Frigedæg, the fifth year of the late Paleolithic era, circa 30,000 bce: The Dawn of the Artistry of Food
Vlad, a hairy, burly hunter-gatherer and his twelve-year-old son, Vlad Jr., stagger back to their cave after a day on the veldt. Tied upside down to the pole carried between their shoulders hangs a 200-pound bison calf, taken down by a weapon fashioned of sticks and sharp stones.
Waiting at the cave entrance is wife and mother, Clotilda, whose freshly started fire blazes not ten steps behind her. Waiting, too, is the spit on which the family’s dinner will be turned and turned until it oozes succulence and is ready to be shared.
But something gets into Vlad this day. Instead of preparing the animal for roasting, he snatches a piece of charcoal from the fire, spits on it to kill the embers and begins to draw the bison’s outline on the cave wall.
So skilled is he in representing the animal that fellow clan members gather round in a communal bond, marveling at his work. Later, they will imitate him in a burst of food artistry that will evolve down the ages into depictions of feasts of luxury and meals of maintenance. From sketches of bison to paintings of Adam and Eve’s apple, from the abstemious Last Supper to the gluttonous Henry VIII, from groaning Thanksgiving tables to the Cratchits’ frugal family meal, from da Vinci to Bruegel to Cezanne to Rockwell to Francis Bacon, food and art have been inseparable—and this connection is reviewed in Foodies, a juried exhibition at the Westport Arts Center through November 4.
“Taste is the teacher of art and the giver of ingenuity,” said first-century Roman poet Persius. And so it is for the exhibit’s judges—Pat Callaghan of Pepperidge Farms, Michel Nischan of the Dressing Room, Bill Taibe of Le Farm and The Whelk, and Stew Leonard, Jr.—who evaluated works in all media submitted by WAC members. Significantly, these are not critics of art but persons whose business is the artistry of food.
“There’s a saying about food: ‘You eat with your eyes,’” says Pepperidge Farms’ Callaghan. “There is a unique combination of characteristics and sensory cues that drive appetite appeal. You may re-purchase a product based on taste, but you are first attracted by what you see.”
For Helen Klisser During, WAC’s director of visual arts, the idea of having local food- industry representatives judge submitted works, instead of museum curators doing the work, is engaging the community. Several activities are planned, including the everyman’s art, or napkin doodles, which are then collected and displayed in a video montage; artists talks at Lunchtime Cafés, which are hosted by Westport’s numerous internationally flavored restaurants; and a First Supper film feast featuring The Big Night, the 1996 flick about the conflict between art and commerce that ends with a magnificent on-screen feast.
“These events make the art gallery a community place to be, reaching out and not making it elitist. After all, everybody eats,” says During, who was born in New Zealand. “I’m a foodie. I’m a baker’s daughter. My family’s business was bread, known as Vogel’s Bread. At our free Art Cafés, I give an overview of what’s happening in the art world and present my home-baked muffins.”
Just the thought of home-made muffins conjures up worlds of memories, from fresh-baked apple pies to summer clambakes and picnics on the grass, from Christmas puddings to Shrove Tuesday pancakes to Passover Seders, from the beans that Jack sows to the porridge that Goldilocks eats. We pray for rain to water the crops; we beat back devouring locusts; we worship wine and olives. With food, we celebrate births and salute deaths, even packing provisions into Egyptian tombs for the voyage to the next world.
We are, in other words, in thrall to food, obsessed with food—not just for sustenance.
Shelves groan with tomes on vegans, vegetarians, gluten-free, low sodium, low fat, low carbs, high carbs, no sugar, no nuts, Atkins, Sonoma and, of course, Paleo, which aims to replicate a caveman’s diet. It’s a maze out there, confusing and contradictory. Yet we search, experiment, question.
While the First Lady enjoins us to eat healthy and to plant gardens, moviegoers gorge themselves on buckets of salted popcorn slathered with butter, and sixteen-ounce, sugar-laden sodas. Famine abounds in third-world countries while global companies vie to genetically engineer foods, leading to “Frankenfood,” where chemical ingredients are added to what the consumer has been led to believe is unadulterated. Even the word “organic” begins to have negative connotations. Many pastoral-sounding products are not as pure as promised.
Counterattacking are farmers’ markets that dot the land, offering eco-friendly, nutritious, nonprocessed food embedded in sight-and-scent-filling displays of locally grown victuals. Indeed, Westport’s own farmers’ market is cooperating with WAC’s Foodies exhibit. “It’s a natural tie-in, a way of working together with the community,” says Lori Cochran-Dougall, the market’s director. “It’s going back to the grassroots of what communities used to do, helping one’s neighbor. When we talk of ‘sustainable,’ we talk of a broad spectrum, not just food but the environment and education, not only the community. You need to have a mission. You need to care about something.”
Cochran-Dougall deplores phony “organic” foods and the use of additives. “As for our food,” she says, referring to the vendors at the farmers’ market, “everything is high quality and local, with no corn syrup or hydrogenated oils. It’s all made from scratch. I go to their farms, to every one of their kitchens to make sure they follow our criteria. You’re not paying for someone to ship it from across the seas. You know where it’s coming from, what’s in the soil. It’s one of our only opportunities to do that. We can tell companies we don’t want genetically altered foods by not buying them. Your dollar is your vote for sustaining healthy food for your community.”
That’s where aesthetic judgments come in. Food—on a plate, at home, in a restaurant, in a garden, in a store—enriches not just the sense of taste but sight and smell as well. As France’s Prince Talleyrand said about wine, after it is evaluated by the eye, ear and nose, it should not be drunk but spoken about. He also said only two things mattered: “to give good dinners and keep well with women,” proving the palpable nexus between growing, cooking and serving food and other forms of sensuality. Think of the scene in Tom Jones in which a voluptuous meal is prologue to seduction; it’s not the only example, is it?
“Having the complete experience of food really does encompass multiple aspects of our senses,” agrees Cochran-Dougall. “I do believe that food is love, that there’s something to be said for sitting down at the table, with wine and pretty flowers, and relaxing with the family.”
It’s that complete experience for which During aims, a sensibility and sensitivity that challenges viewers to “see” with their mind as well as eyes, to think as well as feel.
“Sustainable is how to keep going, making sure you’re not depleting resources. It’s like yeast: you need to force life. If you take away, you erode,” she says. “Where do sausages come from? Pigs. And what do pigs eat? Grain. And how do you get grain? Seed and water. You make people think about what they’re eating, that it came from somewhere. To nurture nature. To feed your soul. To balance your life. We keep asking questions because art is space and form, composition and imagination, memory and dreams. It’s about insight, as in a great chef.”
Sæternesdæg, the seventh year of the Neolithic Era, ca. 10,000 BCE: The Dawn of Agriculture
Zagros wears his bearskins lightly, tilling the field, planting and harvesting the grain that feeds his family. Ever since that day when he came upon a green shoot not ten steps from his hut did he welcome the idea that he would no longer have to brave the dangers of the hunt. Now he can stay close to home, cultivating the neat rows of emmer and einkorn wheat and rice, splashing his harvest palette with the green peas, brown lentils, yellow chickpeas, white potatoes, red peppers and orange squash that embellish his fields as if planted by an artistic god to whom he gives thanks for such bounty. The result of his brow’s sweat and his hands’ strength return us to our literal and symbolic roots that can sustain us and harmonize the spheres.