“Creole cuisine, the food of New Orleans, it’s a living thing. Nobody’s trying to stop it from changing; nobody said its got to end, so that’s why it’s still alive.”
Liz Williams, director of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum (SoFAB) in New Orleans, could be explaining the extraordinary success of the museum. In the new social media driven food conscious America, it comes as a surprise that SoFAB is the first and only museum in the nation dedicated to the full breadth of Southern cuisine – or to any American cuisine for that matter. Liz Williams wants SoFAB to lead a national trend because life’s “…all food. It’s all about food…finding it, growing it, preparing it, fighting over it.”
SoFAB is a private non-profit institution founded in 2004. It went from an idea in the mind of experienced museum executive and attorney Liz Williams, through Katrina to opening its first museum in 2008 on the cusp of the financial crisis. Undaunted, the museum has flourished offering a plethora of professionally designed permanent and rotating exhibits, a research library, special events and, an important part of their mission, youth education. This September 29, 2014 will be the official ribbon cutting for a new larger SoFAB created from a former city market building in the Central City district, which will include a restaurant and demo-kitchen.
Relaxed and personable, Liz and I talked about Southern cuisine in general and New Orleans in particular during a 90-minute break in her busy schedule. It was of interest to me that SoFAB made it a point to give beverages equal billing, so often dismissed unless it’s wine or an esoteric beer or cocktail. Is there a beverage that defines the South?
“Ice tea is the house wine of the south,” Liz answered without hesitation, “and probably the Southern beverage. There was a time when you stopped (to chat with a neighbor) and have an ice tea. It’s expected you’ll be invited…and there’s always ice tea ready.”
English-speaking colonist liked sweet tea. Mediterranean region colonists, including the French, tended towards unsweetened teas and coffee. Even though New Orleans is home to North America’s largest sugar refinery, New Orleans drinks unsweetened tea.
Lemonade and soft drinks, “…soft drinks all by themselves are very southern:” Coke/Atlanta, Pepsi/Carolinas, Dr.Pepper/Texas, Royal Crown (RC)/Georgia. In mid-20th century, “RC Cola and moon pies were a popular Southern working lunch.”
Folgers has their largest coffee processing plant in the New Orleans region. “New Orleans people drink coffee all day long. Business deals are still often sealed in a cafe over a cup of coffee.” Chicory and coffee blends are common. Chicory has little caffeine, so the overall caffeine in the average New Orleans chicory/coffee is lower. The addition of chicory developed more due to local taste than anything else.
Having a personal story, my family is old Acadian, I had a number of questions for Liz on Cajun and Creole cuisine. On Cajun, Liz started, “It is very peasant food; a one pot food…it’s more the practices, the mindset rather than the ingredients” that determined Cajun recipes. Simple Acadian dishes such as salt cod cakes became impossible in the absence of potatoes and salt preserved fish. Rice became the starch and the abundance of fresh fish and seafood the additions.
Acadians were mostly the descendants of French farmers and fishermen from Normandy and Brittany that emigrated to the rough northern seacoast of New France (Maine and maritime Canada) in the 17th century. They adapted their diet to the abundant sea life available and drained marshes using a series of dykes, creating farmland for wheat to be used for baking. Dishes were simple, lightly seasoned stews or cooked fish, fowl, meat and vegetables.
The Acadians who survived exile to the bayous of Louisiana during the Great Expulsion of the 1750s were the original Cajuns who quickly adapted to a strange environment. Yet the cultural lessons learned in making due with what’s available remained. Rice, shrimp, and peppers replaced potatoes, cod and cabbage, but a basic Cajun meal is still one dish or simply prepared. Cajun food is best eaten in Cajun country at mom and pop restaurants “whose parking lots aren’t full of tour buses…” according to Liz. “It’s not like they (Acadians and Cajuns) thought together ‘let’s make bland food,’ it was ‘what do we have to work with’?”
In Louisiana there has not been a fusion of Cajun and Creole cuisines. That misunderstanding, prevalent in regions of the USA and popularized by certain brands, is the result of marketing. “New Orleans cuisine is Creole,” and Liz used gumbo as an illustration. “In Cajun gumbo everything gets added to the pot after making the roux. Creole gumbo will have the onions, veggies partially prepared while making the roux (caramelizing onions, seasoning the seafood, sautéing the peppers) before all is combined with the roux for cooking.” (In Related Videos in the left column watch Liz make her Creole Gumbo.)
By the 1750s Creole cuisine was being defined. A Mediterranean approach to food was to use and adapt to the environment. Mediterranean colonists were more willing than English oriented settlers to incorporate native foods into their diet. Importing rice and plants from Africa and Central America added to the list of available foods.
Creole meals consist of courses with sauced based entrees, but nothing stops Creole cooking from evolving. This fusion of Spanish, African, Spanish New World, Native American and French cuisines is based on principles leading to layers of flavor. That foundation allows for creativity.
“So yes, we cook many of the old dishes that we used to cook but maybe we change them a bit, and they’re still real.” Pickled Vietnamese vegetables are now put on po-boys, and Sicilian immigration (1885-1915) influence on Creole food includes pizzas, pastas, and the iconic sno-ball!
SoFAB continually expands according to their mission with planned cooperative projects including a new space in Los Angeles under the theme On the immigrant experience. Their annual query for the year panel discussion series – last year: “Is food art?” this year: “Can we reset the family table?” – will have its 2014 start in August in Chicago traveling on to New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
SoFAB is the creator as well of the upcoming Farm-to-Table International Symposium, 2-4 August 2014. This second annual partnership with the Morial Convention Center and Whole Foods Market is an education-based conference with networking opportunities. It’ll cover topics from beehive collapse to GMO seeds.
There are fewer corporate chains in the post-Katrina city, yet the overall number of restaurants in New Orleans currently exceeds pre-2005. A growing demographic of young professionals are supporting a resurgence of locally owned food and drink establishments. Obviously this bodes well for New Orleans continued culinary preeminence among America’s cities. But if SoFAB and Liz Williams continue their success, American regional cuisine will rise to preeminence in the culinary world.
“So it’s important for anybody really studying food and authenticity, and those kinds of questions, to look at cultural attitudes towards the foods not just a recipe.” That’s been Liz’s mantra throughout our interview. “Because when people won’t let the recipe change, as things change, then that’s when your food is dead. It becomes ossified. You’ll have a cuisine, but it’ll be a dead cuisine.”