Made from Scratch

New Orleans, LA –

Food can be nourishing and satisfying just about anywhere, but the special appeal of our own regional food comes from the way it reflects who we are and where we have been. Celebrating this and sharing its story with others is the tall order before the people at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans.

The concept behind this place seems so compelling it's hard to believe it hadn't emerged earlier. The idea of a museum devoted to the culture and history of Southern eating and drinking in one of the world's great cities for eating and drinking just seems like a natural.

Appropriately enough, plans for the museum took shape around a kitchen table, and that's where the grassroots organization was run for years. Rather than come out with a fundraising campaign to build a new museum, the founders decided to begin their efforts with what amounted to a long-running proof of concept.

After all, the public already knows what an art museum is about, but the notion of a food museum is something new. So before there was a museum, there was a series of itinerant exhibits, held at borrowed venues around New Orleans and other Southern cities.

Finally, in the summer of 2008, the museum opened at a location it could call its own, inside the Riverwalk Marketplace, the shopping mall along the Mississippi in downtown New Orleans. Finding a home base still left the challenge of presenting something as consumable and perishable as food in an entertaining and educational way.

But museum director Liz Williams compares the approach to museum exhibits about music. Rather than displaying models of gumbo or grits, the museums uses a mix of permanent and seasonal exhibits to evoke what food means to us, what it says to us that stays with us and endures.

Economics, biology, history, sociology - all of it is visible through the lens of food and the culture that surrounds it. The Southern Food & Beverage Museum helps bring it into focus.

For instance, the museum's primary permanent exhibit is a showcase of artifacts and storyboards relating tales of New Orleans and Louisiana food history and lore. There are displays about the days when cattle ruled rural Louisiana, photos from the French Market when a half-dozen crabs sold for a quarter and an excerpt from the diary of Meriwether Lewis - of Lewis and Clark fame - recounting how a Canadian trapper prepared buffalo boudin in the field in 1805. Exhibits explain the role that staple Southern crops played in the region's history, while others showcase the hand that diverse cultures had in creating today's iconic regional dishes.

The museum regularly hosts authors, chefs and media personalities. There is a food-related book club that meets monthly and children's cooking classes in the summer. There is a growing library of reference material on Southern food and drink and an ongoing project to collect menus from Southern restaurants across the generations.

There are periodic cooking demonstrations at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, but for the most part visitors aren't chowing down as they wander the halls. Rather, with a new perspective on the history, people and places that go into our food, visitors may just have more to chew over when they sit down to their next Southern meal.

Southern Food and Beverage Museum
Riverwalk Marketplace, 1 Poydras St., New Orleans, 504-569-0405