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Liz Williams Reveals the South's Hidden Past on a Plate

The Southern Food and Beverage Museum recently opened the doors to its new space. Museum president Liz Williams shared stories, insight, and of course, history.

Inside SoFab
Inside SoFab

The Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SoFAB) opened its doors earlier this month to the public, showcasing the one-of-a-kind exhibits in its brand new, custom created space on Oretha Castle Haley Blvd in Central City. SoFAB president Liz Williams says it's really one of the only museums in the country with this kind of scope and mission. "There aren't food museums everywhere, like with art museums, so much of the history ends up here - we get all the good stories."

Can you talk about the upcoming Antoine's and Absinthe House exhibits?

The Antoine's exhibit opened January 24, and it's a celebration of the oldest restaurant still in operation under the same name. We have all sorts of kitchen tools from the years there - a duck press, fabulous coffee Brulot bowls, old kitchen equipment, old wood tables, vintage menus, old tablecloths, really, everything. We were fortunate that Antoine's is still there, they were just able to pull that stuff out of storage for us. With all these things, people will get a real sense of age and tradition as well as looking to the future.

The absinthe exhibit is a permanent exhibit which opens on February 28, and it should be really, really fun. It's the largest collection of absinthe artifacts on display in the United States, including everything old, everything new. It will talk about absinthe in New Orleans and the U.S. in general, and will have a life size diorama of the Old Absinthe House in 1895. The exhibits will also explore absinthe's effect on and relationship with cultural icons like Oscar Wilde and Degas, the myths associated with absinthe, like how it was supposed to make you crazy. And the path to re-legalize it in this country.

When is the Museum of the American Cocktail (MOTAC) opening, and how will it be different from former location?

The MOTAC section will be opening on February 6, and it will be different than the previous incarnation in a number of ways. Here, we're doing more of a linear timeline of the development of the cocktail, which covers an entire wall of the museum. You can stand at highboy tables like you're at a bar and really interact with the display. Also, so much of cocktail history has to do with the state specific spirits were developed in, so we've integrated that aspect into each state's exhibit. We didn't do that before, but I think it really deepens that state exhibits but still tells the tale of the cocktail.

Can anybody visit SoFAB or is it members only?

Anyone can visit. People with memberships come in for free, but anyone can come in anytime it's open and pay for a ticket to see the exhibits.

When you walk in the doors of SoFAB what do you immediately think about?

I guess my first thought is that this wonderful old building [that the museum is housed in] is the biggest artifact we have. It's the old Dryades Market. There were markets all over, run by the city, like the French Market downtown. You walk into this vast open space first, and it's just an overwhelming artifact. Then you see all the neon signs and vintage artwork. It feels fun - food can't be stodgy, it's an intimate thing, something you do every day. It's a sensuous event in that way.

What classic New Orleans restaurant is your favorite?

You can't make me decide! It depends on what mood I'm in. If I really want elegant history, I'll go to Antoine's. Or, I'll go to Domelise's for a poboy, or Parkway if I'm in the mood for roast beef. If I want really traditional, elegant Creole food, I'll go to Dooky Chase.

What shuttered classic New Orleans restaurants do you miss most?

I miss Bruning's. It was the third oldest restaurant in New Orleans, it opened in 1859, out by the lake. We lost it during Katrina, but we have its bar. We believe it's the oldest bar in the city, even older than the restaurant itself. Bruning's used to have the best flounder in the world, and there was nothing like having a seafood boil outside by the water.

Do you think Creole Cuisine is evolving?

There's no question it's evolving - it's always evolved, we've "Creolized" the cuisine from Italy, Vietnam.... we are adventurous enough in our eating that when immigrants come here and use our ingredients, we'll make it part of our own. In 1885, with Sicilian immigration, we adapted a Creole version of red gravy, which uses a roux. In the 1970s, immigrants from Vietnam came, and then all of us were eating oyster spring rolls and long beans. It's very much a "come sit by me" thing. Banh mi are called Vietnamese po' boys everywhere now.

These changes give us variety, and it's probably lighter now, we're more mindful of health than we used to be, although I don't think anyone's ready to give up flavor. There are new ingredients, new flavor profiles, new techniques - I think that's what keeps our food alive. By preserving it, we have to change and adapt.

The Southern Food and Beverage Museum

1609 Oretha C. Haley Blvd, New Orleans, Louisiana 70113 Visit Website