Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Not a Festival - Reginald F. Lewis Museum

It was bound to happen - I finally missed one of the ethnic festivals. And, of course, I end up missing the biggest free ethnic festival on the East Coast - the African American Heritage Festival. Even worse, I missed Patti LaBelle. For free. Damn. (NB: the story might or might not be accessible by registration only).

Unlike most other festivals, however, I can play catch up for this one. Baltimore is a city filled with ways to absorb African American culture and history. Take the Great Blacks in Wax Museum on North Ave. Disturbing and fascinating, a museum worth seeing. It's also the only wax museum in Baltimore. There is also the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture (heretofore, the Lewis Museum). This is a big, gorgeous museum worth seeing, despite the $8 price of admission (though pricewise, I have seen much smaller, very dinky museums for more money).

The Lewis Museum allows no photos of its exhibits, so I took none. But currently there is an excellent exhibit on their second floor about the struggle for freedom during and after slavery. At Freedom's Door: Challenging Slavery in Maryland is co-produced by the Maryland Historical Society, with collaboration from many other organizations, including Archaeology in Annapolis, who unearthed many slave artifacts in Annapolis's homes that show evidence of West African religious practices maintained by slaves in the South. There are also Maryland slave narratives from ex-slaves interviewed in the 1930's (collected by the WPA's Federal Writer's Project during the Great Depression), and a lot of compelling, disturbing and beautiful art referencing the struggle of African Americans through slavery. You really have to see it.

The third floor featured permanent exhibitions of everything related to African American history in Maryland, slave and free, from the 1600's to the present. Billie Holiday, Eubie Blake, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Benjamin Banneker - all Marylanders - alongside crab pickers, WWII riveters, Civil War soldiers, nuns from the Oblate Sisters of Providence (the nation's first black order of nuns - because no Catholic convent would admit black women), tobacco farmers both free and enslaved, etc. And be prepared: images of slavery and a long video presentation remembering the victims of lynching in Maryland are very disturbing.

It's not an easy or elegant segue, but the Lewis Museum boasts some of the best museum food I have ever eaten. For a good comparison, go down to DC and eat at the Museum of Natural History. Go on, I dare ya. My sister had the good fortune of eating at the Lewis Museum on a field trip with some of her students. She had some delicious mashed potatoes. I had no potatoes, but I had a delicious catfish filet with sides of hot greens and corn, and a bottle of Diet Coke. And for the price - all of $7 for the catfish and a little over $1.30 for the soda, this was also one of the best bargains I have ever found in a museum cafeteria. It is a small cafeteria with a set menu, but it's clean and the staff are courteous. But it's not a serve-yourself sort of place; the man behind the counter gives you your food when it's done. I ordered my catfish after a woman who had ordered fried chicken; the catfish was done faster.

And ooooh, it was some good catfish, hot with a crispy but not greasy breading. All it needed was a wee bit of salt and pepper. The greens were spicy, salty and, well, greens-y, and the corn was sweet. And it was tasty to mix the three together. Nondescript but a lot of food for your money, and very tasty.

I would not go back to the Lewis Museum just for the food - again, there's that $6 - $8 price of admission to deal with. But as tempting as Little Italy is - it is right at the Lewis Museum's backdoor - I'd say the next time you book a visit to the museum, do it around lunchtime and eat there. I'm glad I did. And I had a much more educational, enriching experience than I probably would have at the Heritage Festival. Even with Patti LaBelle in attendance.


Summer said...

The American Indian Museum in DC has the BEST cafeteria. It's expensive, but wow! You can get food from every culture featured in the museum, and it's GOOD food.

I thought of you when I got an email about the "SalsaPolkaLooza" coming up at the Patterson. Salsa? Polka? Together? cool.