Category Archives: New Orleans

The New Southern Food and Beverage Museum

SOFAB sign

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

Do you live somewhere with a cuisine of its own? How would you know? There have been some famous attempts to define cuisine, including one by Sidney Mintz that has generated a great deal of debate. I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that a cuisine requires some kind of self conscious effort by people within a community to declare that their food should be thought of as a cuisine. Who gets to make that claim, what makes the claim legitimate, whether or not it might be disputed…I recognize that there are many questions that could be raised about this definition. But at least for my current purpose, the definition will work because it allows me to suggest that those of us who live in the American South have a cuisine. How do we know?

We have a museum dedicated to proving it.

The Southern Food and Beverage Museum is an actual free-standing cultural institution devoted to documenting the foodways of the American South. I have visited some fascinating, fun, and sometimes odd exhibits and museums devoted to food over the years. These include the Maison Cailler Chocolate Factory in Switzerland (and Hershey, PA as a kid), a mustard museum in Dijon, a beer museum in Prague, a flour museum in Minneapolis, many brewery and winery tours, visits to cheese makers (Roquefort Société puts on a good show), and of course the Coca Cola museum. Fascinating and entertaining as these can be, most are really advertisements for a particular company and its products, often with an excellent opportunity for sampling at the end of the tour. The Mill City museum is an exception. Run by the Minnesota Historical Society, it is built in the ruins of a flour mill on the banks of the Mississippi and really does make an effort to put the history of flour into a social context. But it, like nearly all the others, is still devoted to only one product. This is not where you go to learn about the food of a region or country.

As an effort to document and display the foods and foodways of the American South, SoFAB (yes, that is the acronym) joins a surprisingly robust range of other institutions around the region devoted to similar objectives. The Southern Foodways Alliance, which is part of the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, for example, or food studies as part of a larger program in American Studies at the University of North Carolina, contribute to the idea of distinctively southern culture and foodways.

SoFAB started out as the vision of one woman, Elizabeth Williams, who began work on the idea well over a decade ago. Starting in improvised spaces, she recruited people to build exhibits, participate in conferences, and organize events over the years, eventually landing a space in the Riverwalk shopping mall in New Orleans. I should probably reveal at this point that I am one of the people she recruited and am thus no impartial observer, having enthusiastically participated in a wide range of events at the museum. Liz has worked hard to build an institution that has ties to an immense network of people involved in food studies (including scholars from all over the world), but also to people in the food industry and activists of all sorts.

The museum has a new home, where it may become even more of a cultural juggernaut in the South and beyond. Last week I attended the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new museum, which is now housed in a substantially renovated former market building in a neighborhood of New Orleans that is, as we say, “coming back.” The new site is quite a bit larger and will house permanent and temporary exhibits, a restaurant devoted to the region’s foods, the Museum of the American Cocktail (yes, that has been part of SoFAB all along), and an ongoing series of lectures, cooking demonstrations, conferences, and other events. SoFAB is also home to a substantial research library that is already a very useful resource for scholars interested in the study of food.

The new museum is a big deal here in New Orleans. The ribbon cutting was standing room only, with a surprisingly large media scrum and celebrities from all parts of New Orleans life in attendance. These included chefs and restaurateurs, musicians, scholars, neighborhood activists, and a large number of elected officials (or their representatives) from the state and the city. The museum’s new location contributes to the renovation of a neighborhood that has seen better days and is part of other development in the area, including the future home of the New Orleans Jazz Market (a performance space organized by musician and cultural activist Irvin Mayfield) and other restaurants (including Café Reconcile, a restaurant and institute devoted to training “at risk” young people for the restaurant industry). All of this is part of the ongoing effort to develop New Orleans “cultural economy” by the city and state, turning culture into an economic asset.

Which leads me back to the original question: how would you know if you have a cuisine? I don’t think having good or interesting food is enough. All food is interesting, at least for anthropologists. Not only that, but every society has its own foodways. To make those foodways a cuisine, people need to be interested and passionate about it. They have to be self-conscious about it. Above all, they must want to call it a cuisine. Here, in the American South and, especially, in New Orleans. we have all that. We have a museum to prove it.

1 Comment

Filed under anthropology, cuisine, culture, foodways, museums, New Orleans, south

A Sandwich Story and a Street Food Network

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

An article about a monumental sandwich, the torta Cubana, crossed my path recently. Mixing religion (and Mormon missionary work), gender, national identity, and what might be a sandwich induced conversion experience, this is inspiring food writing. Inspiring to go find a torta Cubana, of course, but also inspiring to think about the implications and history of street food and sandwich names. Why does Mexico have the Cubana, but (at least according to the article), Cuba the Cubano? Do people even think about Cubans (of any gender) or Cuba when they eat one or the other? Here in New Orleans we have the “po’boy” (or “poor boy”), a name with roots in a 1929 street car strike. The history, written by my colleague Michael Mizell-Nelson, is fascinating, but I suspect that most people today are unlikely to pause to honor the struggles of the street car workers before digging in.

There are people who are looking into these questions. And asking more serious ones too. In fact, having read the Torta Cubana piece, I found this email from Richard Wilk, with information about a network of such people. Here it is:

The Street Food Global Network (www.streetfoodglobalnetwork.net) was created in 2012 with the aim to link people and organizations directly involved or interested in street food trade and governance worldwide.

The network is meant to be an multidisciplinary space where members can find, share, develop and implement best practices, instruments and strategies fostering an innovative street food.

Members can access a rich documents archive and participate in forums and mailing lists, to share information and ideas.

Rather than a mere virtual space, the network is meant to achieve real cooperation, joint projects, and collective publications.

To date, 180 people from 60 countries have joined the SFGN. Among them: 70 scholars from several fields (Nutritionists, Economists, Sociologists, Anthropologists), 25 professionals working in non-profit local and international organizations (eg. FAO), and 15 public managers.

Several members of the network have recently particpated in the editing of the book “Street Food. Culture, Economy, Health and Governance” by Cardoso, Companion, Marras (eds.) (Routledge, 2014).

The SFGN is managed by the Street Food SQUARE Association (www.streetfoodsquare.org).

 

2 Comments

Filed under anthropology, Food Studies, Mexico, New Orleans, sandwich

The NFL Occupation of New Orleans

SuperbowlDavid Beriss
University of New Orleans

The National Football League came to New Orleans a few weeks ago and while everyone else has probably moved on, I am still thinking about it. Part of this is because the big game was here in the middle of Carnival season. In fact, the parade schedule in New Orleans was re-arranged to accommodate the Super Bowl. New Orleans is a party town, but this was a long stretch of festivities, even for us. New Orleans is also a town that has long engaged in very self-conscious self-promotion. The NFL provided a key opportunity for that, allowing the city to put on a show for the entire world to see. I have been interested in the ways in which cities (especially New Orleans) work to create a sense of distinctiveness—for tourism, business, etc.—and this was clearly a great moment to see that happen. The NFL brought us a standardized segment of Americana and New Orleans responded with a cleaned up version of itself.

Perhaps a bigger city can absorb the NFL presence in a way that allows locals to get on with life as if nothing was going on. That would have been difficult here. In fact, city leaders worked hard to raise awareness of the arrival of NFL visitors. Locals were warned about the crowds and traffic to expect in the city center. New Orleans has a relatively concentrated core, with the Superdome very close to the neighborhoods where visitors like to gather. Those neighborhoods are easy to move around in, on foot, via bicycle (a temporary version of the bicycle share programs common in other cities was set up for the Super Bowl) or mass transit (an entirely new streetcar line serving the area near the Superdome was completed in time for the event). The NFL constructed a sort of independent town, with actual buildings and tents near the convention center and took over the vast convention center itself for a variety of events. The French Quarter was occupied by CBS, with banners and temporary structures creating backdrops for broadcasts. At one point people at CBS sparked indignant protests from locals when they decorated the iconic Andrew Jackson statue in the city’s central square with a sign from one of their shows. The sign came down, but the stage was still set. New Orleans was occupied by the NFL and the media. And, with a few exceptions, people were mostly pleased.

The Super Bowl seems to have become a secular holiday nearly on a par with Thanksgiving in the United States. Attending Super Bowl parties and preparing elaborate (if informal) feasts is now part of the regular ritual calendar for many Americans. Some claim that the Super Bowl provides the occasion for the second largest annual food consumption day in the U.S., surpassed only by Thanksgiving. It is clearly more than just a special football game. Spectacular sports events have been used in many countries as part of national holidays and sporting events can take on national significance that transcend the specific sport or game. This is certainly the case with the FIFA World Cup, the Olympics, the Tour de France, and other events. Each of these provides an opportunity to showcase sports and promote the event’s sponsors, while at the same time providing a stage on which the event’s location also receives public attention.

The Super Bowl is a huge commercial and cultural juggernaut. Although I had an abstract sense of the event that had occupied New Orleans, the real size and flavor became much clearer when Rebecca Turner, of the Southeast United Dairy Industry Association, invited me to visit the “NFL Experience” in the Morial Convention Center. This turned out to be something like 800,000 square feet of football mania, with displays of everything the NFL and NFL-affiliated sponsors thinks you should think about when you think about football. There were dozens of games, ranging from tests of physical strength and coordination, to football trivia. There were displays of football memorabilia, including Super Bowl rings, helmets and uniforms. Performers sang and danced and football players stopped by to sign autographs. The Southeast Dairy Association was there to promote a diet and exercise program it has developed with the NFL. Food offerings were mostly generic American industrial products–there were concession stands selling national beer brands and the usual fast food, while sponsors like Pepsi handed out samples of soft drinks (the dairy folks were distributing cheese sticks and chocolate milk). I suspect that NFL experience, or something like it, appears in every city that hosts the Super Bowl.

cochon de lait po boy

Cochon de Lait Po’Boy

Fascinating as this was, entering the NFL experience felt like leaving New Orleans. Of course, the city also put on a huge show of its own culture for the Super Bowl. This included endless interviews with local officials, activists, artists, musicians and, of course, restaurateurs. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and local chef Poppy Tooker used gumbo to help people think about the nature of New Orleans on one CBS show. The city and the NFL also organized a music and food festival in Woldenberg Park, next to the Mississippi River. I rode my bike over to that festival the day after I visited the NFL experience. Enthusiastic crowds surrounded several stages where local bands played everything from funk to brass band music. Rows of stands sold the kind of food that has made New Orleans famous. The French Quarter was just a few steps away, providing access to even more of the things that attract people to New Orleans (and the Times-Picayune provided an interesting analysis and guide to one of those things).

Crawfish beignets

Crawfish beignets

The distinctive version of New Orleans presented for the Super Bowl was just distinct enough to add some flavor to the dominant American football festival. There are reasons to think that the contrasts between New Orleans and the rest of America run deeper than those on display a few weeks ago. Although the contrasts have attracted attention for a long time, efforts to assert them have become something of a local cottage industry in the last few years. Some of this—including most of what was presented during the Super Bowl—is meant to attract and please tourists. Some of it is meant to challenge dominant ideas about how economic life is organized in the U.S. today. Some evokes parts of American history that challenge how we think of ourselves. I wonder what would happen if we put some of that on display for visitors the next time a big event comes to town?

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, city, culture, festivals, heritage, New Orleans, SAFN Member Research, urban