The History of How We Eat, part two

This is the conclusion of a two-part series. Part one can be found on this blog under August’s posts.

One of the interesting things you notice about the Southern Food and Beverage Museum’s live-in neighbor, the Museum of the American Cocktail, is that it has a very up to the minute collection. Of course there are the required and frankly stunning historical recreations, such as a gilded era saloon complete with sawdust on the floor — always a surefire way to make the arm garter crowd swoon — and La Galerie de l’Absinthe. This, the only one of its kind in America, is a loving and impeccably complete collection of all the various accoutrement deployed in service of the green fairy, and perhaps more than anything else it brings home the close ties that held Paris and the Crescent City together for so long.

Of course, ourselves being ourselves and this blog being this blog, these attractions had been given special purpose during the long, hot and indescribably humid walk over to the museum’s headquarters. They, and other exhibits like them, were The Reason We’re Here. And yet there’s something oddly moving about a contemporary bottle of whiskey like the one you just passed in the liquor store sitting on a museum shelf next to other glass vessels a full half century older. You grasp the notion, looking at them, that history doesn’t stop, and that our everyday and banal will one day be a part of it.

“I think that people who are interested in cocktails can come here and learn something about the history of the cocktail,” Liz says. “Learn about distillation and learn about things that they love. If they love bourbon they can come and learn about how bourbon is made… And from the standpoint of posterity as we collect the things, even contemporaneously with what’s happening today, those things will eventually be historical documents in the future. And it’s better to collect them when they’re available than wait fifty years and say ‘oh, I should’ve kept this.’”

As we later discussed, sitting with Liz in the museum, people get older. They forget. And things get lost. But thanks, at least in part, to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum that’s not what happened to the culinary culture of New Orleans.

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A collection of absinthe spoons

Looking back on the time when the museum first opened its doors in 2008 on the banks of the Mississippi River there are a number of reasons Liz gives for why the locals first started to come in. The first was probably a garden variety mix of curiosity and boredom. They wanted something to do too, after all. The second was one of the most tried and true crowd-draws from time immemorial. “We often — as a matter of fact almost always — had alcohol at our events,” she pointed out. “And people are willing to come to see something that has alcohol.”

But finally there was this sense that something deeply and truly important was on the brink of being forgotten, and the museum was doing whatever it could to make sure that didn’t happen.

“Because of the hurricane people were interested in making sure that the food wasn’t lost.” she said. “There’s a tremendous amount of identity with the food of the city, and so many people had to leave the city and go someplace else during hurricane Katrina. And they were afraid that when they came back that all of that would be lost and we would be sort of this homogeneous American city instead of still New Orleans.”

Now almost ten years later the Southern Food and Beverage Museum has moved inland, to a building that’s just a little over a century old. Liz, now a two-time author, is getting contacted by people across the country looking for pointers on getting their own collections off the ground. And she’s envisioning a future with a network of museums just like hers.

“People who love art, they go from art museum to art museum. And if you love food you would go from one food museum to another,” she said. “Because not only do you wanna eat well, you wanna understand the history of the food you’re eating, learn something about the people who raised it or the people who established it… Museums give you that opportunity.”

If Liz and her newly rechristened National Food and Beverage Foundation see their mission through, there will be plenty more museums and collections and exhibits all across the country dedicated to the way people ate — the way they really ate — and the way we continue to eat today.

The History of How We Eat, part one

There’s a fact about museums that I think we’ve all internalized without ever really noticing it. But if you go to a human origins exhibit and follow our evolution from the dawn of the species down through the hunter gatherer days to the advent of civilization you’ll start to pick up on something rather curious about early hominids: only cavemen ate.

“If you were to go to a natural history museum you would see dioramas of people looking for their next meal, because getting enough food was very important.” This is according to Liz Williams, president of the National Food and Beverage Foundation. “Then, after there was the invention of agriculture and writing you almost never see that. Scientists and historians began to look into government and religion and art and all kinds of aesthetics and they stopped worrying about food. You would actually think that people stopped eating.”

This stunningly obvious and institutionally invisible fact got pointed out to us last month at Tales of the Cocktail, when we popped in on Liz at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, a place where people have most decidedly not stopped eating. In fact, one of the first things you notice about the place is that it’s dedicated to the way people eat — that is, the way they really eat. In addition to intelligent and thoughtful exhibits touting the history of Popeye’s Chicken and Old Bay Seasoning the museum features a loving recreation of a Mississippi BBQ joint called “The Shed.” The floor of SoFAB’s Shed comes with a healthy layer of char, a reflection, Liz says, of the fact that no barbecue joint worth its salt has escaped burning down at least once.

All of this combines to create an air of whimsy, but also intelligence and genuine curiosity. Old beer bottles and fast food packaging get a level of respect usually reserved for fine china or crystal stemware. And it’s real respect too. The whole place vehemently eschews kitsch and doesn’t seem to have an ironic girder in its body. There’s a reverence for these artifacts, the trappings of things us regular people willingly put into our bodies every day.

“There is a sense that what we’re collecting is the trash.” Liz said. “Because it is. It’s packaging, it’s old pots and pans, it’s all the things that people might throw away. But people didn’t all drink out of beautiful glassware that was embossed with gold and beautiful lead crystal and all of that, people drank out of tin cups… And those are the things that nobody collected because they weren’t pretty. And we are collecting those things.”

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Trying to capture the entire museum requires a very wide panoramic shot

In the early stages of chronicling the history of Southern cuisine, Liz and the museum inadvertently became a part of that history themselves. When SoFAB opened in 2008 it was the first new attraction to come to the restored riverwalk district of post-Katrina New Orleans.

“It was really exciting but it was also scary,” Liz said, “It was at a time where there was no tourism to speak of. Even in 2008 which was about two and a half years after the hurricane things were still being rebuilt, we were still limping along as a city because the city is so very tied to tourism… it was scary because we just weren’t sure how long it would take for us to be established.”

For Liz and for the museum this opening was a learning experience. When she was a student Liz remembers being interested in food, not so much from the perspective of making it but in studying where it came from and how it got into our refrigerators and onto our plates.

“I was interested in why people circumnavigated the globe looking for peppercorns and nutmeg, how can this food drive all of this other stuff,” she said. “So that intersection with food and culture, that was what I was interested in.”

Unfortunately at the time the only non-culinary-school recourse to study that intersection was home economics. So after graduating from law school Liz became part of the early efforts behind New Orleans’ WWII museum and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art before deciding that it was time to turn her attention to food. “There aren’t food museums in every city the way there are art museums,” she said, recalling the project’s formative years. “It would be something that we’d have to make up as we went along.”

Liz and the other forces behind the museum started exploring ways to capture the intellectual side of the things we eat every day. She studied graphic novels to get a sense of how to tell a story without words. They wanted to capture, as she put it, the “tremendous intimacy about food.” But when they opened on a newly restored waterfront in a city that was just starting to fight its way back from the brink, they still had very little idea how people were going to react.

This is part one of a two-part series on the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. The finale will run in this space on Monday.