Food is perishable, but food culture proves much more durable. This culture comes from traditions that tie us to our families, our homes and our neighbors, and the past few years in the Gulf Coast have shown just how well they stand up even to extreme stress and calamity. It isn't simply that red beans taste good and are easy to make, that grits are cheap and filling or that pork sausage smoked for half a day is delicious. Food can be nourishing and satisfying just about anywhere, but the special appeal of our regional ingredients and cuisine comes from the way they reflect who we are and where we have been. Celebrating this legacy and sharing its story with others is the tall order before the people at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.
'We approached it like music," says Liz Williams, the museum's director. 'That's not something you can touch and feel, and it's gone when the music stops. So we're trying to evoke what food means to you, what it says that stays with you."
The doors to the museum opened earlier this month in the Riverwalk Marketplace, taking over a spot at the Uptown end of the shopping mall that had previously been home to The Limited clothing store. It may seem like an unlikely spot for a museum, until you see the crowds of visitors wandering past and notice the arresting view of the Mississippi River just outside the broad windows. What seems more remarkable, though, is that something like this did not crop up long ago in a city where food plays such a prominent role in the civic identity.
The idea for the museum took shape around a kitchen table, and that's where the organization was run for years. Rather than come out with a capital campaign to fund a museum building, Williams and her colleagues decided to begin their efforts with what amounted to a long-running proof of concept.
'The public already knows what an art museum is about, but not really what a food museum should be, so we decided we better have some exhibits," she says.
So, before there was a museum, there was an inaugural exhibit unveiled in 2004 to showcase local beverages. It was initially held at the now-shuttered New Orleans Centre, and within a few months, it was moved to the Louisiana State Museum's Old U.S. Mint. Since then, the Food and Beverage Museum has held exhibits at venues around the South.
'In a way we've had an extended soft opening, one that's been over several years and many different places," says Williams.
The hunt for a permanent home has been a long one. The museum's first plan was to open in a space at Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World in Algiers, though Katrina scuttled that idea. Then, in 2007, the museum announced it would open on the third floor of the Contemporary Arts Center. That, too, fell by the wayside; Williams explains that 'a timing issue" arose between the two organizations.
Finding its Riverwalk location was a major milestone for the museum, and with a home base Williams believes exhibit development, grant funding and member and volunteer recruiting can now greatly accelerate. So it's important to keep in mind when visiting that the museum today is more an indication of what's to come than a demonstration of the group's full vision for the place.
In this first salvo, the most substantial exhibit is found right up front: a showcase of artifacts and storyboards relating tales of New Orleans and Louisiana food history and lore. Another of the opening exhibits, housed in the elegant and soaring main room, is about the kitchens of the White House and chefs who have cooked in them. A third exhibit, 'Wish You Were Here," contains a few dozen images from antique postcards depicting Southerners and food in the 19th century, from street vendors in the French Quarter to men roasting oysters in Cape Henry, Va.
More is in the works, including a children's room and a bank of listening stations where visitors can hear food-related oral histories recorded by the Southern Foodways Alliance, a Mississippi-based academic group that studies food culture. There will be a tasting room offering visitors samples of foods depicted in the exhibits, and the museum plans to install a kitchen to conduct cooking demonstrations. Williams says the museum will host food-related lectures and events as well as exhibits curated by other organizations.
The Southern Food and Beverage Museum shares its new home with the soon-to-open Museum of the American Cocktail, a separate nonprofit now building out its own space within the Riverwalk location for its exhibit on the history and culture of liquor drinks in America. (The Museum of the American Cocktail is scheduled to open July 21.)
'Once we found out about the food museum and this space, we hooked our wagons to Liz Williams' rising star," says Ted Haigh, the cocktail museum's curator. 'It's a symbiotic relationship, because we aren't the same thing but we get along great."