Memories of New Orleans, pt 2 — Southern Food and Beverage Museum

Let’s just pause for a moment, and savor the knowledge that such a museum exists. The Southern Food and Beverage Museum…mmm…

Ok, but seriously, New Orleans is a food lover’s town, so it’s only fitting that it houses a museum of this sort. Somewhat unfortunately, the museum itself sits inside a mall on the waterfront, up on the food-court level, leaving one to wonder if the exhibits will all be about Panda Express. Never fear, dear reader, it’s quite a lovely and educational experience. If you want to learn about Southern culture and only have time for one museum, this is it.

Southern Food and Beverage Museum bread display

"they call me po'boy, po'boy, po'boy, but I ain't lonesome,and I ain't blue..."

One of my favorite things about this museum is that it’s about history as viewed through the lens of food. (If this idea sounds appealing to you, I highly recommend reading And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails.) For example, a panel on okra won’t just talk about the plant itself, it will tell you how okra made its way to New Orleans, who used it and in what sort of dishes, and you can bet there will be quotes from journals or newspapers. The Po’boy section doesn’t focus on the contents of the sandwich so much as the 1929 strike of the Amalgamated Association of Electric Street Railway Employees, Division 194, that brought it into being. There’s even an area on hurricane Katrina showcasing dishes, made of inedible detritus, with satirical names like “helluva job brownies”. Cajun cookin’ is a big part of New Orleans cuisine, and accordingly there are a lot of panels and displays about the Acadians and their preferred dishes (the word “cajun” is a derivation of “Acadian”, which refers to the French speaking* population that was kicked out of Nova Scotia by the British and wound up in Louisiana). Unfortunately, depending on the order in which you read the information panels, you may be wondering what on earth Acadians have to do with Southern cooking, or else where the term “cajun” came from. And that seems to be the major difficulty with a museum based around food: how do you organize it?

Southern Food and Beverage Museum sugar display

Enough sugar to make your teeth hurt

Though the Museum of the American Cocktail (more on that later) does manage to use the chronological approach to great effect, it wouldn’t make much sense for a museum about food — which came first, the chicken or the egg? Should there then be “courses” of related topics that you pursue in a set order? Or should  more of a buffet, where you can sample here and there whatever looks most appetizing? The Museum of Southern Food and Beverage opts for the latter, which in the long run is a wise move because not every visitor has hours to devote to reading each label and panel, looking over old brand labels, and comparing different types of processed sugar. The only downside is that some information (such as the role of the Acadians) either needs to be split up and spread around, or else duplicated throughout the exhibition; either way, you risk leaving some people confused with partial information or bored with repetition.

Southern Food and Beverage Museum sugar room

A small step towards an A/V component

Furthermore, the history behind the foods and packaging is the really juicy part, and you can’t understand that history purely by looking at the object in front of you. Yes, there are photos and displays, but how do you explain a strike with a closeup of a po’boy sandwich, or slave and migrant labor with tools for sugar cane production? You need words. This museum has lots of them. If you like reading, it’s no problem — the wall panels here are large, with easily legible fonts and sizing, and entertaining text. And yet, there are just so many panels. An audio tour or video kiosks or even a little theater with movies on some of the more complex topics would relieve the burden from the panels and add variety to the exhibition so that the visitor doesn’t get tired too quickly. I can stand for an hour or more, but not everyone can. Also, food is an interactive thing. There’s the growing of produce and raising of livestock, the preparation itself, the passing down of traditions…. For a museum to give you a real sense of the communal feeling of Southern cooking, you at least need the sounds and the smells. It may be too much to ask to get your hands dirty in a museum, but cooking is tactile, and even low-tech interactives would be appreciated. I remember going to the Museum of Science Boston where they had buttons to push for smells and sounds; food might prove difficult to play with, but utensils would be just as interesting.

Southern Food and Beverage Museum sign

I'd buy food from there

The production values of this particular museum lay somewhere between the Backstreet Cultural Museum (especially the section on regional cuisine differences) and Smithsonian-quality exhibitions. It’s clear they don’t have a huge budget, but everything seems to be professionally done. Hopefully, this means they can keep improving bit by bit, and acquire more awesome, old-fashioned signage –>

Overall, I’d say go to the museum. If you love cooking, or just want to get some local flavor, it’s a great place to drop by. Oh, and check out their events and recipes!

  • Hours: Mon-Sat 10am – 7pm; Sun 12pm – 6pm
  • Admission: General $10; Students/Seniors/Military $5; AAA members $8
  • Location: The Riverwalk Julia Street Entrance, New Orleans, LA 70130 (504.569.0405)

*When I say “French speaking”, I mean it bears a vague resemblance to French. I had to read a book written in Acadian for a class at my French bilingual highschool, and it was extraordinarily difficult to understand until you stopped trying to read it and just spoke it aloud, at which point it made sense if you imagined a drunk French person were speaking. With that recommendation, go check out “Pélagie La Charette” (here’s a link to the English translation).

One Thought on “Memories of New Orleans, pt 2 — Southern Food and Beverage Museum

  1. Pingback: Memories of New Orleans, pt 3 — Museum of the American Cocktail | The Juli Theory

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