2015 Expo Milan: At world’s fair, the U.S. pavilion is poised to address the big issues

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect size for the pavilion. This version has been corrected.


The USA Pavilion at the 2015 Expo Milan will feature a 40,000-square-foot space and cost about $60 million in donated money. (Biber Architects/Via Baltz & Company)

World’s fairs have long served as international display cases for innovation — show-stopping events that introduce us to architectural feats like the Eiffel Tower and culinary traditions like ice cream cones.

The next international exposition, 2015 Expo Milan, will take on one of the globe’s most vexing questions: How do we feed a future of 9 billion people without destroying the planet itself? The expo, which runs from May through October, will bring together more than 140 countries to share possible solutions.

At the helm of the USA Pavilion at the Expo is Dorothy Cann Hamilton, founder and chief executive of the International Culinary Center in New York. After persuading the U.S. government to have a presence in the expo, Hamilton agreed to organize the effort with the help of the James Beard Foundation and the blessing — if not the funding — of the State Department. And she is thinking big.

The exterior of the 40,000-square-foot space, which Hamilton is raising $60 million in private donations to build, will feature a vertical farm harvested by acrobats and robotics, while two floors of exhibits and panel discussions inside will spark conversation on such topics as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and America’s obesity epidemic. The expo’s 30 million expected visitors also can get a taste of American cuisine at the pavilion, which will feature food trucks (think lobster rolls and po’ boys), a mini James Beard House and, yes, cocktail and burger bars.

I spoke with Hamilton when she was in Washington recently for the pavilion’s fund-raising kickoff. Edited excerpts follow:


Dorothy Cann Hamilton lobbied the United States to participate in Expo Milan, then was placed in charge of the U.S. presence there. (Helayne Seidman/For The Washington Post)

The USA Pavilion will feature a vertical farm harvested by acrobats and robotics, among other features. (Biber Architects/Via Baltz & Company)

What do you want to feature about America’s food system and solutions on this global stage?

We want to show the full face of American food and responsibility. I think, outside America, people see us as a monolithic food country with industrial farming. Internally, if you go to our cities and some of our best restaurants, you’d think we’re all artisanal, eating two-inch carrots. Basically, what we want to do is have the American pavilion be a thoughtful platform for discovery, discussion and entertainment. We want the world to come there and discover what real American farming and food is.

How will you handle the food politics of topics like GMOs, on which American and European opinions differ?

I think GMOs are going to be a focal point. How silly would it be — what would people think — if we didn’t talk about GMOs in the American food pavilion? They’d say we’re avoiding it, that we’re not being realistic about what’s going on in America, so we have to confront it. I think there is a real need for education, exploration and discussion about the place of GMOs and the challenge of feeding the world.

We are going to provide a great platform to discuss the pros and cons not only of GMOs, but also of every other, let’s say, challenge out there and what the alternatives are. But we want to make sure that we have equally matched representation on either side. I want to hear equally educated people on the topic talk, because I don’t think I’ve ever been able to get that. And I think it’s going to be fascinating.

How do you define and feature American cuisine in the midst of so many other countries that have influenced it?

The great thing about American cuisine is that it’s a melting pot, so our cuisine is always evolving. If we had to answer ‘What was the most iconic food truck food of the last three years?’ it’s a kimchi taco, you know? And I think that’s what shocks the world, is that we are so diverse. In the 1950s and ’60s, pizza was kind of new. In the ’70s, so was Mexican food in the Northeast. With each new immigration, our palette of American cuisine gets a little more diverse and nuanced.

Should we all book tickets to Milan for 2015?

It really is worth people considering taking their vacation there next year. Americans probably think, “Oh, my God, they still have world’s fairs?” They still have them, they’re still sensational and they’re really important. Because everyone likes food, any foodie who doesn’t at least consider this one should have his or her head examined.

An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect size for the pavilion.

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