At more and more restaurants, the menus tell us which farms delivered our meat (though not to the Portlandia level), how many miles away the beer was brewed, how many years a cheese was aged. What very few tell us, though, is when a dish originated. Although chefs such as Grant Achatz (at Next) and Paul Fehribach (at Big Jones) have started to note the dates of single dishes or entire menus, we still dine mostly unaware of a certain dish’s provenance or how it has changed over the years.
That's why the Art Institute's historically focused "Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture and Cuisine" is just the kind of show we need. Exploring how artists used food images through the years to comment on political, cultural and social issues, the exhibition serves as a reminder that there's much more to food culture than Michelin stars, reality cooking competitions and celebrity chef worship. Increasingly, museums are recognizing they have something to add to the conversation. The Art Institute is the third Chicago museum in a year and a half to feature an exhibition devoted to exploring some aspect of food. Last year, the Smart Museum of Art featured “Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art,” a contemporary exploration of communal eating, while the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum presented “Food: The Nature of Eating,” a show geared toward teaching kids about how the food industry has evolved in Illinois over the past 200 years.
The Art Institute’s exhibition opens, fittingly, with paintings of Thanksgiving—the “most important American food day of the year,” the wall text reminds us—and progresses more or less chronologically through the 1960s, when Andy Warhol, Wayne Thiebaud and others used food images to comment on commercialism and mass consumption. A considerable portion of the show is devoted to still lifes, including paintings by Raphaelle Peale, such as Melons and Morning Glories(1813). The wall text explains that the fruit was brought over to the Americas in the 1600s from Africa by the Spanish and was sold in street carts during the 19th century.
The exhibition highlights eating as a social ritual, including paintings of elaborate picnics, a popular activity in mid-19th century New England. In the Gilded Age, some painters produced highly realistic images with political connotations, such as De Scott Evans’s The Irish Question, a painting of two potatoes dangling from a string, which nods to Irish politics, immigration and famine. In 1886, Chicago hosted a citrus fair, and the newspaper ad on display shows an orange and lemon grove, along with pyramids of citrus fruits, filling a large hall. (There was a frost in Florida that year, and Southern California citrus growers were encouraged to show their fruits at the fair.) Various objects are on view as well, such as a punch bowl that Eleanor Roosevelt commissioned in honor of FDR’s reelection as New York governor in 1931 during Prohibition.
Knowing a food’s history, or how artists of the time construed its cultural importance, may not necessarily improve our enjoyment of said food, but it does foster a broader appreciation for what’s on the plate and how it came to be there. I may not like watermelon, but now I know a bit about how it arrived in the United States and how long is has been consumed on our shores. I can picture seeds being transported across the ocean from southern Africa.
"Art and Appetite" illuminates how we viewed food over the centuries and highlights political and social questions surrounding certain dishes or ingredients. Whereas today the choice to buy local, pastured, grass-fed beef or cheaper industrial beef says something about our values and priorities, in the past, food decisions with moral implications included such things as whether to flout Prohibition. "Art and Appetite," as a whole, feels very broad (there could be full shows dedicated to the subject of each gallery), yet it's an engaging survey of important foods and customs in the American past, reflecting a resurgent interest in understanding what’s on our plates now.
"Art and Appetite" opens at the Art Institute of Chicago on November 12.