LIZ WILLIAMS is the director and president of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. Besides her work with SoFAB, she is a lawyer who writes about the legal aspects of food, reflecting culture, policy and economics.
It may seem to be preaching to the choir to discuss this topic with foodies, but I think that it is important to arm ourselves with a philosophical and intellectual arsenal to discuss the importance of food and its material culture. When we intensely discuss the origins of various foods and dishes, as well as the importance of the contributions of this ethnic group or that one, it is amazing how little actual evidence there is to support the theorizing. Our discussions are, for the most part, empirical, based on our preconceptions, based on what we know today, and based on old recipes and writings of less than scientific accuracy. The discourse can be as endless and as circular as debates over the existence of god. Archeologists who studied prehistoric times – who populated early natural history museums with artifacts – studied food and collected the material culture of food. Had anthropologists continued to collect artifacts as evidence of food gathering, cultivation and cooking as they did when studying prehistoric cultures, perhaps some of these questions could be put to rest. But they did not. And by extension museums ceased to be a place to collect, protect and exhibit these artifacts. Thus today we often lack tangible, physical evidence to support a theory of the origins of dishes.
That is why collecting artifacts is so important. We must overcome the idea that cooking and food culture is trivial and unimportant and that the arts or government or military history is more important. Let me ask a radical question. How can we justify building museums that take up a great deal of space and use many resources to house the works of just a few people, as we do in art museums? These works do not have a function outside of nurturing our souls or being considered beautiful. Interestingly, that we keep them tells us what we have considered beautiful and important in the past, as well as today. These buildings are visited by only a small portion of the population. Yet the idea of not having art museums seems to foretell the loss of culture, perhaps the very loss of civilization.
Of course, I do not actually advocate the elimination of art museums. Art museums should exist. I merely point out how we have overlooked the importance of collecting other aspects of material culture, in particular culinary artifacts. Culinary artifacts have been considered unimportant. Although a record of recipes exists, at least of special foods, the tools were not preserved. Many tools that have survived are worn and deteriorated. Without a place to preserve and study artifacts, they are lost to the elements and not available for study. Think of all of the lost bottles, pots and menus. Only weirdly obsessed people maintain idiosyncratic collections of thousands of mustard pots or bottle caps. But those collections are important.
The Southern Food and Beverage Museum is the shelter for those artifacts that we can gather and protect. They will be here for study and display. The story of food deserves to be told in an orderly and thoughtful manner. This story deserves a place to be preserved. It makes a difference. There is a lot to be learned about our history and about ourselves generally from the study of the history of food, drink and the attendant culture. Food reflects labor, science, culture, trade, economics, politics, and art. It is the human story – - – we all eat. We should acknowledge it.