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Where Y'Eat: How a New Orleans Museum Puts Food and Drink in Focus

The Southern Food & Beverage Museum in New Orleans.
Ian McNulty
The Southern Food & Beverage Museum in New Orleans.

Some museums are rarified repositories for priceless art. Some frame the grand sweep of history and human achievement. In New Orleans, though, there is a museum devoted to understanding a piece of culture we interact with daily, and with which every person has an intimate relationship.

It’s called the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, or SoFAB, and it’s here to illustrate our relationship with food and drink. Fittingly, it also has a bar, which is a hands-on, bottoms-up exhibit in its own right.

This colorful culinary hub is on O.C. Haley Boulevard in Central City. It just marked its 20th anniversary this month and is starting a new chapter after the slog of the pandemic with a new cookbook on the shelves and a new CEO at the helm, Connie Jackson, who sees the anniversary as a chance to reintroduce the museum to the local community.

I hadn’t been in a while myself, and a return visit was illuminatingly evocative. Across the space today, there are now exhibits on each of the Southern states and a series of other galleries including one devoted to Al Copeland, the larger-than-life founder of the Popeyes fried chicken chain. An old McKenzie’s bake shop sign glows neon pink over a chef’s coat from the queen of Creole cuisine, Leah Chase. Touchpoints of memory and connection are everywhere, and it goes far beyond New Orleans. Touring the museum gives the feel of walking from one Southern state to the next state, following their history and geography through food.

But this museum’s story is about more than exhibits and artifacts. There are classes and events, and there’s an open kitchen that looks like it could host a Netflix cooking series, now home to chef Dee Lavigne’s Deelightful Roux School of Cooking. Then there’s that bar, which like everything here has a story behind it.

The grand old mahogany bar was once a fixture of the lakefront restaurant Brunnings, which is long gone, washed away by hurricanes. But the old Brunnings bar was brought back to life to serve museum visitors. That means today, you can peruse the exhibits while sipping cocktails, and toast what’s next at this unique manifestation of a culture that’s always at the tip of our tongues.

Ian covers food culture and dining in New Orleans through his weekly commentary series Where Y’Eat.