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posterity as we collect the things, even contemporaneously with what’s happening today, those things will eventually be historical documents in the future.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.

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