After visitors to the International African American Museum have toured the Carolina Gold gallery, they’ll have a chance to taste the grain that once made Charleston the richest city in the country and continues to animate Gullah-Geechee culture.
“Absolutely,” says Michael B. Moore, president and CEO of the museum forecast to break ground next year at the site of Gadsden’s Wharf. “I think that’s an easy one. There will be rice, for sure.”
At this point, though, rice is the only detail of the museum’s food service program that’s been fully worked out. With the entire facility measuring less than four times the size of the celebrated food court at Washington, D.C.'s National Museum of African American History and Culture, planners are trying to devise an appropriate way to meet visitors’ basic needs while also connecting them with the rich legacies of enslaved Africans.
“We haven’t spent a whole lot of time thinking about this but our goal for sure is to have items that are culturally relevant and taste great,” Moore says.
When discussing the museum’s potential dining component, the letters that Moore uses most frequently are T-B-D, or "to be determined." Fundraising and developing strategic partnerships are currently at the top of IAAM’s to-do list. Still, there is at least a framework for food-and-beverage service, which Moore outlined in a recent interview with The Post and Courier. It features “grab-and-go kind of fare” inside the museum, and food trucks or carts outside of it.
Moore envisions a variety of mobile food vendors arranged around the museum’s underside, an open area bookended by supporting columns trimmed with oyster tabby. “The idea is to create a warm, inviting space where families can get some food and drink,” he says.
In other words, IAAM doesn’t want to deny visitors the opportunity to reflect on the museum’s themes in a comfortable setting, which might entail a glass of sweet tea or slice of caramel cake. But what planners have in mind is nothing like a full meal. “There is such a vibrant and accomplished restaurant community here,” Moore says. “So it will be our pleasure to pique people’s interest and then send them to get the real thing.”
Serving up revolution
As recently as 15 years ago, a museum taking a modest approach to food service wouldn’t qualify as newsworthy, even in a city with a global reputation for culinary excellence. Well-into the 1990s, there were generally only two kinds of museum restaurants: cafeterias, which served hamburgers, hot dogs and other institutional standards, and dining rooms, which offered expensive chicken breasts and Caesar salads in quieter surroundings.
Then in 2004, the National Museum of the American Indian opened Mitsitam Native Foods Café, which picked up on the stories shared in the new museum’s exhibit galleries, deepening their meaning through salmon chowder and stewed plantains. Food historian Jessica B. Harris, who would later help develop the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Sweet Home Café, described Mitsitam in Museum magazine as “a quiet revolution.”
But Mitsitam alone wasn’t responsible for the branch of Russ & Daughters in the basement of New York City’s Jewish Museum; the jukebox-outfitted soda shop at The National WWII Museum in New Orleans or In Situ at the San Francisco Museum of Art, where chef’s dishes from around the world are curated and collected like visual art. “Temples for contemplation (are now) centers for cultural activity,” SFMOMA’s deputy director told Tasting Table when asked to explain the new vibrancy in museum restaurants.
Museums were also motivated by the possibility of new revenue, especially during the recession, and eager to lure back visitors who might otherwise get their voluntary educations from devices with screens. In any case, the Gibbes Museum of Art’s executive director says museum guests now expect high-quality food and drink.
“Prior to the renovation, we didn’t have food service,” recalls Angela Mack. “But it was something we were hearing quite frequently, so we decided to take the leap.” Since reopening in 2016, the Gibbes has partnered with The Daily, which now operates its first-floor café.
Mack says, “The symbiosis has really been wonderful. And for the local clientele, it’s an opportunity to be in a space they love and support.”
True to its name, The Daily insisted on keeping the café open on Mondays when the museum is traditionally closed. It proved to be such a draw that the Gibbes last month adjusted its hours to match. “They gave us courage,” Mack says.
Out of the box
At the National Museum of African American History and Culture, eating at Sweet Home Café “makes the visit complete,” according to IAAM’s director of planning and operations, Marion Gill.
Gill was in charge of coordinating Sweet Home Café when she worked at the Smithsonian. She put together the four-station model that Harris proposed, with sections dedicated to the Agricultural South, the Creole Coast, the North States and the Western Range. Under the leadership of Mitsitam alum Jerome Grant, the bustling food court in 2017 was named a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best New Restaurant award.
“There are a lot of hard topics and themes in that museum, but there are also a lot of wonderful things — moments of celebrations and resiliency — and you cap it off with good food,” Gill says. “It’s immersive: There’s no better way of connecting in a visceral way than through the taste buds.”
When Moore ate at Sweet Home Café, he had fried chicken and greens. “And maybe some rice-and-gravy, and maybe black-eyed peas,” he says. “I will go back many times just for the food.”
He clarifies that kind of restaurant was never seriously considered for IAAM, which is constrained by the dimensions of its waterfront site. Years ago, the idea of a restaurant came up in brainstorming sessions, but those same sessions produced talk about a branded hotel on the property.
Yet there’s even cultural precedent for the smaller packaged items that Moore describes as more in line with the museum’s commitment to reserving the bulk of its square footage for interpretation. Gill mentions the shoebox lunches that were a necessity for black travelers in the Jim Crow South, who couldn’t count on finding a restaurant or dining car in which they were welcome. “There is a real opportunity to expand on that,” she says.
Eventually, Moore says, the museum will consult with chefs to develop menus. He’s already heard from culinary professionals here and elsewhere keen to be part of the project. While the museum won’t have a designated dining room, it will have a small catering kitchen so dishes prepared off-site can be served at events overlooking the Cooper River.
“If I had a blank check, then I absolutely would create more sort of organized, strategic restaurant space at the museum,” Moore says. “In part because I think there are so many cultural nuances that could be better explored in that space and in part because I think it could actually be a moneymaker for the museum. Creating something could be great.”
The museum is scheduled to open in 2020.