The Art of Food: “You will still find people who believe that soup will cure any hurt or illness…” -John Steinbeck, East of Eden

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“Still Life with Bowl (Lionel and Clarissa—A Comic Opera)” is the next stop on the Art of Food digital tour. In this painting, artist Claude Raguet Hirst lays out an elegant scene which features an open book, a yellow bowl with a red oriental dragon-like motif, and blue glass vase. The book advertises a comic opera, Lionel and Clarissa. Although there is no food shown directly in this painting, the tightly composed scene is reminiscent of a common practice I witness everyday on campus—somebody eating lunch, grabbing a coffee, or pausing for a snack while reading, either for a class, or, if you’re lucky, simply because you want to.

Authors throughout the canon of world literature include food in their stories and plays. Scenes of feasting play an essential role in conveying celebration and merriment in the medieval epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Marcel Proust’s protagonist in Swann’s Way, the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past, has an existential revelation after tasting a madeleine cake for the first time since his childhood. Even Bram Stoker’s Dracula (or the Twilight vampires, take your pick), steals the souls of the innocent because he needs to feed. Food is essential not only for our body’s nourishment, but as an element we use to define culture, class, ethnicity, gender, and identity. In her folklore class here at MU, Professor LuAnne Roth invites her students to look at food through the lenses of art, culture, and myth. In an interview with the Columbia Daily Tribune, Roth explains, “When I began to train as a folklorist, I was drawn immediately to food. It is seemingly mundane, but it contains so much meaning: personal identity, gender issues, ethnicity and religion.” At the museum, the connection between food, art, and literature suggested by Hirst’s painting is undeniable.

“We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle. My sisters and I were all counting on having one birthday apiece during our twelve-month mission. ‘And heaven knows,’ our mother predicted, ‘they won’t have Betty Crocker in the Congo’” (Kingsolver, 13). This line from Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible resonates with anyone who has ever left home and yearned for mom’s peach pie or grandma’s brown gravy. While living in a new country halfway across the world, the girls in Kingsolver’s novel cling to the day that they can once again “taste” home. Here, food equals home, a sense of place, a fixed scene reminiscent of a still-life painting. When we travel somewhere new, nothing is more comforting than a familiar taste because it reminds us of who we are and where we come from.

At its most basic yet highest level, food represents freedom and choice. In her memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi records her secret practice of teaching American literature to female students in the Islamic Republic of Iran. She also inadvertently records the significance of food and what happens when what you can and can’t eat is dictated by somebody else, in this case, the government of Iran. “Is this how it all started? Was it the day we were sitting at his dining room table, greedily biting into our forbidden ham-and-cheese sandwich and calling it a croquet monsieur? At some point we must have caught the same expression of ravenous, unadulterated pleasure in each other’s eyes, because we started to laugh simultaneously. I raised my glass of water to him and said, Who would have thought that such a simple meal would appear to us like a kingly feast? and he said, We must thank the Islamic republic for making us rediscover and even covet all these things we took for granted: one could write a paper on the pleasure of eating a ham sandwich.” (Nafisi, 65). What we choose to eat shapes who we are and is a direct reflection of our past. When we experience a taste from our past, memories come rushing back and we are reminded of moments that helped us become who we are. What we choose to eat also shapes who we are becoming and is a direct reflection of our present and future. New flavors are a way to explore, learn, and appreciate new situations and opportunities.

Food is both one of the most basic human experiences as well as the most elevated. Regardless of our differences, we all experience food, in some way, on a daily basis. That shared experience creates a platform for dialogue and, with the help of literature and stories, an opportunity for cultural exchange. Like Hirst’s diversely composed painting, featuring an Oriental-style bowl, an Irish comic opera, and a Buddhist “fu” dog, food represents a global experience that can be tasted, read, and imagined—all from your dining room table, your favorite comfy chair, or even your local art museum.

About the Author: Kim Nochi is a first-year master’s student in the Department of Art History and Archaeology focusing on the art of Medieval Spain. In addition to her scholarly interests, she has a personal interest in food policy and local food systems, a result of growing up in rural Nebraska (yes, she’s a Husker fan!). This blog post is part of the “Art of Food” series.

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