Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Our First Words in Food Symposium

For those of you who could not attend our first Food in Words Symposium, here is a rundown of the day, chronicled by Tulane University student Faine Greenwood.

The Southern Food and Beverage Museum's first ever Food Symposium and Literary Feast proved to be a huge success, bringing together the area's best and brightest food professionals and experts. Topics discussed included New Orleans cuisine past and present, the state of food writing, the city's diverse history, and the early writers and cookbook authors that brought New Orleans cooking to the world. The Intercontinental Hotel provided a delicious lunch.

The inaugural event's theme was "The World's Fairs in New Orleans and Inventing Creole and Cajun Cuisine," and the day began with a delightful introduction to the topic by Professor Paul Freedman of Yale University.

Freedman discussed how Creole food first defined itself via the influence of the world fair, moving from a regional cuisine into a cooking style embraced by an entire nation. According to Freedman, Creole cuisine's distinction comes from its remarkable "blended" quality - unlike that of New York City, a region that possess incredible diversity but little in the way of a characteristic cuisine, as New Orleans does.

Many reasons have been put forth for New Orleans's unique cuisine, ranging from a French food-loving culture, a similarity of tastes across class-lines, an unusual willingness to "make do" with even the basest ingredients, and the cities (still existent) love of distinguishing itself from the rest of the USA.

Tulane University archivist and food history scholar Susan Tucker followed Mr. Anderson, discussing the cookbook writer, globetrotter, and unforgettable character Lafcadio Hearn. Mr. Hearn, renowned for his writing on Japan and Asia in his later years, produced the legendary "Creole Cookbook" for New Orleans’s blowout 1884 Cotton Centennial Exposition during his stay in the city in the late 1800’s. The book did not appear until 1885, coming out rather late for the Exposition, but became a classic, gaining notoriety as one of the very first publications to attempt to define what Creole cuisine is.

The next speaker was Rien Fertel, a PHD History student at Tulane, who has done research on Creole culture in society from the early 19th century to today. Fertel is interested in the word "Creole", and how the word's use has changed and evolved over time. Fertel discussed how others, or outsiders, define Creole food and New Orleans food habits. He argues that Creole cuisine, as we know it was not defined by the Creoles themselves but rather by outsiders with no Creole heritage. These outsiders took the Creole food they found and turned it into a commodity, as evidenced by the two 1884 cookbooks, in conjunction with the 1884-1885 World's Fair. These now-famous cookbooks were Lafcadio Hearn's “Cuisine Creole” and the “Christian Women's Association Cookbook,” works that still influence aspirant Creole chefs and home-cooks.

The second discussion concerned the Depression-era Works Progress Administration and Creole Food, with Lawrence Powell, Chris Smith, and other lecturers.

Lawrence N. Powell, a Tulane University history professor and Louisiana historian, began with a discussion of the “WPA'S Guide to New Orleans,” published as part of a national series under the storied Federal Writer Project. Under the auspices of Louisiana Federal Writer's project director, Lyle Saxon, the New Orleans guide became the best of the bunch, providing a definitive and beautifully written look at New Orleans, its history, and its distinctive cuisine. Saxon, passionate about New Orleans, wrote about the gestation and genealogy of classic Creole dishes, and was among the few of his contemporaries who gave due credit to the potent African influence on the city's culture, cuisine, and music.

Chris Smith, manager of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum's collection and Big Read coordinator, discussed “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Huston, one of the 20th centuries best Southern novels. Hurston herself was part of the WPA project, and spent time in New Orleans researching voodoo, securing unique information from the voodoo priestesses she interviewed during her short stay in the city. Smith stressed how Hurston's book uses food to move the plot along. Certain dishes, such as fried chicken, Mac and cheese, meatloaf, and other comfort foods - are used to define how people live and what their values are. Smith noted that Harper Lee also used food to define character in her "To Kill a Mockingbird,” among other famous Southern works that use edibles to paint a portrait of people and places. Smith then contextualized food and Hurston's political era alongside her literature, referencing such creations as her "Diddy Wah Diddy,” – a sort of food heaven only reachable on the back of a mule. As Smith’s lecture established, Hurston's status as a literary legend, oral historian, and flamboyant personality has secured her a place in the South's literary pantheon, well after her penniless death in 1960.

Rien Fertel ended the discussion with a look at Lyle Saxon's influences, especially in regard to his 1928 "Fabulous New Orleans," a work combining memoir, history and myth into one robust and rapturous account of Saxon's experiences in the city. Saxon emphasized the French Market, the different ethnic groups who sold produce and food there around the turn of the century, and his impressions of the area as a young child, emphasizing especially the cuisine of his beloved city. Saxon, unusually for his time, listed ethnic restaurants alongside Creole standards, and gave credit to both slaves and Choctaw Indians for their influence on Creole cooking. What was Lyle Saxon's motto for New Orleans and New Orleans culture? "Have a good time while you can!"

The Symposium broke for lunch, which was catered by the Intercontinental Hotel. Chefs demonstrated how to cook shrimp Étouffée, as participants sipped Sazeracs. A multi course lunch was then served, featuring a trio of soups, an entree of chicken bonne femme, and a dessert of baked pears in a bourbon sauce.

SoFAB director Liz Williams was joined by Errol Laborde to discuss the 1984 World's Fair and its impact on Creole and Cajun Food--specifically that was the first time that the two styles were lumped together. This proved to be a lasting partnership, and even today the boundaries between Creole and Cajun food remain unclear.

A panel discussion regarding "Food Writers and the Future of the Cuisine" was held next, featuring local experts Sara Roahen, Judy Walker, Ian McNulty, Pableaux Johnson, and Stephanie J. Carter. The writers hosted a lively talk about the current realities of food journalism, New Orleans cuisine, and the process and day-to-day realities of writing about food for a living. Judy Walker discussed her experience as the Times Picayune Food Editor, providing insight into the nuts-and-bolts process of constructing a cookbook - most notably last years "Cooking Up A Storm," a brilliant compilation of the Picayune’s archival recipes. Ian McNulty of the Gambit discussed his role as a freelance writer and restaurant reviewer, and discussed his protocol and parameters for assessing and writing about new restaurants and culinary culture, answering questions about the review process.

Sarah Roahen then discussed her recent book, "Gumbo Tales," a work stemming from her time as a Gambit restaurant reviewer, recent New Orleans transplant, and passionate Louisiana foodie. Stephanie J. Carter, SoFAB's Communication Director, discussed the Museum's publications and her own food research. During the panel, particular attention was paid to the future of food writing in an era of disappearing newspapers: will the future of food-related literature of necessity be online? Will New Orleans cuisine survive into the future in an era of convenience food and online-culture, and if so, what forms will it take?

The first annual Food Symposium and Literary Feast proved to be an engaging and interest event for local food writers, food professionals, and food lovers alike. The inaugural event will hopefully lead to a series of Food Symposium’s in the years to come, providing an annual venue for the discussion of - and appreciation of - New Orleans deliciously unique culinary culture.

Thank you, Faine, for recording the entire event! We are looking forward to next year's symposium, which is already in progress. Check back for more information in the coming months.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Words in Food

We are rolling down the slope at ever increasing speed. There is so much planned for our fall and early winter that we can hardly catch our breaths. We are planning the opening of the Big Read project, this year we are reading Their Eyes Were Watching God; several very important private receptions, resuming our full week-end programming schedule, an overhaul of our web site, the beginning of the school year kid's program, our first Words in Food Symposium and Literary Festival, several new exhibits and opening parties. There is so much to do we are all going crazy. Crazy in a good way.

So keep reading your emails from SoFAB just to keep up. There will be lots to do.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Southern Table

The idea was to create an exhibit that showcased each southern state together in one place - literally at a table. The journey to begin to set the table has been arduous. I have been so surprised at how difficult it has been to gather the place settings. Although not all of the place settings have arrived, we are beginning to lay out this exhibit. Then we will see what holes we have to fill.

A curious fact is that Washington, DC, a mere city, has no official residence and no official china. So we have been able to decide for ourselves what should represent Washington, DC on the table. Louisiana and Arkansas have provided handmade place settings. Some states have provided official place settings.

But starting to see the exhibit take shape has made me see how the metaphor of all of the states gathered at a table is really touching and powerful. Next week we will begin posting photos of the table. I would love to see a huge exhibit with a place setting from every state in the US.

Your ideas for the table, menus and books, other table props would be appreciated.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Lessons Learned in Graduate School

Oftentimes graduate students can become so passionate about their field that we don’t do what journalists or even Phd students always do, go to the source. In an academic paper I published for the University of Toronto, Food Conjures Memory: Making Memory in the Museum, I made some assumptions about British culinary historian Ivan Day. Day contacted me through SoFAB and said:

Dear Zella,

I have read with interest your paper entitled "Food Conjures Memory". I enjoyed your argument and agree with most of your conclusions. However, I feel rather surprised that you should conclude from a brief online resume of a course I offer on sugar and. confectionery, that I am guilty of the following. "By blatantly omitting or silencing any mention of the historical contributions of others, historians and museologists perpetuate the same imperialist ideology that have affected the world for centuries".
My confectionery course lasts two days and though it is a practical session, the imperial aspects of the sugar trade are actually explored in considerable depth. In fact, I am offering a free place on this particular course so that you can see for yourself what it is really about. On the contrary, I curated an exhibition here in the UK at Harewood House 7 years ago that explored the whole issue of the sugar trade in the eighteenth century. I contrasted the excesses of luxury enjoyed by the British patrician classes at the dessert table with the horror and privatization of the lives of the plantation slaves who produced the sugar that graced their exuberant desserts. In one room, an elaborate table setting shared a space with an original copy of a slave purchase ledger that belonged to the Lascelles family who built Harewood House. The Lascelles family owned extensive plantations in Barbados and the luxurious house they built was funded by money made from human misery. We made this very clear in this particular exhibit. I am sorry I do not have your direct email address and have sent this to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in the hope that it gets passed on to you. Good luck with your internship there and I look forward to your reply.

With every best wish,

Ivan Day

Needless to say I learned my lesson and I want to share this lesson with all students out there. GO TO THE SOURCE! Never assume that everyone is part of some evil conspiracy. Lol. When I wrote this paper I was reading some pretty heavy books about food globalization and exploitation. Although, I stand by my argument in my paper I did make the mistake of not contacting Ivan Day directly to ask him what he felt about the sugar trade. But this is the point of Graduate School to learn from your rights and wrongs. So, I would like to make a formal apology to Mr. Day and to thank him for his well wishes even after I made some negative accusations about his work. We sure would love to do something with you in the future at Southern Food & Beverage Museum and I can sit down with you and sweeten you up with pralines, Red Velvet Cake and Bananas Foster! Please find out more about Ivan Day @

*Ivan has an international reputation for his research on British and European culinary history. As well as a scholar, broadcaster and writer, he is also a gifted professional cook and confectioner. He is noted particularly for his re-creations of meals and table settings. His work has been exhibited in many museums, including the Paul Getty Research Institute, Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of London, Fairfax House, the Bowes Museum and the Rothschild Collection.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

St. Joseph's Altar

It has been a long time since I have posted on this blog. I have spent my time writing on Facebook and Twitter and I have not had something organized and longer to say. But now I do.

At SoFAB, we were the beneficiaries of the helping hands of students and faculty from Livingstone College in Salisbury, NC. These wonderful people gave us an entire day. They removed a wall that was standing behind the St. Joseph's Altar, and which opened up a new gallery where we plan to expand our exhibits. The Altar was placed in a niche created by a false wall in an archway. It looked nice there, but was often unseen. It was out-of-the-way. The students moved the altar carefully and reassembled it in an area that has better light and that can be seen on all sides. The altar is now garnering comments from visitors and resulting in lots of questions about the St. Joseph's celebration.

It is amazing how placement makes a difference. We thought that we had placed the altar in a place of prominence. But we hadn't. We had tucked it away. It is being appreciated and explored now. A welcome, but unintended by-product of the volunteers' work.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Leah Chase Louisiana Gallery

I think the world of Leah Chase. She is one of those people who, without being sickly sweet (I think she is peppery), is wonderfully loving and generous. She is a supporter of the arts and music, someone who was creative and innovative, someone who raised a terrific family, worked hard, and never forgot to embrace the world through food. She is a tireless supporter of the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana.

There will be a dedication ceremony - including Chef John Folse - to celebrate the naming on July 1. But the excuse for fun, for the celebration of Leah Chase, will happen at SoFAB on July 2. Tickets are still available on line and at the door. This will be a wonderful event with great food and drink.

Join us in celebrating this remarkable woman.

Here is the new drink, the Creole Queen, developed just for her.

1 to 2 mint leaves
1 to 2 strawberries
Mint Turbonado
Simple Syrup to taste
dash of Peach bitters
Splash of Obsello Absinthe
1 1/2 ounces Port of Barcelona Gin
on the rocks

Monday, June 22, 2009

Irrevent Cookbook Pokes Fun at Battle of Sexes

The other day we received a great donation to our cookbook collection titled “The Chauvinist Guide to Gourmet Entertaining” by Stan Fedyszyn. It’s a paperback; has a copyright from 1980; and is 190 pages. It sold for $5.95.

The book focuses on eight complete, seven-course dinners in American, French, Russian, Poynesian, Chinese, Polish, Mexican and Italian cuisines.

As you might guess, this book has an interesting viewpoint. It is designed, as it says in the introduction, to be used “against the enemies of the Male Chauvinist Pig.” The goal of the book is to show men how to cook to impress a woman. In fact, the woman is referred to as “the Fox” throughout the book.

Here’s another passage that you might find interesting:

“What we have tried to do is create a system where a good cook can be made to look like a super one by playing on her sympathies and her naïve prejudices. For instance, no Chinaman in his right mind would eat the Chinese meal the way we suggest that you serve it. The Chinese prefer a style akin to the buffet, as opposed to courses. But she, the Fox, won’t know that. In all the movies she’s watched on the Late Show, Cary Grant and Kate Hepburn eat seven course meals. That’s what she wants and that’s what she’ll get, regardless of what the Chinese Embassy says.”

Classy stuff, eh? So far, I’m just quoting from the introduction, which comes with a serrated edge with instructions from the author to cut it out and burn it once it has been read.

Are we happy to have this book? Of course. It’s not just another gimmicky cookbook that is trying to find its niche. It’s an artifact that is of tremendous value to us and to researchers and scholars down the road. They’ll be might amused by this bit of culinary history.