Museums don’t tend to be big fans of food and drink.
Typically there’s a guard at the entrance keeping an eye out for plastic cups and paper plates with a finger outstretched toward a nearby trash can.
But now there’s a museum in New Orleans that will support those who wish to nibble while perusing exhibits: the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, which will cut the ribbon at 1 p.m. Monday for its new space at Oretha Castle Haley and Martin Luther King Jr. boulevards.
“I don’t know of a museum in the world that is doing this,” said Elizabeth Williams, president and director of the museum, as she waved her arm at the now empty building.
“We will let you eat in the museum. If you’re looking at an exhibit and it’s telling you about the Sazerac, for example, and you’re from Minnesota and you’ve never had a Sazerac before, you can go up to the bar, get a Sazerac and walk around the exhibits drinking it.”
The space swells upon entrance.
It was once Dryades Market, first opened in 1849, which offered seafood, vegetables, fruit, meats, poultry, pickles and pralines. Shortly after World War II it was shut down and became various stores and a warehouse.
Though much time has passed since 1946, the building continues to embody that old fashioned market.
An entire wall is covered with charred wood, providing an ambiance of old whiskey barrels. Scrim partitions divide exhibits, and in the corner by the restaurant’s kitchen sits a beautiful well-worn bar from 1859.
After Hurricane Katrina and lying underwater for weeks, the ravaged bar was salvaged in 175 different pieces from the historic Bruning’s Restaurant in West End.
“We took it to the shop in boxes,” said Liam O’Brien, furniture restorer and owner of Liam O’Brien Designs on Toulouse Street. “And then from old photographs we just started placing it in places where we thought stuff might go. It’s just like a jigsaw puzzle.”
The museum settled on the Oretha Castle Haley location after its lease ended in the Riverwalk.
“We started to look for a place that we could afford and that could be gotten to pretty easily by a tourist if you did not have a car so you don’t have to take a taxi,” Williams said.
But there were also two other desires, which the Riverwalk location was never able to fulfill: a restaurant and a test kitchen.
Rouse’s and Jenn-Air Whirlpool have helped to create a culinary education center at the new location, which will host chefs like Jeremiah Tower, who will be the main speaker at the ribbon cutting. He will then host classes in the test kitchen.
The restaurant is in full swing as well. Ryan Hughes, known for his popups around New Orleans and working in the area as a chef for the past 17 years, will have a permanent space for Purloo, which will offer a museum-curated menu.
“I think Southern regional cuisine is the hot cuisine right now,” Hughes said. “I’m hoping to figure out a way to tie it in all together and have it New Orleans-centralized. I’m really trying to tap into why these dishes have lasted for so long.”
Yet the main attraction remains the “Gallery of the South: States of Taste,” an exhibit that focuses on the food culture of each Southern state and how those cultures interact.
Though the museum continues to host The Museum of the American Cocktail and La Galerie d’Absinthe, some of those stories will be told through the Gallery of the South exhibit, which leads visitors down various “trails.”
“If you come to the museum and ask, do you have a barbecue exhibit, we’ll say no, but we have a lot of barbecue represented and here is the trail,” Williams said.
“We’re going to have a spirits trail, and so there’ll be moonshine and liquor so that you might be able to drink your way around the South.”
Though there’s still a few days to wait until the museum’s opening, there’s comfort to be found in the fact that this museum will break from expectations. Especially with that Sazerac in hand.
“It’s very interactive. We are sure that this is incredibly different,” Williams said. “Won’t it be lovely?”