Dishing Up Culinary Culture
By Cheré Coen | Photography courtesy of Southern Food & Beverage Museum
Everything you ever wanted to know about Southern cuisine is displayed in a New Orleans museum dedicated to our unique food cultures.
Growing up in a New Orleans culinary family, Elizabeth Williams wanted to follow her heart and study food history and culture but choices were limited in 1967, basically studying agriculture or becoming a dietician.
She headed to law school and, after a varied career, became involved in the establishment of museums. An idea emerged to combine her knowledge of museums with her love of Southern food.
In 2004, Williams began the Southern Food & Beverage Museum along with a small founding board.
“We were like a Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney movie,” Williams remembers. “We said, ‘Let’s do this!’”
Williams formed a non-profit corporation, but Hurricane Katrina roared into New Orleans soon after. Not only did she lose her museum location in 2005, but tourism dropped, the city struggled to recover, and Williams and staff had their own residences to restore.
“It was much more than just starting over,” she says.
But they did, moving the small museum into a space once utilized by a retail store in the Riverwalk tourism mall in downtown New Orleans, an entity struggling to rebound in 2008. The space lacked a kitchen, bathroom and running water so when Williams offered food demonstrations at the museum she was forced to gather water from the mall bathroom, one glass at a time.
“We would go down to the bathroom with pitchers and a glass and slowly fill up our pitchers,” she says. “Then after the class we would take the dirty pots home to clean.
“We learned from that experience that had to have our own demonstration kitchen,” she adds.
Today, the Southern Food & Beverage Museum is located in a large building on Oretha C. Haley Boulevard in the heart of New Orleans. Not only does the museum have a demo kitchen with running water and appliances by Jenn-Air but also a large exhibit area, the Museum of the American Cocktails New Orleans Collection and La Galerie de L ’Absinthe, dedicated to the once banned alcoholic drink. Visitors can enjoy the historic displays, learn how to make gumbo, and bring the kids for specialty programming.
The museum also incorporates Toups South restaurant, helmed by BRAVO’s “Top Chef” fan-favorite Isaac Toups. Visitors exploring the displays or watching food demonstrations may get hungry, Williams says, so a restaurant close by was a natural.
Recently, the museum opened its Gumbo Garden Gallery, an outdoor space that features landscaping indigenous to South Louisiana.
“It contains anything that can live outside,” Williams explains, adding that agricultural plants such as sugarcane and okra will be grown.
Gumbo Garden’s outdoor cooking equipment will also allow the museum to host outdoor classes, such as how to fry turkeys.
Even though the Southern Food & Beverage Museum is based in New Orleans, its exhibits highlight the culinary history and culture of the entire South. Many of the artifacts were given to the museum by people across the United States.
“Early on we had few artifacts,” she explains. “People started to bring us things. Sometimes, people would place things on my front porch with notes. Out of towners shipped us items. It was amazing and it still happens.”
It all goes back to what the museum represents, which is the unique culture and traditions that revolve around Southern foodways.
“People really feel invested in what we are doing and that there are not enough places reflecting this part of the culture,” she says. “It means so much to me that we’re touching people in that way.”