Art is love. Food is life.
Or to look at it another way: Art is life, food is love.
The two intertwined topics have now come together for an unusual exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine looks at how food has been depicted in American art from colonial days to the present. According to exhibit curator Judith Barter, the 115 objects displayed do not just tell us about food, they offer clues to understanding American history and culture.
Take, for instance, the exhibition’s earliest painting. A 1771 portrait by John Singleton Copley shows a woman seated at a small table, reaching for a bowl of fruit. But according to Ms. Barter, there is more to it than that. The woman, Mrs. Ezekiel Goldthwait, is dressed in fine silks, sitting on an exquisitely appointed chair.
The family became rich from its orchard. By reaching for the fruit, she is showing off the source of their wealth.
The theme of horticulture depicted in the picture is typical of the exhibition’s works from the 18th and 19th centuries, and with a good reason. At the time, nearly all Americans ate what they grew.
“If you didn’t have a good kitchen garden and you didn’t have an orchard, you were doomed,” Ms. Barter said.
Some of the works included in the exhibition are iconic. Andy Warhol’s 1965 near-exact rendition of a can of Campbell’s soup brought seemingly ordinary objects, advertising illustration, and the craft of mass production to the forefront of fine art.
Norman Rockwell’s 1942 painting “Freedom from Want,” which first greets visitors to the exhibition, has come to define our image of Thanksgiving. But according to Ms. Barter, it can also be read as an image of a family sitting down to an enormous turkey while but having to make do with sparse side dishes because of a period of rationing during World War II.
And perhaps the exhibit’s most famous painting of all, Edward Hopper’s 1942 masterpiece “Nighthawks,” shows a few people being alone together at an all-night diner.
“Hopper loves to paint things like Chinese restaurants and automats and diners, and there is never any food in there. He only paints people with a cup of coffee or tea. So it was kind of a joke to put that in [the exhibition]. But it is also a picture of a diner, a new way to eat in the ‘30s and ‘40s,” she said.
Ms. Barter began working on the ambitious exhibition back in 2001. “I have two passions in life, art and food,” she said. “Fortunately, I get to practice both of those every day.”
Her fondness for food began in her childhood, when she grew up in a suburb of Chicago (her sister, Patty Gillespie, lives in Sylvania). Her family would go to her grandparents’ farm in Peotone, Ill., and her grandfather would butcher farm animals for their food.
“For someone of my generation [she is 62], I’m pretty unusual because I had a relationship with the food I was eating. We were local before local was cool,” she said.
For the exhibition, she wanted to learn more about food and what people were eating. So she researched the subject by looking through an abundance of old cookbooks. She would take note whenever a recipe was particularly interesting and was related in some way to the food in the pictures. A number of these historic recipes are included in the show and its catalog.
Inspired by the Warhol can of Campbell’s Soup, she included a recipe originally published in a cookbook put out by the Campbell Soup Co. in 1950: Tomato Soup Cake. Along with the expected can of tomato soup, is also flavored with cloves, cinnamon, and raisins.
To accompany the Rockwell painting and others depicting Thanksgiving, she included a recipe for turkey with oyster sauce written by Mary Randolph in her seminal 1824 cookbook The Virginia Housewife; or Methodical Cook.
The temperance movement, so important in the 19th and early 20th centuries that Ms. Barter compared it to the abolitionist movement, is represented by paintings and recipes for non-alcoholic drinks. The next gallery, she noted, is devoted to the subsequent cocktail culture, including a 1927 Gerald Murphy painting called “Cocktail” and a stunning Art Deco cocktail service designed in 1934 and 1935 by Norman Bel Geddes.
Recipes for cocktails include a couple of 1866 variations on ginger beer and an 1862 recipe for a Tom and Jerry that mixes brandy and hot water with a lot of sugar and a lot of eggs, plus small amounts of cinnamon, cloves, and allspice.
The exhibition covers art from the 18th century all the way up to the era of pop art, including oversized sculptures by Claes Oldenburg of a giant fried egg, green beans, and a wedding cake made out of plaster of paris.
“He generally supersized ordinary objects to make us notice them, to make them less banal, to make us think about them,” Ms. Barter said.
For Ms. Barter, every picture tells a story. The paintings, sculptures, and objects in the exhibition reveal more than just the artist’s attitudes about food. If you dig a little deeper, you can see a world of other information.
For instance, one James Peale still life from the 1820s depicts tomatoes, eggplants, squash, cabbage, and okra. And right in the middle is a cucumber-shaped fruit with orange flesh and bright red seeds inside.
“That’s called a balsam pear,” Ms. Barter said. “It’s poisonous.
“Why did he put it in there? My interpretation is that the Peale family were pretty accomplished botanists, horticulturalists, and scientists, and they were very concerned about American abusing their land. They were all proselytizing for plowing your dead crops under and rotating your fields.
“So I think he was introducing something questionable into the Garden of Eden.”
Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine will be at the Art Institute of Chicago through Jan. 27, 2014. The museum is open daily, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day, from 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m., with extended hours on Thursdays until 8 p.m. The exhibition is free with a paid general admission: $23 for adults, $17 for seniors and students, and free to children under 14. The museum is located at 111 S. Michigan Ave., in Chicago. For more information, call 312-443-3600.
Contact Daniel Neman at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6155.
To Boil a Turkey with Oyster Sauce (1824)
Grate a loaf of bread, chop a score or more of oysters fine, add nutmeg, pepper, and salt to your taste, mix it up into a light forcemeat with a quarter of a pound of butter, a spoonful or two of cream, and three eggs; stuff the craw with it, and make the rest into balls and boil them; sew up the turkey, dredge it well with flour, put it in a kettle of cold water, cover it, and set it over the fire; as the scum begins to rise, take it off, let it boil very slowly for half an hour, then take off your kettle and keep it closely covered; if it be of a middle size, let it stand in the hot water half an hour, the steam being kept in, will stew it enough, make it rise, keep the skin whole, tender, and very white; when you dish it, pour on a little oyster sauce, lay the balls round, and serve it up with the rest of the sauce in a boat.
N.B. Set on the turkey in time, that it may stew as above; it is the best way to boil one to perfection. Put it over the fire to heat, just before you dish it up.
To Make Sauce for a Turkey
As you open the oysters, put a pint into a bowl, wash them out of their own liquor, and put them in another bowl; when the liquor has settled, pour it off into a saucepan with a little white gravy, and a tea-spoonful of lemon pickle—thicken it with flour and a good lump of butter; boil it three or four minutes, put in a spoonful of good cream. Add the oysters; keep shaking them over the fire till they are quite hot, but don’t let them boil, for it will make them hard and appear small.
Source: Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife; or, Methodical Cook, 1824
Jellied Chicken Loaf (1944)
Dissolve Jell-O in hot water. Chill until slightly thickened. Combine chicken and vegetables with mixture of vinegar, oil, salt, and pepper; let stand to marinate. Fold into slightly thickened Jell-O. Turn into loaf pan 8 × 4 × 3 inches. Chill until firm. Serve in slices on crisp lettuce. Garnish with mayonnaise, if desired. Serves 8.
Source: General Foods Corporation, Jell-O Division, Bright Spots for Wartime Meals: 66 Ration-Wise Recipes, 1944
Tomato Soup Cake (1950)
Sift together flour, baking powder, soda, and spices. Wash and cut raisins. (Roll in a small amount of the flour mixture.) Cream shortening; add sugar gradually; then eggs, mixing thoroughly. Add flour mixture alternately with soup; stir until smooth. Fold in the raisins. Pour into two greased and floured 8-inch layer pans; bake in a moderate oven (375°F) about 35 minutes, or until done. Frost as desired.
Yield: 8 servings; Source: Cooking with Condensed Soups, by Anne Marshall, 1950
Tom and Jerry (1862)
Use punch-bowl for the mixture.
Beat the whites of the eggs to a stiff froth, and the yolks until they are as thin as water, then mix together and add the spice and rum, thicken with sugar until the mixture attains the consistence of a light batter. To deal out Tom and Jerry to customers: Take a small bar glass, and to one table-spoonful of the above mixture, add one wine-glass of brandy, and fill the glass with boiling water, then grate a little nutmeg on top.
Source: How to Mix Drinks; or, The Bon-Vivant’s Companion, by Jerry Thomas, 1862