Some people eat to live.
Elizabeth Pearce, senior curator for the New Orleans-based Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SoFAB), lives to eat.
The pint-sized Louisiana native has feasted al fresco in Mexico City, hosted cookouts in Sienna, Italy, dined at the elite Chicago eatery Alinea, and eaten her way across her home state. Earlier this month, she handed out cups of red beans and rice — cooked according to Louis Armstrong's favorite recipe — at the Cotton Museum in downtown Memphis. And next Monday, she'll return to Memphis to host "Invitation to the Southern Table," a museum fund-raising event at the Inn at Hunt Phelan.
"I want Memphians to feel an investment in this venue that will celebrate its food culture," she says of the museum, which was founded in 2004 and slated to open a year later when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and put the physical part of the project on hold.
Although SoFAB's doors have yet to open, the unflappable Pearce already has curated two traveling exhibits, "Toast of New Orleans: A Salute to the Beverages of the City" and "Tout de Sweet: All About Sugar," and begun work on a third "Come Hell or High Water: Stories of Eating, Drinking, and Surviving in Katrina's Wake." She's also cataloging an archive, which already includes 3,000 volumes of cookbooks and hundreds of restaurant menus from across the South. Along with a four-person staff that includes museum director Liz Williams, Pearce has planned programs and lectures promoting SoFAB's mission to many hungry audiences.
"I am really excited about Memphis," Pearce says. "It's such a welcoming place, and all the food people have been so supportive. I feel like I picked the right place to start this tour," she says of the Southern Table dinners, which are scheduled for nine more cities, including Birmingham, Louisville, San Francisco, Nashville, and Boca Raton.
For Monday night's event, Kjeld Petersen, co-founder of the Slow Food Memphis convivium, and his wife, Edible Memphis editor Melissa Petersen, are already on board, along with Hunt Phelan chef Stephen Hassinger, who has created a special menu, including sweet-tea-marinated chicken wings, crawfish beignets, and grilled pork with chow-chow.
"It's a pleasure to work every single night, but doing events like this is fun for everybody in the kitchen," says Hassinger, who learned about SoFAB when he worked as a chef at Bayona and Café Degas, two acclaimed Crescent City restaurants.
"It's important to preserve our local culture," he adds. "Although Memphis has a sort of redheaded stepchild attitude, we have a lot to offer the food community. Sure, we're famous for barbecue and Elvis Presley, but we're also able to get locally grown lamb, tomatoes, corn, okra, and all-natural prime, dry-aged beef, and there's a core group of chefs here who understand that."
"It's gonna be a party," Pearce says of the event, which will feature live music, food stations, a new beer unveiled by the crew at Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q, and a pomegranate cocktail created by the inn's resident bartender David Parks.
Proceeds from the dinner will be earmarked for new exhibits at the museum's soon-to-be-announced location in downtown New Orleans, current exhibits on the road, and the menu-collecting initiative, which is an integral component of SoFAB's mission.
"My personal goal is to make sure this museum functions regionally," Pearce says. "I hope our traveling exhibits will come to Memphis and that we're able to partner with institutions here doing cooking demonstrations or talks, because Memphis is a vital component in this larger Southern food story."
Pearce also hopes to collect hundreds of menus during her time here, from legendary restaurants like Justine's, Anderton's, and the Four Flames, as well as the multitude of contemporary dining spots around town.
"Sometimes it's easier to understand a city by looking at 10 restaurants over a 20-year period," she says, explaining that menus can document a region's culinary histories and traditions, as well as its economic and cultural values. "You can see how regional and local dishes are preserved or how they've changed. Take grits. It's the food of the poor, and it should cost 99 cents, but you can get grits in any fancy restaurant nowadays, too. What does that say about what Southerners are valuing now? You also have the influx of organic farms and local purveyors, which is reflected on menus that list where ingredients come from, which is another kind of a trend.
"Nothing beats meeting someone and hearing their food stories in person," Pearce insists. "If you're interested in promoting and celebrating Memphis' food culture, please come to this dinner and talk to me!"