When it comes to a recipe for success, Liz Williams believes in shaking, stirring and waiting for 10 years for the most delicious results.
At least that’s the approach Williams took with the conception, expansion and reopening of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, or "SoFAB," which opened in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans in fall of 2014.
Although the multi-million-dollar museum wasn’t quite ready for its close up – exhibits were still coming together – the intent was crystal: this is a place that celebrates Southern culinary history and tradition through a myriad of artifacts and reminders of how things used to be done and how we got here from there.
Virginia hams hang in SoFab's "Gallery of the South" — Photo courtesy of Southern Food and Beverage Museum
New Orleans is the perfect setting for this museum, a city that at its very essence is all about food and drink. SoFAB is part of a major revitalization of Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, which includes an expanded Cafe Reconcile and the soon-to-open Jazz Market, the new home for Irvin Mayfield’s New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.
Williams has been working out the details for the museum for a decade, starting the nonprofit in 2004 and opening a small pocket museum in the old Riverwalk mall back in 2008.
Visitors will find a new, cavernous 16,000-square-foot space that is home to an exhibition kitchen in the rear; a new restaurant, Purloo by Chef Ryan Hughes; a fab gift shop for foodies up front; and a series of central exhibits called Gallery of the South: States of Taste.
Here you can see a somewhat higgledy-piggledy series of displays dedicated to the food culture of 15 Southern states and the District of Columbia. Look for signs shaped like each state to give you a sense of place, along with related-to-that-state ingredients, kitchen and farming equipment, vintage ads and other interesting bits.
The museum’s home, formerly an old Dryades Street Market that dates to 1849, is part of the conversation. The building’s terrazzo floors still bear the dividing marks of the original vendors’ stalls. The Rouse's Culinary Innovation Center by Jenn-air/Whirlpool, a demonstration kitchen in the rear of the building, sits where the fish market used to be.
The museum has already attracted culinary stars, and education is an important bar of SoFAB’s mission, with plans for mentoring initiatives and partnerships with the city's culinary education programs.
Last year, the nonprofit partnered with the New Orleans Public Library to open the largest culinary library in the South across the street at 1609 O.C. Haley Blvd.
SoFAB is also home to the Museum of the American Cocktail, open in early February 2015. The museum’s bar resonates with more than a few locals. Splintered by Hurricane Katrina, the bar was a fixture of the popular West End seafood restaurant Bruning’s from 1859 until 2005. Although Bruning’s never came back after the storm, the museum reassembled the well-loved bar, now the place where you can order Southern cocktails like a Sazerac or a mint julep.
And don’t worry about having to finish your drink before you continue your visit.
“If you're at the Sazerac exhibit and you've never tasted one, you can go to the bar and get a Sazerac and drink it while you walk around," Williams says. "We think we're the only museum in the country that does this."
Southern Food and Beverage Museum is open 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except for Tuesday and Wednesday, when it's closed all day. Admission to the museum is $10 for adults and $5 for seniors and students. Kids under 12 get in for free.