The Southern Food & Beverage Museum (1609 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., 504-267-7490; www.natfab.org) marked its 10th anniversary this summer and is planning a party to highlight the new Gumbo Garden and outdoor area behind the building. Director Liz Williams spoke with Gambit about the museum and Southern food.
Gambit icon: What are some of the most memorable moments in the museum’s history?
Williams: We’re very excited about being 10 and having made it this far. We were such a new idea, we were sort of inventing ourselves as we went along. In the beginning, having this very close partnership with the Museum of the American Cocktail was really important and something that was very much not part of our original plan. Being able to be together was a great thing.
Another thing that was really important for us was that when we opened, we received a lot of publicity. People from all over the country started to write to us. (They said) they had artifacts from their part of the country that reflected the food culture wherever they might be and that they had tried to give away certain artifacts to museums, (but) no one wanted their artifacts and would we take them? They felt these things should be saved, but there was nobody who was interested. They were excited to know we were interested. That made us understand this was something that had a national interest and wasn’t just Southern or Louisiana or New Orleans. That eventually motivated us to become the National Food & Beverage Foundation. We have people inquiring about opening food and drink museums all over the country.
G: How has Southern food culture evolved in the past decade?
W: I think one of the American trends is that people eat out more. Even though in the South people cook more and eat at home more than people do in certain other parts of the country, I believe that Southern food is reflected in restaurants today — when maybe 25 years ago it wasn’t. I think that’s interesting. You can go into a white-tablecloth restaurant and get Southern food. It’s considered worthy of that.
My definition of what is Southern food is if you eat it in the South, it’s Southern food. That means that all of the immigrants that have come to the South over the years have changed Southern food, and people have come to recognize certain immigrants’ food as food from their area, whether they even realize what its immigrant roots are.
Q: What do you think is the quintessential Southern food or drink?
W: Iced tea has to be the quintessential drink. John T. Edge (director of the Southern Foodways Alliance) calls it the house wine of the South. I would be hard pressed to pick something that is more Southern than fried chicken. That’s just it. Iced tea, fried chicken, maybe some pickled okra and potato salad and watermelon and corn bread. Wouldn’t you be happy eating that? — HELEN FREUND