“In the age of celebrity chef fetishism and competitive ingredient sourcing, it can be hard to remember that there was a time when restaurants didn’t exist in America.
Before the Civil War, most people ate at home, consuming mostly what they could forage, barter, butcher or grow in the backyard. But just because food choices were simpler back then doesn’t mean our relationship to what we ate was any less complicated.
Food as a symbol of politics, diet, gender roles, technology, isolation, gluttony and blatant commercialism has, in fact, been with us for ages and in many forms.
A massive exhibit that opened last month at the Art Institute of Chicago gathers iconic (Norman Rockwell’s Freedom From Want) and not-so-well-known (Francis W. Edmonds’ The Epicure) American paintings of food from the Pilgrims right on through to Andy Warhol. And it throws in some elegant (Art Deco martini set) and creepy (cabbage-shaped teapot) tableware, menus and memorabilia for good measure.
The curators of the show, called Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture and Cuisine, “offer a new approach to still-life and food-related genre paintings, revealing their importance in American culture, the history of American cuisine, and the ways that these have shaped and reflected our national identity,” says Douglas Druick, president of the Art Institute of Chicago, in the preface to the 125-page exhibit guidebook.