‘Grab yourself a cocktail from the bar if you like,’ the girl at the ticket desk says. ‘Sure you can take it in, we don’t mind.’
This is my kind of museum, but then we are in New Orleans, and we are visiting the American Cocktail Museum. It’s part of the National Food and Beverage Foundation, which till recently was called the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. It celebrates the diversity of food and drink from the southern states of the USA, with 15 states and Washington DC all represented with their own displays.
Housed in the former Dryades Market building, which dates from the early 1800s, it makes for quite a happening street corner at the junction of Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. and Martin Luther King Jnr Blvd., a short hop south of the French Quarter on a streetcar named St Charles. Opposite the museum is the Jazz Market, home of Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, so time it right and it’s cocktails at the museum followed by the best jazz in the city.
It’s totally fitting that both museums are in New Orleans, birthplace of so many cocktails, like the Sazerac and the Ramos Gin Fizz, and the gateway through which came many of the influences on southern food. The French brought their food, then the Spanish brought spices, the Germans brought sausages and beer, the Italians brought marinara sauce which became red gravy, the African slaves brought okra and rice, and the Native Americans were here all along and contributed ingredients like corn and squashes to the kitchen mix.
In among the state-specific displays are more general areas with such delights as a collection of old potato mashers, an old Scoville Unit machine for measuring the heat in chillies, and a Popeye’s chicken and biscuits display. It’s the kind of collection that has people saying, ‘My grandma had one of those.’ If you love food and drink, and old adverts and gadgets, it’s heaven.
In Tennessee there’s Jack Daniels, pot stills, moonshine, and one of the country’s first energy drinks, Dr Enuf Soda. In Arkansas we learn about the annual Picklefest in Atkins and the Pink Tomato Festival in Bradley County. Who even knew there was such a thing as a pink tomato, or that Arkansas was famous for pickles and spinach?
Texas provides a quote from one of my favorite writers, Larry McMurtry: ‘Only a rank degenerate would drive 1500 miles across Texas without eating a chicken-fried steak.’ Oklahoma has an oyster fryer and Florida features a mullet smoker. We learn that Natchez is the biscuit capital of the world, and soda pop originated in North Carolina.
Eventually we drag ourselves and our Ramos Gin Fizzes to the Museum of the American Cocktail, which is part of the same building but you can tour it separately if you wish. Here we learn that no-one knows where the word ‘cocktail’ comes from, though there are several theories, and the word was first used in print in 1803. Cocktails weren’t invented in New Orleans but the city did have the first licenced pharmacy in the country, and cocktails grew out of medicinal concoctions, being transformed into cocktails with the arrival and addition of the first bitters.
There’s an absinthe bar that dates from 1820, and the largest collection of absinthe artefacts in the USA. A 3-feet high martini glass makes us realise our cocktails are finished and gives us ideas. We take a quick look at the back of the museum building, where there’s an impressive-looking kitchen, used for cookery classes, including classes for children, so passing the culinary baton on to the next generation. And having eventually done a full circuit of the two fascinating and fun museums, we reluctantly have to leave. Well, it is time to eat.
For details of opening hours, admission prices and special events, visit the National Food and Beverage Foundation website.
All photos (c) Donna Dailey.