Gary James' Interview With
The Curator of the "Southern Fried Elvis" Exhibit
In New Orleans there's an Elvis exhibit going on like no other. Called "Southern Fried Elvis", it's an exhibition of cookbooks that focus on the foods eaten by Elvis Presley. It's a small exhibition consisting of only eight cookbooks that contain recipes of the foods that Elvis ate. In charge of the Southern Fried Elvis exhibit is curator Chris Smith.
Q - Chris, what is a curator? What does your job entail?
A - Gosh. A curator is a person who studies a particular field or area and kind of makes a collection around that field. So, for the Food and Beverage Museum, we go out and find items that are worthy of collection, historical artifacts, and we try to get them into the collection so that people can see them. People can come to the museum and see what they were actually like, or what they look like or what they did. So, a curator is a polite way of saying collector.
Q - Is this what you've always done?
A - No. I've had past lives. (laughs) But I do have a museum background. I have worked in museums for awhile. I have a Masters Degree in Arts Administration, which is kind of a fancy title for somebody who is a museum administrator.
Q - And you've always been in New Orleans?
A - No. I moved here from Chicago...the great city of Chicago. I've lived in New Orleans for nine years.
Q - So, you were there for Hurricane Katrina.
A - I was there for that, Yeah. That was fun.
Q - The museum wasn't damaged, was it?
A - The museum wasn't there at that time. The museum has only been around, physically since last June (2008). It's been around on paper, but it didn't have any exhibition space. Where the museum is now is a very nice tourist area. It used to be occupied by a shop called The Limited, the women's shop called The Limited. A big chain. They did not come back after Katrina. It's a great space. If you're ever looking for a space and you're a museum, try to find an old Limited store 'cause they're great.
Q - So, Elvis is popular in New Orleans?
A - I think Elvis is pretty much popular everywhere. He continues to command a fan base long after he died. We haven't done any polling specifically to find out how popular he is, but we get people in and they seem to like the little exhibition we have. The exhibition came about because we received a donation that had an Elvis cookbook in it. We were beginning to collect all of these items that have to do with food and beverage history. Well, we have a lot of cookbooks. Cookbooks are the largest part of our holdings at this point. So, cookbooks come rolling in at a fairly good clip, and we noticed we had this cookbook. So then we went online and we saw there were other cookbooks that pertained to Elvis. We thought, well, let's get these. And so we did. We just thought the whole thing was odd because Elvis was not really a member of the culinary industry in any way. He wasn't a chef. He cooked, but he really wasn't a cook. So, we just thought, gosh, this is really odd that there are all these cookbooks that deal with Elvis. There's eight in this particular exhibition, but we know we don't have a couple. So, we'll get those sooner or later.
Q - You say "We know that anything with the word Elvis in it sells."
A - (laughs)
Q - I've talked to authors of books on Elvis who say the opposite. The market is just saturated.
A - What you said is true. You have to be a serious collector and you have to know what it is you want.
Q - Are you an Elvis fan?
A - I clearly remember Elvis songs. I remember when he died, although I was very young. I don't really see how you cannot be an Elvis fan. He just has such a great place in history. He produced some pretty good music. I'd say sure, I'm an Elvis fan. I've been to Graceland too.
Q - Now, you're really way up there in terms of an Elvis fan.
A - (laughs)
Q - Who's coming through the museum looking at your cookbooks?
A - It's somewhat hard to gauge who is looking at what, because when they come into the museum they can see other exhibits as well. The exhibit has not yet received the attention... We haven't sent out a lot of publicity on it, or done a lot of marketing. The way we have the Elvis exhibit arranged is, it takes up three display cabinets. They're in-wall display cabinets. They have lights that beam down from up above. We have some shelves that are tilted so the books rest on them. Kind of like the shelf you'd see in a library. So, the book rests on it very nicely. We have them open to certain pages. We have a book that was loaned to us that was from an Elvis fan who is just a few blocks away from me. She let us use this book for awhile. It's from Graceland. She bought it at Graceland. It's a die-cut book. It's that book that when you turn the pages, things pop up. All the rooms. We have that open to the kitchen. We thought that was fantastic. You can open the refrigerator door and the cabinets and everything. So, that's on one shelf. People cannot touch this. It's behind glass. She also donated a neat tapestry. Then we have our own little text panels up there. So that book, which is not a cookbook, is behind glass because it's on loan and we want people... We know they'd be playing with the refrigerator door. Other cookbooks are on those shelves, those slanted shelves. And people can actually open them up and look through them. So when they sit on shelves, they're closed, but people can open them. We think it's kind of a good idea. It's a little bit interactive. We see people come through all the time.
Q - Young and old?
A - Yeah.
Q - Do you have a stand-up of Elvis pointing the way to the exhibition?
A - We have a stand-up inside. Right by the exhibit. It shows Elvis with a guitar. It's on loan to us from The Ogden Museum Of Southern Art. So, the exhibition really does stand out.
Q - You say "Elvis did not like fancy restaurants." The problem with that is, Elvis was so famous, he couldn't go into a restaurant. It would've been bedlam.
A - When I was going through and researching the show, I found this information in several places; that he didn't really like to go out. I think one of the reasons we pursued this exhibition is because he seemed to be one of those persons who, when he became famous, his taste didn't change very much. He had the means of course to go out and purchase any kind of food he wanted to. He seemed to stay pretty true to his roots. He liked Southern food. He didn't really care about fancy food so much. Then, something that goes along with the fancy restaurant; he didn't seem to like the intimate atmosphere. He was with women quite a bit. He preferred something really simple. He very much preferred more of a family type atmosphere. He preferred frequently eating with a lot of people, cast and crew. He didn't seem to distinguish. Everybody was pretty much the same. He would have little picnics in his hotel rooms. He loved going through drive-throughs. Drive-throughs weren't as prevalent then as they are now. But he apparently liked to do that quite a bit. He probably could've gone to almost ay restaurant he wanted to, but they probably didn't serve what he wanted. And of course he could have stuff prepared to his specifications if he wanted to. He liked pork chops and meat loaf, mashed potatoes and white bread with gravy on it. He liked corn a lot; peanut butter and banana sandwiches, not so much deep-fried, but kind of sautéed. He could eat quite a few of those. (laughs) He seems to like bananas in general, which is really not that unusual. Bananas are by far the most consumed fruit in this country (The U.S.) and the world. They're the fourth most cultivated crop on the planet. So, bananas are quite popular. He also had made fresh daily at Graceland, banana pudding.
Q - What if we all ate like Elvis?
A - We'd all be huge. (laughs) He ate a lot. I mean, he ate a lot. He got heavy for probably two reasons: one, because of the way he ate, and two, because some of the medication he was taking cause him to retain water and kind of bloat up. I think if we ate the foods he ate, which were very Southern, very fried, very calorie-laden, we'd all be really fat.
Q - This exhibit goes on through mid-Summer of 2009?
A - It goes on until we take it down. (laughs) It might be longer, who knows?
Q - What do you follow up an Elvis exhibit with?
A - I pretty much don't have a clue at this time. The Elvis exhibit is pretty much ours. We created it. We'd like to ship it of to another museum that might be interested in it, or maybe needs a component to something they already have. Who knows? It would definitely be available for another museum if they so desired.