Some museums offer a chance to connect with the highest achievements of art and ingenuity, to gaze over priceless wonders or better understand pivotal moments of human history.
At the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, some of what resonates most richly may be artifacts you once had in your pantry, old brand names whose jingles are still stuck in your head or a display on the very same cocktail clinking away in your hand as you learn its history.
As visitors wind through its exhibits, they’re less likely to swoon over a rarified treasure as delight in the recognition of something tied up with their own traditions and connections to the region’s food culture.
It’s a tale told with hands-on cooking demonstrations in a gleaming teaching kitchen, in lectures with a direct bearing on what you may have for dinner that night and with artifacts that can range from a Senegalese mortar and pestle — used to pound sassafras into filé — to vintage cartons of Gold Seal Creamery Creole cream cheese, once a staple of breakfast in New Orleans.
“I think it speaks to that ephemeral nature of food,” said Liz Williams, executive director of the SoFAB Institute, the nonprofit that runs the museum. “You can’t just have the food sitting there in a museum. You have to find the right way to represent that and it’s not always apparent right away.”
The Southern Food & Beverage Museum has been finding ways to curate this experience for more than a decade. This weekend it celebrates the grand opening of its new home in Central City with its Eat! Drink! SoFAB! gala on Friday, followed by free admission and special events on Saturday and Sunday (see sidebar for details).
“It’s our payback to the community for supporting us through the years, and our invitation for the neighborhood and for everyone to come see what we’ve become,” said Williams.
Fine cocktails to fried chicken
Originally formed as an itinerant food exhibit in 2004, and later housed inside the Riverwalk Marketplace, the Southern Food & Beverage Museum opened its much larger new home on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard last year. Fittingly, it was developed in a historic former food market, which Williams describes as “our largest exhibit.”
There was a ribbon cutting and ceremony marking the milestone in September, though the museum was not then complete. In the months since, it has been adding and opening more components, including its Museum of the American Cocktail, and its restaurant and bar, Purloo, which serves as a stand-alone dining destination and also works in tandem with the museum on programming. Visitors can peruse the museum with drinks in hand.
Across the museum, there are now exhibits on each of the 15 Southern states and the District of Columbia and a series of other galleries, including one on absinthe and another on the history of Antoine’s Restaurant marking its 175th anniversary. New exhibits opening this weekend include “Making Groceries,” an exploration of food shopping through New Orleans history, and “The Creative Kitchen of Al Copeland,” on the legacy of the larger-than-life founder of the Popeyes fried chicken chain, along with a collection of work from local food photographer Sam Hanna.
At home on the boulevard
The museum may have been seen as pioneering when plans to move to Central City were first announced in 2011. Though long on history, the neighborhood’s commercial corridor along O.C. Haley Boulevard was then slim on new investment. But that has changed rapidly.
Just across the street, the New Orleans Jazz Market opened earlier this month, turning a long-shuttered department store into a contemporary music venue with multiple performance spaces across its sleek interior. A block away, the former Myrtle Banks Elementary School, once a fire-ravaged hulk, has been redeveloped with offices upstairs and a large food market called Jack & Jake’s Public Market slated to open in the next month with a combination of fresh groceries, prepared foods, a restaurant and bar.
And more is on the way. Restaurateur Adolfo Garcia and chef Jared Ralls, partners in the steakhouse La Boca, expect to open their new restaurant Primitivo sometime next month at 1800 O.C. Haley Blvd. One block farther up the boulevard, the nonprofit Good Work Network is now developing a project called Roux Carre: the Food Port of New Orleans as an open-air food court with a half-dozen vendors.
“It doesn’t feel like a place that’s about to happen, it feels like it’s happening,” Williams said of Central City.
For the museum itself, the visitor count has been surging. At the former Riverwalk Marketplace location, the museum saw about 35,000 visitors a year. Williams said that after six months in their new home, the museum is on pace to more than double that attendance figure this year.
“That’s partly because we’re here, we’re easier to get to and I have to say it’s because we’re bigger and better now,” she said.
The museum’s collection is constantly growing as individuals and local food businesses bring more objects, artifacts and touchstones from the world of Southern food and drink to its door. Williams attributes this in part to the highly accessible nature of its subject matter.
“There aren’t many food museums to begin with, so there is a learning curve to even know what it is, but once people see it they realize they have a connection to what we’re doing here,” she said. “People have kept these things that are significant to them, and they’re so happy to share it. They can be invaluable in illustrating very important things we feel about food.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.