New Orleans, some will tell you, is all about the food. And I admit I made my dinner reservations weeks before I arrived for my recent visit.
But I also knew I had to go see the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. There, under the roof of the abandoned Dryades market (built in 1849 and rebuilt in 1912), curators have organized a veritable hall of fame for southern cooking. Barbecue (from all kinds of perspectives.) Popeye’s chicken. Local restaurants and cooks. The people who grow and catch the food we love to eat.
So imagine the cavernous space of a 19th century market given over to the celebration of what we eat and drink. A portion is a demonstration kitchen. There’s a gift shop area right behind the front desk. Another section is partitioned off for special events — we were lucky enough to see the entries for a terrific cake decorating contest. Got to taste the samples, too.
The rest of the museum is divided into small portions, digestible portions perhaps?
Each southern state has its own mini display. Firefly distillery is featured South Carolina’s. Maryland’s has Smith Island cake. And just about every exhibit has barbecue. It was actually an interesting way to see how each place interprets this fine southern recipe. For example, I never knew Alabama’s barbecue sauce is mayonnaise-based.
Special exhibits change regularly. While I was there, an exhibit was dedicated to Popeye’s Chicken, including some of the science behind standardizing their flavors. There were exhibits on local cooks and Tujaque’s Restaurant in New Orleans’ French Quarter.
The Museum of the American Cocktail takes up the whole left-hand wall with everything from cocktail shakers to information about Carrie Nation to bourbon bottles. There’s even a special section on Absinthe. I had not realized the “green fairy” was illegal until 2007.
The museum is a bit out of the way of the usual tourist attractions. We took a cab from the French Quarter — and made arrangements with the driver to come back when we’d seen enough. It took about two hours to see everything. It would have taken longer if we’d decided to stay for the cooking demonstration. That was going to last another hour or so.
ⓒ Text and photos Mary K. Tilghman