Last Friday, I took a me day and spent the afternoon at the Art Institute of Chicago, where I not only get free admission as a Northwestern student, but also where there is currently an exhibit on paintings of American cuisine, titled Art & Appetite: American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine.
Anything that can bring together food and art is great in my book, but I wasn’t expecting such a fascinating exhibit. Really, I think I was expecting to see nice still lifes and paintings and whatnot, but what I came away with just absolutely inspired me and blew my mind. It was so good that I may just go back for seconds before I leave Chicago for winter break. (P.S. Check out the Art Institute’s online cookbook. I’m just geeking out so much right now.)
1. Thanksgiving is more than the pilgrims and turkey. Declared a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, Thanksgiving represents the great American “home festival,” defining American values and aiding in assimilation for the nation’s new immigrants by giving the nation a single familiar meal to prepare and eat together on the same day.
2. Vegetable gardens represent national pride. As early as the 1800s, homegrown produce became a bragging point for America, partly because of the notion of Americans conquering nature in their new Republic, and partly because they had the freedom to do so. (‘Murica.)
3. But imported produce brought America even more pride. The addition of warm weather delicacies like oranges, pineapples and Madeira wine represented the promise of the young Republic and its pride in agriculture not only locally, but nationwide.
4. Picnics started as a city person thing. Those dwelling in urban areas were nostalgic for the simpler rhythms of country life, so they would organize “pic nicks” and “frolics” as a way to get back to nature. Picnics were also a method of courtship and a means of relaxed gender roles.
5. Food paintings can be hilarious. Like seriously, check out Lilly Martin Spencer’s work. Her painting, Kiss Me and You’ll Kiss the ‘Lasses (as in molasses), is adorable and quirky, plus it deals with deeper topics such as unsettled gender roles, female sexuality and flirtation.
6. Art reflects the economy, even when it comes to food. Okay, this is a no-brainer, but this had to have been the theme of the exhibit. From consumerism to recessions, art aimed at keeping food and its pleasures in context and reminding people to keep it simple and honest, especially when it comes to breakfast.
7. Dining out wasn’t a thing until after the Civil War. Urbanization made eating more public, as people living in the cities wanted to broaden their horizons, and coincidentally they took to French cuisine first, later becoming interested in Italian as immigration brought a large Italian population to New York City.
8. Prohibition didn’t stop artists from painting cocktails as fashionable. Although alcohol was illegal to sell for a period in the early 20th century, American painters continued to depict fun, colorful drinks with paintings celebrating the youth lifestyle, regardless of temperance and all that nonsense.
9. It can still be a food painting without the presence of food. I know, right? Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks depicts a diner without food, but with people meeting there, and this is a food painting because it represents the culture of food in dining without dining, if that makes any sense. The fact that food will bring people together even when there is no food on the table.
10. Food motifs in modern art treat food as objects rather than desires. This last one really pinned down one of my reasons for wanting to blog about food. Food can be a desire (have you seen everything I’ve made with chocolate lately?), but when looked upon as an object, it can transcend primal nom desires and represent anything from consumerism and gender roles to political statements or just plain art. That way you can have your cake and think about it too.