One afternoon some years ago, I learned a bit about how to imbibe. My brother-in-law, who works in the wine business, had a collection of freshly opened bottles on his kitchen table. He gave me the pitch he might give a customer, talking about the type of grapes, the regions from which the wines came, the wineries and their owners, and the hints of this or that to look for in tasting each.
It was then that I realized eating and drinking with a refined palate requires both tasting the subtleties in what you’re consuming and knowing the back-story. I’ve always been good at consuming food and drink, but not necessarily good at actually tasting it. New Orleans has no shortage of bacchanalian and culinary delights – plus a museum to help you fully appreciate them.
The Southern Food & Beverage Museum opened in 2008. It’s located across the street from the Peoples Health New Orleans Jazz Market in New Orleans' revitalized Central City neighborhood. Liz Williams, president and director of the museum, led the founding efforts. “It was amazing that this museum didn’t already exist,” she says. “Food is so important to the culture of this city.”
The museum’s exhibits cover topics such as the Acadian migration, Caribbean influences on Creole cuisine, and Southern cuisine beyond Louisiana. This includes old stoves, cookware and other artifacts that tell the story of the food of Louisiana and the south. One highlight is the bar from Bruning’s restaurant—a lakefront eatery that was one of the city’s very oldest until Hurricane Katrina literally wiped it out. The museum celebrates the unique combination of people and circumstances that shaped the cuisine, Williams says. “You had the right mix of people, you had fabulous raw ingredients—those two things really make a big difference.”
The location also contains a museum within a museum. One of the galleries serves as the official Museum of the American Cocktail. This is fitting, Williams says, because New Orleans has perhaps the most vigorous cocktail cultures in the United States, and by some accounts invented the cocktail.
At the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, you’ll learn the story of the po-boy, crawfish, beignets, gumbo and the famous Sazerac cocktail. So when you sit down to eat and drink, you know what you’re eating and why it exists. “For the visitors from out-of-state, we should be an early stop,” Williams says, “so that they can really appreciate the food in this city and the state.”
The museum has special events and demonstrations at least once a week, so be sure to check out the calendar of events to find out the latest.