First Public Library in the South Dedicated to Culinary Literature Now Open
See rare cookbooks, Southern menus from around the world, chefs’ notes and more at the new Culinary Library in New Orleans.
Many years in the making, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum‘s cookbook collection was reduced to the consistency of macque choux after Hurricane Katrina, but has been rebuilt and now has a permanent home in the city. Museum President Liz Williams says they had collected about 2,000 books prior to the hurricane, but since books and water don’t mix, the museum’s stash did not survive. “Fortunately the books were not rare books,” she says. “They were books that are replaceable.”
Once word got out that SOFAB was in need of local cookbooks, donations started pouring in. After Katrina, the museum’s collection was used to give locals access to the traditional recipes they had lost. But as it grew to more than 9,000 books, it became apparent that the collection was in need of a new home.
SOFAB’s official Culinary Library & Archive in partnership with the New Orleans Public Library opened at the end of October, and viewing hours for the collection began this week. This is the first public library in the South dedicated to culinary literature and, once complete, will be the most comprehensive of its kind found anywhere in the country. Currently, the library collection includes over 11,000 volumes of culinary books, food and cocktail menus, pamphlets, archival documents and other literature and ephemera.
“We have books about how to start a restaurant, nutrition, healthy eating, sustainability, books about spirits and wine and breweries,” says Williams. Since the collection is seen as more of a cultural display with some very rare books included, pieces can only be viewed at the library and not checked out. And while not all of the books are rare, there are some standouts in the collection.
“One of the collectors who gave us his books, Ken Smith, he had a collection of rare African American cookbooks,” says Williams. Another unique inclusion is Mildred Covert’s manuscripts, scrapbooks and notes on kosher Creole and Cajun cooking. Well known throughout the Jewish community, Williams says Covert’s role in the culinary scene was to help Jews living in the South blend their cuisine with that of New Orleans.
“We have promises from other chefs who are cookbooks writers and are still holding on to their manuscripts for a while,” adds Williams. “Eventually some of these things are going to come to us.”
The Culinary Library also houses The Menu Project in conjunction with the University of New Orleans. In addition to cookbooks, the library is collecting menus from every restaurant throughout the South and Southern-inspired restaurants around the world. All of the menus will be cataloged and available in the SoFAB Culinary Library and Archive, creating a database of menus recording the public history of Southern eating.
SoFab Culinary Library plans to add more books for children, host cookbook clubs and public programs in the future. For now, the museum is still taking cookbook donations, along with those of pamphlets from local food companies and Southern menus from all over the world.
“Some place has to be the place where all of those can be found,” says Williams. “Maybe we’ll be the place besides the Library of Congress that has one of everything.”
The SOFAB Culinary Library & Archive is open at 1609 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. in New Orleans. Library hours are Monday through Friday from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. and by appointment. Call 504-569-0405 for more information.