Restaurant Review - The Soul Food Museum: Collective soul

One man's act of devotion

A half-block up from the King Center on Auburn Avenue, a neon sign reading Soul Food Museum glows in the window of a nondescript storefront. Inside, instead of well-lit display cases, metal shelving holds a jumble of packaged food products, toys, and flea-market knickknacks.

Kenneth Willhoite, a large man in a black three-piece suit and a huge white chef's toque, emerges from the back. "Welcome to the Soul Food Museum!" he booms, his enthusiasm immediately palpable. Willhoite explains that the "tour" takes about 45 minutes and jumps right in, gesturing to an old wooden piece of furniture next to the front door. "Here we have an ice box, patented by an African-American. And here, we have some of the vegetables brought over to America from Africa by slaves." He lifts up a large eggplant, and also points to some black-eyed peas in a small plastic bag and to a row of jars of sesame seeds.

Then he turns and points to some bottles of VitaminWater lined up against the wall. "And here, we have 50 Cent's line of drinks, which is called VitaminWater," he says. "It has all kinds of vitamins right in the water, and as you drink it you read what it says on the label and it makes you laugh!"

Such wild swings from historical discussions about the African-American impact on cooking and culture to earnest admiration for commercial products with any kind of tie to black America are part of what defines the Soul Food Museum. Willhoite shows the same reverie for everything here, from the antique ice box to Aunt Jemima pancake mix ("They almost float off the plate, they are so fluffy!") to Crunk!!! energy drink.

The museum is also in part a shrine to Willhoite's own celebrity obsession, with its shelves of celebrity-endorsed foods and walls lined with huge black-and-white photos of the chef-hat-wearing host next to all manner of black personalities, from James Brown to Muhammad Ali to Phylicia Rashad.

As a cultural monument, Willhoite's collection is significant mainly for the enthusiasm and meaning he gives it. He says that 95 percent of the products on display are still available commercially, and his mission isn't to resurrect dusty old products, but rather to show in one place black culture's impact on what we eat. Willhoite's definition of soul food is as inclusive as his heart: "I Love Lucy" products ("Lucy had soul"), Paul Newman's Own salad dressing ("Newman gives back to the community and that is beautiful") and Wolfgang Puck soups (he cites Puck's charitable work as reason for inclusion, although it's not clear what charitable work he's referring to).

Willhoite's personal take on food and history is sometimes informative, sometimes questionable and sometimes just plain wrong. He tells the true story of how an African-American, George Crum, invented the potato chip and then postulates that his name is the origin of the word "crumb." He also claims that Crum sold his idea to Herman Lay, who made a fortune. The story starts out historically accurate, veers into funny but incorrect musings (according to Merriam-Webster, the word crumb predates the 12th century) and then into pure fiction (Crum died in 1914; Lay's wasn't founded until 1932, and Herman Lay would have been 5 years old at the time of Crum's death). By calling his endeavor a museum, Willhoite invites challenges to his credentials and his accuracy, but to me, all that's beside the point.

If the Soul Food Museum were on the side of the road in rural Mississippi, it would likely be viewed as a priceless piece of Americana. Because of its big-city location, it's hard to view its utter lack of slickness or formality with the tender affection we have for Southern cultural oddities in smaller towns. Willhoite's drive to build a monument to soul food is part of a great tradition of devotional acts. He said more than once during the tour that he's doing exactly what God asked him to do.

But it's a monument that may not last. The museum faces serious financial trouble – grants that were applied for did not come through – and attendance is low. After a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Martin Luther King Day, a fundraiser on Feb. 21, and now a planned "grand opening" during the Sweet Auburn Springfest (May 9-11), Willhoite hopes that somehow, his prayers for financial backing – or at least enough visitors and donations – will be answered.

Where those visitors will come from presents a problem. Willhoite yearns to be taken seriously as a museum, but the collection succeeds more as a personal quest than a serious educational endeavor. People don't build replicas of Bethlehem in their back yards out of found objects to attract tourists looking for cultural oddities, they do it in an earnest attempt to bring their vision to fruition. The Soul Food Museum is a monument to African-American food, celebrity culture, and Willhoite himself; visiting it is mainly an experience in American eccentricity and devotion. But to get the most from it, visitors need to understand (and hopefully embrace) the museum more as an exercise in storytelling than scholarship.

The Soul Food Museum. Daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. 372 Auburn Ave. 678-508-9478. www.naacaha.com/museum.html.