Pollack Painting. The concrete is photocatalytic, meaning it converts air pollutants into inert salts. Over time, the building will turn gray as the concrete cleans the surrounding air, providing awareness of invisible—but very real—pollution and its impact on our food system. Imagine if this coated buildings in citites around the world.

Vertical Gardens Everywhere. A world expanding to 9 billion people by 2050 need to find new ways to grow food and when you can’t go out anymore, you go up. All around Expo, walls are covered in edible plants, and why not? They are beautiful in an urban setting, reduce pollution, and provide food in an area where a garden would otherwise be impossible, thereby increasing food security. The best examples I saw were the United States and Israel (the latter claims to be the world’s largest vertical garden), but many small ones are scattered throughout, including this clever wall made from potted herbs in the Reggio Children’s Park, which may not be exactly a vertical garden, but it’s still a wall made out of living, planted food.

Reimagining Food Packaging. We are in the middle of a food-packaging Renaissance, with everything from edible packaging to smart packaging that tells you when your food is cooked or has spoiled. The Future Food District—a working, futuristic grocery store—has a lot of in-the-pipeline examples, including packaging that interacts with refrigerators to automatically reorder items you’re low on. My personal favorite is this, on the shelves now, that I found at Expo’s Mercato Metropalitano: ready-mixed cocktails in a paper sleeve: No glass, lightweight, take it anywhere.

Using Technology to Recreate the Past. The Future Food District is the grocery store of the future, with touch screens that tell where your cod was caught and a sensor that tees up the nutritional information and carbon footprint of a zucchini when you pick it up. The screens even give information on farmers and cheesemakers, and tell shoppers how many people are in the store, and when lines are busiest. The reason for all of this technology, the Pavilion’s creator Carlo Ratti says, is to recreate the markets of the past, when shoppers connected with people who grew the food. The modern supermarket—here, operated by Coop—can ironically provide that only through technology.

Kitchen Invasion. On the other side of the nonna vs. technology debate is a side exhibit to the extravagant Arts & Food main show at Triennale (see below). Kitchen Invasion arranges and presents kitchen utensils and appliances as items that have invaded humankind’s relationship with food. Appliances are aliens that have separated people from our essential bond with food, and we have festishized the middleman rather than enjoyed the actual experience of eating. My travel companion shuddered, “That was a lot creepier than I thought it would be.”

Arts & Food Exhibit at the Triennale. Ignore the “Arts & Food” title. As a prominent food-policy analyst commented after seeing it, this is the best exhibit on any subject ever put together anywhere. Love utensils? There is a whole cabinet full of Downton-Abbey era specialized tableware. (One of my favorites appears to be a dinner knife with a corkscrew built in.) Also see Andy Warhol’s 32-feet-long Last Supper, old American war posters declaring “America Needs More Meat” and “Food is a Weapon,” Monet and Braque paintings of chefs and food, photos of communal meals at Woodstock, a giant house made out of loaves of bread, and a 1935 Magic Chef stove. I have no idea how the curator gathered such diverse pieces from so many collections in one place. After, enjoy the outdoor sculptures with a snack and aperitif in the spectacular garden café.

Nonprofits Can Be as Important as Nations. This is the first Expo with a Civil Society Pavilion, a separate structure dedicated to non-government organizations that work to improve some aspect of the food system. FairTrade International and WWF are present with 15 others, and Save the Children runs its own Pavilion where visitors follow the story of a child whom the organization has helped—a totally different view of food than the fair going on outside. “I thought I would just drop money in a bucket,” said my 7-year-old after he had pumped water from a well resembling one in his child’s village, “but I actually learned stuff.”

Find Karma, Universe, God. Whatever you call the thing that is larger than an individual person, that can be found at the Vatican/Holy See Pavilion. Wondering why a non-believer (or even just a non-Catholic) should go? Because it’s one of the places at Expo where there is a sense of stillness as a member of “humanity constantly in motion and searching for meaning.” A small sign on the wall asks us to consider “an encounter with those close to us and most in need”—particularly poignant in an event focused on global change. Plus you get a nifty Pope Francis magnet on the way out.

Accept and Be Open-Minded About Food From Other Nations. This seems so completely obvious—it’s the whole point of Expo. Yet the comments on a recent piece about the James Beard American Restaurant in Milan, which showcases the finest American chefs and is open for only six months, were vehement. America, keep your hamburgers and obesity to yourselves, that kind of thing, when the restaurant is serving up the finest dishes of new American cuisine. And it’s not just the United States—all countries have had philosophical discussions about what their national food characters are, and then worked through legal hoops to serve national foods while abiding by (totally understandable) Italian food regulations about importing ingredients. Let’s just say it’s not easy to bring American corned beef into Italy. It would be bacchetone not to appreciate the diversity—if only for six months. Food diversity is as much of a gift as human diversity.