This Museum Connects Food and Culture in a Historic Public Market
All across the country, food and beverage museums connect what we eat with who we are. But The Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans has an interesting historic quirk: It’s housed in the Dryades Market, a historic enclosed market and New Orleans institution. The museum broke ground on the then-abandoned market in 2014, using historic tax credits to restore the building and include its story in broader food history.
Today, the museum features exhibits that explore Southern food by state, as well as educational programming for both children and adults. Highlights include cooking demonstrations in the culinary kitchen and a six-week summer camp that teaches kids from 7-12 years old about nutrition and hands-on cooking.
We talked to museum director Liz Williams and director of education Jennie Merrill about the building’s restoration process, as well as the ways the museum educates people about the inseparable tie between food and culture. (Plus, we couldn’t resist asking them about their favorite Southern foods.)
Tell me more about the history of Dryades Market and its neighborhood.
Liz Williams: In 1849, the city opened a covered market. At the height of the market system, the city of New Orleans had over 30 markets. They were mostly pavilions—covered markets where people rented a stall and sold their wares. This market was in a neighborhood called Faubourg Lafayette.
It continued to operate in this neighborhood as a market until 1912, when the city tore down the pavilion and built an enclosed market on the same spot. As we renovated it, we left the floors so you could see both the terrazzo where the aisles were, and the straight concrete where the stalls were. [The owners] saved money by not having terrazzo in the part that was covered by the stalls. We tried to leave the remnants of what was here as much as possible, so we could tell a little of the building’s story.
What did you learn about the building and the neighborhood through the restoration process?
Williams: As a market in the early 20th century, there wouldn’t have been bathrooms. When we jackhammered the floor to put down plumbing, we found the original 1849 foundation, and that was kind of delightful. When the new building was created, [the owners] put the new foundation down and left the old one there. We also uncovered interesting ceilings because the old owners had put down fake suspended ceilings to make the heating and air conditioning cost less. Taking that out and finding this really gorgeous strutted ceiling was very nice.
I think that being able to remain a part of the fabric of an established neighborhood is really important. When [you want to retrofit] something that already exists, I understand that there are a lot of financial considerations, but in our neighborhood, people have been appreciative of the fact that we didn’t try to say this building wasn’t good enough or get rid of it. Whenever you are considering the restoration of an old building, you need to give a lot of weight to the fact that it’s an already established component of the neighborhood, even if it’s abandoned.
What do you think The Southern Food and Beverage Museum has brought to the public?
Williams: We’re preserving many stories and artifacts that represent not only the wealthy but also the everyday person, [and those artifacts] probably would have been discarded otherwise.
Let’s say you had a beer bottle from every year since glass beer bottles [were first made]. You get to see how beer bottles changed over the years—how the color of the glass changed, how the shape of the bottle changed, how the way the tops were put on changed. If all you had were catalogues of those beer bottle sales, you wouldn’t have the same record of the beer bottle as if you had the bottle itself. That is something we offer not only to our visitors, but also to scholars to use in the future.
I think that food museums everywhere are unrecognized treasures—places that reflect culture and history, and places that many people never really think about.
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How do you incorporate diversity surrounding food into your programming and exhibits?
Jennie Merrill: [When] we come over to Louisiana [exhibit], I like to break down Creole food. It’s important to not only mention the story of flavoring, which is expected, but also the story of Native Americans and people of color who came [to America] from the Caribbean over generations. That interaction is what made Creole food in the first place.
With [our kids’ programming], we have Cultural Month, where we cook a lot of food that’s not Southern and use it to dissect food history. We might cook traditional Gambian food or teach them how to cook Gullah food, or we might talk about the presence of Italian food in New Orleans. We incorporate different food traditions into our programming so that they learn about it through their palates.
“I think that food museums everywhere are unrecognized treasures—places that reflect culture and history, and places that many people never really think about.”Liz Williams
Williams: In addition, we try to ensure that we invite people with diverse backgrounds to be part of our demonstrations. In our children’s programming, we also have scholarships available, and we make sure that people with different needs are always accommodated. We’re always making that we’re inclusive, not exclusive.
From the standpoint of the actual exhibits, we made a really conscious decision that we would not have a special exhibit about people who are “different.” For example, there’s not an African American exhibit, but all the contributions to food and drink made by African Americans are included in the appropriate state.
In the White House exhibit, we talk about the contributions of African Americans who worked as kitchen help. They were the chefs and the cooks and the dishwashers, all the different people who made sure there was food in the White House. We know their names now, but there was a time when [their names] were obscured and unrecognized.
We try [to incorporate diverse history] in a way that is natural, that seems like it’s not separate.
How do food and place intersect?
Williams: Let’s talk about something like barbecue. I would call barbecue pan-Southern, and you find it almost anywhere in the South. Yet, it is so reflective of geography. For example, you’ll find [beef] barbecue in Texas because of its wide-open spaces and plains. In much of the South, where there isn’t quite as much space, you wind up with pork barbecue. You might have a cow for milk, but you’re not growing cattle the way you were in Texas.
But then in Kentucky, where it’s really hilly, you’ll have mutton barbecue. You’re eating sheep because they can climb. You’ll find chicken barbecue more in rural, poor places, because it’s [more cost-effective] to get chicken than pork. And then, all along the coast, you’ll have grilled oysters, smoked fish, and all kinds of [seafood]. All of that is barbecue, and it’s all based on geography.
Merrill: You might have a strand of things that look similar, but you can see all these foods change because of melding cultures. It creates something very special in each region.
We talk about Creole food a lot [at the museum], but it happens everywhere. It’s this melding in terms of geography, interacting with others, survival, seasons, and climate, and it’s so indicative of the people who moved there.
What are your favorite Southern foods?
Merrill: I would say my favorite food is pretty standard—brisket with macaroni and cheese. I love searching the South for barbecue. Under that, [I like] Cajun-style gumbo, preferably with no tomatoes and no rice, but with okra and a scoop of potato salad.
Williams: It totally depends on my mood. I could tell you my favorite fruit is probably watermelon—it’s not really Southern, but it’s associated with the South. My second favorite fruit would be peaches, and I wouldn’t want to live without strawberries. And my favorite vegetable—sometimes it’s Brussels sprouts and sometimes it’s artichokes. I also like eggplant and tomatoes, and then I can break that down into what my favorite types of tomatoes are.
My favorite kind of gumbo is definitely not the Cajun-style gumbo. I love it with both tomatoes and okra.