Foodways Exhibition at National Museum of African American History and Culture Won’t Just Focus on Soul Food

A 1912 tinted black-and-white postcard of a banana and pineapple vendor is part of the new museum’s collection. On the back of it is a handwritten note: “don’t forget / the place / Bradentown / Fla.” (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)
A 1912 tinted black-and-white postcard of a banana and pineapple vendor is part of the new museum’s collection. On the back of it is a handwritten note: “don’t forget / the place / Bradentown / Fla.” (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)

Of course, there will be soul food. But that’s not the soul of the foodways exhibition at the upcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“We wanted to break up the idea that there’s one type of food, and that African Americans all eat that type of food,” said curator Joanne Hyppolite. “African Americans have been involved in perfecting a number of American cuisines. Because literally, they were always in everyone’s kitchen. It’s way more diverse than soul food.”

One area of focus? Oysters.

Catching, shucking and selling oysters was a way for African Americans to make a living. “It’s an industry they’ve been involved in from sea to table,” Hyppolite said. Curators collected artifacts that were used by African American oystermen and vendors, including an oyster basket, culling hammer and shucking bucket, as well as menus from Thomas Downing’s Oyster House, a famous New York restaurant that attracted prominent white patrons. Many of the artifacts were purchased at a local antique store.

Street vendors, from the early 20th century to Baltimore’s present-dayArabbers, are another area of concentration. The museum has amassed a series of old postcards depicting African American fruit sellers, and an audiovisual component in the exhibition will include field recordings of their distinctive cries, which have been preserved by the Library of Congress.

That doesn’t mean soul food will be absent from the exhibition. One item on display of particular significance to D.C. locals is a pot from the longtime soul food restaurant Florida Avenue Grill.

“They would be extremely proud,” said Lacey C. Wilson Jr., whose parents founded the restaurant in 1944. The younger Wilson, now 80, took it over from 1970 to 2005, when he sold it to Imar Hutchins. He said the fact that the museum acquired a collard greens pot was especially meaningful: “It was a staple there for 60 years.”

Collards also speak to the evolution of soul food, Hyppolite said. After all, “now they have a vegan version.”

The foodways exhibition is part of the Cultural Expressions Gallery, which will also include artifacts relating to fashion, crafts, dance and language. Within the foodways portion of the exhibition, there will be three areas of focus, divided regionally: The North will encompass the oyster industry; the agricultural South will focus on collard greens; and the Creole South will examine the cuisine of New Orleans and diaspora Caribbean communities, with an emphasis on red beans and rice.

Those three topic areas align with stations in the museum’s restaurant, which is being renamed Sweet Home Cafe after the previous name, North Star Cafe, prompted a trademark complaint. But in the cafe, there will be one more area of focus: the West. That means there will be barbecue in the restaurant but not in the museum — a decision that may raise the hackles of some barbecue traditionalists.

“We had it slated, and then we just ran out of space,” Hyppolite said.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post
Maura Judkis