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In This Museum, Visitors Can Eat At The Exhibits


If you like your museum experiences with a side of grits and greens, pay special attention to our next story because we're going to introduce you to a place called The Southern Food and Beverage Museum or SoFab, as it's known. The museum highlights the culinary and cocktail history of Southern states. And it may be one of the only museums where it is OK, even encouraged, dare I say, to eat and drink in the museum. It first opened in 2008 in New Orleans, and it's just reopened in a new space. Reporter Karen Michel paid a visit.

KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: There are no paintings on the walls, no sculptures in vitrines or in pedestals. Instead you'll find pots and pans and bottles and menus.

LIZ WILLIAMS: Well, we could have statues of asparagus, but we don't. We have all the things that represent the intersection of the culture of food with food.

MICHEL: That may sound a bit dry. Liz Williams is a lawyer. She also founded and leads The Southern Food and Beverage Museum. And on this day, whacked by spring pollen, she has laryngitis. There are no walls in this museum, no separate galleries for each state. After all, eating can be messy, as can defining just what is the south.

WILLIAMS: We've had people from Puerto Rico say we should be included, and I think they have a good case.

MICHEL: But among the signs from old eateries that hang from the ceiling is one from Charlie's New York Deli.

WILLIAMS: Charlie had a New York Deli here in New Orleans. And if you eat it in the south, it's southern.

MICHEL: Still Liz Williams says that most southern cuisine has certain ingredients and characteristics.

WILLIAMS: Corn, peanuts, tomatoes, squash, beans and in certain areas, seafood - we eat a lot of fried food. We eat the whole animal because we are so rural and agricultural. And that tradition remains with us.

MICHEL: While there are no live animals here...

WILLIAMS: We have lots of things that smell.

MICHEL: She points to a charred 55 gallon oil drum.

WILLIAMS: This mullet smoker from Florida. Take a smell.

MICHEL: Smoky.

WILLIAMS: Yes and fishy, both.

MICHEL: There is food art. After Hurricane Katrina, a group of artists created the Katrina food cart and pushed it through the streets during Mardi Gras. It's got fake food riffing on the very real problems folks had - furniture upside down cake, levy leek soup, Bush baloney sandwich. The museum also has trash cans because eating here is OK.

WILLIAMS: We can't be afraid of it because we're a food and beverage museum.

MICHEL: The beverage part of the food and beverage museum includes a newspaper article chronicling the first so-called cocktail - menus, bottles and barware. Officially, this area is called the Museum of the American Cocktail - a sort of museum-in-a-museum founded by the man credited with revitalizing the craft cocktail movement, Dale DeGrof.

DALE DEGROF: Some of the most iconic cocktails were not invented in New Orleans, like the Manhattan, the martini and the sour. But in fact, some of the most colorful - the ramos gin fizz, the brandy milk punch, the sazerac - these were all southern, New Orleans inventions. And so yeah, they had a strong bid for the cocktail.

MICHEL: And still do. This is the land of drive-through hurricanes, the beverage. New Orleans is a special place.

DEGROF: You know, they totally ignored Prohibition, of course. (Laughter).

MICHEL: And it's this approach to life that can cause problems for the one guard in the museum, Troy Smith.

TROY SMITH: It's pretty much a laid-back spot. So it's pretty much just noise - very noisy.

MICHEL: Why? What would cause people to get noisy?

SMITH: Oh, the alcohol, of course.

MICHEL: Because drinking is OK here, too. Pretty much anything goes in The Southern Food and Beverage Museum, says founder Liz Williams.

WILLIAMS: Because we're not judging. In fact, we also don't judge the fact that people in the South have Kool-Aid pickles. And, you know, is that good for you? I don't know. But we eat it. So that's the way it is.

MICHEL: Though you won't find any Kool-Aid pickles in the museum, the gift shop or the restaurant. For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: April 28, 2015 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous headline incorrectly said museum visitors can eat the exhibits.
Karen Michel

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