A New Museum To Celebrate Southern Food (And You Can Eat The Exhibits)
The Southern Food and Beverage Museum. Of course. It sounds so inevitable, you might assume it's existed since time immemorial: a museum to celebrate the food and drink of the American South, to enshrine barbecue and grits, showcase the heritage of Louisiana shrimpers and Kentucky bourbon.
Last week's soft opening of SoFAB in New Orleans marked an as-far-as-we-know-it first: a permanent museum for exhibits dedicated to eating and drinking below the Mason-Dixon Line. (SoFAB also encompasses the Museum of the American Cocktail, or MOTAC.)
New Orleanians came out in force on Sept. 29, with hundreds there for the ribbon-cutting — a green ribbon, stamped with SoFAB's signature okra logo — including special guest Jeremiah Tower, who co-founded Chez Panisse with Alice Waters.
"There are art museums all over the place," says SoFAB founder and director Liz Williams, "and you know what an art museum is — art on the walls, basically. But when you set out to make a food museum, you don't know what goes in it, exactly."
Williams has been figuring that out for about 10 years, when she first conceived the idea of a New Orleans food museum. So she created the SoFAB nonprofit, then launched a stand-alone exhibit called "Toast of New Orleans," a homage to imbibing.
As she has searched for a permanent home for SoFAB over the years, donations have poured in. Menus, advertisements, kitchen tools and appliances, agricultural implements, aprons, flatware, dish sets, spices, soda bottles, chef toques, aprons, pots and pans, cookbooks, recipe cards. The list goes on.
"In a museum [of] design or decorative arts, they'd want everything that's pretty. But we want everything," Williams says. "We want the garbage: the can, the label, and how do you open the can? We want the pamphlet with the instructions for that."
SoFAB's collection has been largely crowdsourced in this way, culled from the ephemera left behind in family kitchens and basements, foodstuffs warehouses and restaurant storage rooms. The museum's cavernous new 16,000-square-foot space, part of a burgeoning cultural and arts district in New Orleans' Central City, is itself a food artifact: a former public market. Its floors still clearly show where dividers separated vendors' stalls.
"It's not just a building," says Williams, "it's related to our mission."
That mission has grown with the new space. SoFAB's former home, starting in 2008, was a touristy shopping mall along New Orleans' riverfront. And that's where the need to include the actual consumption of food and drink along with the exhibits became clear.
A display on absinthe, for example, a significant piece of New Orleans' drinking history, was exhaustive in its documentation, with posters, artifacts from artists, writers and poets inspired by their drinking of it, delicate glassware and beautiful absinthe fountains. But, Williams says, museum staff kept getting the same question. "What does it taste like?"
And so, in the new SoFAB, guests are not just allowed but encouraged to "get a Sazerac and walk around," Williams says. A skilled bartender will line your glass with absinthe or Herbsaint as the first step, and no navy-blazered gallery guard will ask you to leave your cocktail at the door.
The space includes a demonstration kitchen, too, where guests can watch food being prepared, anything from gumbo to brisket, then stroll the exhibits as they taste. Williams is incredibly open to possibilities here. Last week, the U.S. Department of State was hosting a trio of Bulgarian chefs as part of a culinary diplomacy program. They made a chicken stew, a chopped salad, and "the most wonderful strudel," Williams says. And the visiting chefs ventured into New Orleans' grocery stores and markets, to learn about and communicate with the local food community.
In November, SoFAB's restaurant Purloo opens as well. Chef Ryan Hughes, an Ohio native who has taken up the torch of Southern cooking, says the namesake is a South Carolina Gullah dish of rice and shrimp. Hughes came into the program originally to consult, and then took on the role of house chef. A recent pop-up preview of Purloo included crispy oysters with mango pickle aioli, pan-roasted flounder with lemongrass couscous, and fried Georgia peach pie. Purloo will be integrated into the museum, with an open kitchen and 35 seats that look onto it.
"We have the ultimate reality show within the kitchen," he says. "You see how things should be organized and should be done. No yelling and screaming or crashing pots and pans. It's educational."
That education is not just for visitors, he says, but young cooks, too. SoFAB plans an active mentorship program and partnerships with all the city's culinary education programs, from high school students to food studies majors at universities.
In New Orleans, a city with one of the highest crime rates in the country — and unemployment figures that reach 40 percent for African-American men — SoFAB has an economic development mission as well. Several items on Hughes' pop-up menu came from Grow Dat Youth Farm, an urban agriculture project with a job-training focus for teenagers.
When not in use, the museum's demonstration kitchen will be open to food entrepreneurs to develop their products. The new museum also sits near Cafe Reconcile, a popular lunch spot that trains New Orleans' youth for restaurant and other culinary jobs.
As part of SoFAB's ribbon-cutting day, Chez Panisse co-founder Tower talked to local culinary students. Williams says he drove home the need to experience food, not just to follow the recipe. Knife skills, safe food handling and recipes can get you only so far. What makes for a great life in the culinary world, he told students, is a true love of eating and drinking, enriched with an appreciation of where food comes from, and the culture that surrounds it.
Eve Troeh is the news director for member station WWNO in New Orleans.
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