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.”
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.