The Pacific Food and Beverage Museum is a work in progress. Although it opened on March 24, the 1,200-square-foot space in downtown San Pedro is largely bare, down to its ancient red brick walls. There’s scant evidence of the splashy media event that drew well over 150 people to this former music store just a few days before my visit.
With so little to see at this point, certain questions beg to be asked: Why this? Why here? Why now? It is a line of inquiry that Tracey Mitchell and Philip Dobard have clearly anticipated and probably answered many times already.
“Food is at the core of human existence. It’s something everyone experiences at least twice or three times a day,” says Dobard, director of New Orleans' Museum of the American Cocktail, who’s been working with Mitchell, the San Pedro museum’s director, since the project’s inception in 2013. “History is full of stories about military victories, but very little of the story of food has been told. What’s that old saying? ‘An army marches on its stomach.’” Brows arched, Dobard makes an “I rest my case” expression.
San Pedro itself has an interesting culinary history. At one time it was a major port of entry for immigrants, Dobard says. “It was the Ellis Island of the West Coast. You could find the cuisine of many countries and cultures right here.” And seafood canning was a big industry in San Pedro beginning in the late 1800s. Starkist and Van Camp, two of the industry’s biggest tuna canners, were located here.
But a museum devoted to the history of fine cuisine and cocktails — isn’t this a sign that the modern American culinary movement, five decades after Alice Waters roasted her first egg on a spoon over an open fire, is now in the decadent phase of fetishizing itself?
Dobard laughs. “When Anthony Bourdain created his latest food show, Parts Unknown, he was asked, ‘Isn’t there a glut of food programming already?’ His answer was, ‘No, there’s a glut of bad food programming.’”
The pair make their case about quality by opening several large boxes and producing a gold mine of historic cuisine ephemera: mid–19th century menus from fancy French restaurants in New York and other northeastern cities; cocktail napkins festooned with leggy young beauties drawn by Peruvian Alberto Vargas (1896-1982), the king of pinup-girl artists; photos of old saloons and upper-crust dining rooms with elaborate tableware.
“Most of the collection resides in Los Angeles,” Dobard says. “What you see here is not even the tip of the iceberg. It goes back to the 18th century — yea, even unto the Middle Ages.”
The museum’s back wall displays more of the same. A quick perusal of five-star restaurant menus in the era of Lincoln reveals a fascination with French cuisine, local game, organ meats and exoticism. It’s a wonder the green turtle wasn’t driven to extinction by 19th-century American chefs.
On the wall to the left of the entrance is a display of large photos by well-known New Orleans photographer Romney Caruso. They show elaborately tattooed men and women, all of them professionals in the city’s beloved food and cocktail communities.
“Romney found himself intrigued with all the ink that chefs and bartenders have,” Mitchell says. “In New Orleans, tattoos are part of the culture of chefs and bartenders. We intend to document culinary culture and history in this way.”
Both Dobard’s and Mitchell’s museums are part of the National Food & Beverage Foundation, a decade-old nonprofit educational and cultural organization dedicated to the discovery, understanding and celebration of food, drink and its related culture. (Dobard is the foundation’s vice president and president of the San Pedro museum.)
NatFAB, as it calls itself, is home to several entities: the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, the Museum of the American Cocktail and the John & Bonnie Boyd Hospitality & Culinary Library, all in New Orleans; and the Pacific Food & Beverage Museum in San Pedro. “Our long-term goal is to grow into the most comprehensive national cultural institution studying food and drink,” the foundation’s website proclaims.
“We survive on the typical not-for-profit mix: corporate sponsorships, corporate giving, individual donors and a teeny bit of government assistance,” Dobard says. Admission to the museums and event sales provides some earned income.
Dobard says the foundation’s main activity is event programming. “We do cocktail and spirit seminars; we e-partner with other organizations.”
“On Monday we did a seminar with Pomp & Whimsy, a maker of gin liqueurs, at Palihouse West Hollywood,” Mitchell adds. “It was titled ‘Kindred Spirits Society: The History of Women and the Cocktail.’ That’s a great untold story.”
Dobard and Mitchell both come from classical music backgrounds. “My first career was in opera as a singer,” Dobard says. “I had modest success. Not nearly as much success as this woman,” he said, gesturing to Mitchell. “I went into theater production, then into film and TV.”
Food and drink have been an abiding passion for Dobard. “I grew up rather deeply embedded in food. Every member of the family was involved professionally. I had an uncle who was a master brewer, and another one who harvested whatever was in season: shrimp, duck, oysters. My aunt and godmother sold soft-shelled crabs. Our freezer was always full. I didn’t pay for seafood until my 20s.”
Mitchell, also a New Orleans native, was a childhood fan of Julia Child’s cooking shows, and she inherited her mother’s passion for food and French-based culinary expertise. After a career in music, she shifted her focus to business administration, working in academia, government and nonprofit management. At home she perfected her skills in the garden and the kitchen.
Clearly, Mitchell and Dobard are both scholars of American culinary history. While we look at old restaurant menus, Mitchell describes the fascinating early days of haute cuisine in America.
“The development of the American palate was [shaped] by the French Revolution. All these chefs were displaced because they lost their work. So where did they go? Many came to the U.S. So you get these restaurants opening and developing in the [early to mid 19th century], and that started a cultural revolution in terms of food in this country.”
Photos from the museum’s collection show those French restaurants were frequently decorated like high-class brothels. Mitchell says there was a reason for that. “Women did not frequent the restaurants. They were for men. If a woman walked in on the arm of a man, she was thought of as a wanton woman.”
“Women couldn’t inhabit the public space like men could back then,” Dobard adds. He points to some small cards displayed on the back wall. “But there’s a part of the display over here that shows a little memento for ladies’ day at a restaurant. They could go, but it had to be an event such as a famous speaker or something.”
Mitchell says she plans to display much more from the permanent collection. “There will be pieces covering most of the masonry walls, and we have two-sided movable panels that will increase the wall space.”
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Looking at Vargas napkins, pre-Prohibition glasses and old photos of mustachioed bartenders could give one a powerful thirst. Sadly, it can’t be quenched at the museum.
“We have no license to serve alcohol,” Dobard says. “We can give it away at events and parties, but we cannot sell beer, wine or spirits.” The foundation hosts weekly tastings at Sassafras Saloon on Vine Street in Hollywood and holds curated dinners with wine and cocktails every month.
Dobard smiles and gestures toward the door. “We can send you to some places nearby that are really very nice. San Pedro is a surprisingly good cocktail town.” Who knew?
Pacific Food & Beverage Museum, 731 S. Pacific Ave., San Pedro; (504) 251-4739, pacificfood.org. Open Thursday-Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; extended hours first Thursday of every month.