Posts Tagged ‘Museum of Art & Archaeology’

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

Saturday, October 23rd, 2010

“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.

The Art of Food: The Unavoidable Stage…

Friday, October 15th, 2010

Moving along in the Art of Food digital tour, we stop at Sidonie Petetin’s painting “Still Life with Revolver and Plovers.” What’s the first thing you see when you look at this painting? Does one element of the painting influence how you view the rest of it? For me, I noticed the birds hanging upside down first. When I saw the revolver, it all came together. I can relate to this painting a little better than the Apulian fish plate in the last blog entry simply because I grew up in Nebraska where it’s not unusual to drive down the highway behind a truck with a deer hanging off the back. If anything, it’s more unusual to see this scene in a painting on a gallery wall instead of on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. By removing this scene from its outdoor setting and placing it in a museum, a place that inspires contemplation and interpretation, Petetin has made me think about the process of wild animals becoming my dinner and has raised, for me as well as others I’m sure, a dilemma. As Michael Pollan would say, an omnivore’s dilemma.

In his aptly titled book An Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Pollan, a journalism professor at UC-Berkeley, “trace[s] the origins of everything consumed, revealing what we unwittingly ingest and explaining how our taste for particular foods and flavors reflects our evolutionary inheritance.” I first picked up this book a couple years ago but stopped reading somewhere around page 78 when Pollan explains the dangers of a feedlot diet to a cow’s liver. I grew up surrounded by cattle but I intentionally avoided witnessing branding, butchering, and the “gross” stuff. Pollan, however, lays it all bare on the pages of his book. The reality of what it takes to end up with a burger on my plate is no longer avoidable.

Petetin makes a similar move with her painting, exposing the unavoidable stage between what I would like to believe were happy-go-lucky plovers, to whatever happens to plovers after they are killed. Plovers are shorebirds that aren’t used for food the same way as chickens. However, seeing them suspended in the painting reminds me of a chicken farm and what Pollan describes in chapter 12 of his book as “the glass abattoir.”

An abattoir is a slaughterhouse. A glass abattoir is a transparent slaughterhouse, the type that invites the whole world to see what’s happening on the inside. My first thought on this was, why would I ever want to see the inside of a slaughterhouse? After squirming for a few minutes, my second thought was, how could I not? As an omnivore, I risk more by not knowing about the process of slaughtering meat than by pretending that stage doesn’t exist.

Pollan writes in chapter 12 of The Omnivore’s Dilemma about his first-hand experience with this stage while working for a week at Polyface Farm, a “non-industrial food production oasis” in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Joel Salatin, owner of the farm, and his crew guide Pollan through their stages of chicken processing: slaughtering, plucking, eviscerating, selling, and even composting the waste. Is this stage, the killing of animals for meat, ethical? That’s a question we all have to decide for ourselves, but for those of us who do eat meat, Pollan offers this insight: “While we were cleaning up, scrubbing the blood of the tables and hosing down the floor, customers began arriving to pick up their chickens. This was when I began to appreciate what a morally powerful idea an open-air abattoir is. … This transparency is their [the customers’] best assurance that the meat they’re buying has been humanely and cleanly processed.” He continues, “Like fresh air and sunshine, Joel believes transparency is a more powerful disinfectant than any regulation or technology. It is a compelling idea. Imagine if the walls of every slaughterhouse and animal factory were as transparent as Polyface’s—if not open to the air than at least made of glass. So much of what happens behind those walls—the cruelty, the carelessness, the filth—would simply have to stop” (Pollan, 235).

The City of Columbia has already taken steps to help its residents become more educated, involved in, and aware of meat processing. In the summer of 2009, Columbia residents began pushing for a new ordinance that would allow people to keep chickens in their backyards. In February 2010, the ordinance was passed, allowing residents “to keep as many as six hens—but no roosters—in their backyards for noncommercial purposes.” Since the new law was passed, the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture has begun hosting a series of Yard to Skillet workshops that “guide participants through every step necessary to humanely prepare an urban hen for consumption.” To learn more about a recent workshop, check out this article or this photo essay. Disclaimer: the images and/or language of the article may be deemed graphic by some viewers.

Pollan doesn’t take a personal stance on the morality of eating meat. Instead, he advocates for a farm system that is more like an ecosystem—every species, including humans, in symbiosis. In a lecture given at Williams College on October 11, 2007, Pollan explains why Polyface Farm provides a model for what farming in the United States should be, a system “where every relationship between species is modeled roughly on the relationships that similar species would have in nature” (found at 41:33). Grass, chickens, cattle, even humans—all have a right to be treated humanely, not just during processing but throughout their lives. Instead of cloning meat, overworking slaughterhouse employees, and caging chickens in extremely contaminated conditions (a practice that led to the recent egg recall), Pollan argues we should respect the lives of the species and, when the time for processing comes, go about it in the most humane and clean way as possible.

After confronting my personal omnivore’s dilemma with the help of Pollan’s book, Petetin’s painting of dead plovers is not quite as jarring. In fact, I’m glad the museum has its own little window into the glass abattoir to inspire discussion and contemplation. While books like Pollan’s and workshops like those offered at the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture give people a chance to either read about others’ experiences or have a hands-on experience, Petetin’s painting offers an internal experience—a chance for each viewer to approach the image cautiously, struggle with the theme represented, and reach a conclusion based on personal beliefs and morals. All this without ever having to leave the museum.

*For a map of where to find grass-fed chicken in Missouri, click here. For more information on how to create a more humane system of chicken farming, check out chapter 7 of Dr. Temple Grandin’s book Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals or her webpage.

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.