The cultural heritage of New Orleans is clearly on the mend. The city now has a permanent museum for exhibits dedicated to eating and drinking below the Mason-Dixon Line. The Southern Food and Beverage Museum, SoFAB, also encompasses the Museum of the American Cocktail, or MOTAC.
“There are art museums all over the place,” says SoFAB founder and director Liz Williams, “and you know what an art museum is — art on the walls, basically. But when you set out to make a food museum, you don’t know what goes in it, exactly.” Williams has been figuring that out for about 10 years, when she first conceived the idea of a New Orleans food museum. So she created the SoFAB nonprofit, then launched a stand-alone exhibit called “Toast of New Orleans,” a homage to imbibing. As she has searched for a permanent home for SoFAB over the years, donations have poured in. Menus, advertisements, kitchen tools and appliances, agricultural implements, aprons, flatware, dish sets, spices, soda bottles, chef toques, aprons, pots and pans, cookbooks, recipe cards. The list goes on. “In a museum [of] design or decorative arts, they’d want everything that’s pretty. But we want everything,” Williams says. “We want the garbage: the can, the label, and how do you open the can? We want the pamphlet with the instructions for that.”
“It’s not just a building,” says Williams, “it’s related to our mission.” That mission has grown with the new space. SoFAB’s former home, starting in 2008, was a touristy shopping mall along New Orleans’ riverfront. And that’s where the need to include the actual consumption of food and drink along with the exhibits became clear. A display on absinthe, for example, a significant piece of New Orleans’ drinking history, was exhaustive in its documentation, with posters, artifacts from artists, writers and poets inspired by their drinking of it, delicate glassware and beautiful absinthe fountains. But, Williams says, museum staff kept getting the same question. “What does it taste like?” And so, in the new SoFAB, guests are not just allowed but encouraged to “get a Sazerac and walk around,” Williams says. A skilled bartender will line your glass with absinthe or Herbsaint as the first step, and no navy-blazered gallery guard will ask you to leave your cocktail at the door.