We know that our enjoyment of food is much more than how it just tastes. Atmosphere swallows huge piles of cash as designers create the ultimate in gastronomical interiors, chefs labor to present dishes that sparkle and tempt us, coffee shops perfume the air with the smell of pastry and roasted beans hoping to seduce the casual stroller.Which of the our senses reigns supreme in regard to taste?
It would seem rational to assume that the eating part; our biting, chewing, swilling and swallowing is likely what tells what we are tasting. Our mouth is alive with a plethora receptors that are primed and ready to transmit each savory bite of information to our hungry brain. Sour or sweet, salty or savory, is this information defined by the tastebuds alone. It seems that research suggests that it is in fact our eyes which lead the way and that our tongues are mere followers. "People's perception is typically dominated by what their eyes see", writes Charles Spence, Oxford professor of experimental psychology. This exhibition explores the relationship of what we see, what we taste, and how taste has changed by exploring the menus and dining rooms of a past Gilded Age, to our contemporary rush of fast food and empty carbs.
A catalog is available of this exhibition.
The menu did not exist until the late 1830s. It came into being along with the earliest hotels and restaurants, at a time when service à la russe—the serving of dishes in courses rather than all at once—was growing in popularity. For the first time, diners were granted choice and anticipation.
Menus aid our cultural memory. They provide unwitting historical evidence—not only of what people were eating, but what they were doing and with whom they were doing it; who they were trying to be; and what they valued.
1 calf’s head
2 cups brown stock
1/4 cup butter
1/2 teaspoon peppercorns
1/2 cup flour
6 allspice berries
1 cup stewed and strained tomatoes
2 sprigs thyme 1/3 cup sliced onion Juice 1/2 lemon 1/3 cup carrot, cut in dice Madeira wine
Clean and wash calf’s head; soak one hour in cold water to cover. Cook until tender in three quarts boiling salted water (to which seasoning and vegetables have been added). Remove head; boil stock until reduced to one quart. Strain and cool. Melt and brown butter, add flour, and stir until well browned; then pour on slowly brown stock. Add head-stock, tomato, one cup face-meat cut in dice, and lemon juice. Simmer five minutes; add Royal custard cut in dice, and Egg Balls, or Force-meat Balls. Add Madeira wine, and salt and pepper to taste.
At the height of the Gilded Age, 90 percent of the nation’s families earned less than 1,200 dollars a year with an average annual income of 380 dollars; well below the poverty line. Cities were filled with rural newcomers, and immigrants who were crowded into crime-ridden tenements. While some Americans had sewing machines, phonographs and even electric lights, most lived in poverty.
For those who had the ways and means, the sky was the limit. On a visit to the United States, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau said that the nation had “gone from a stage of barbarism to one of decadence — without achieving any civilization between the two.” Refinement with all the modulation that high society could invent was the order of the day. Etiquette dictated one’s deportment in all matters, but nothing spoke of the refinement of the era more than the dinner party.
The dinner party was considered among the most popular of entertainments, and a well-appointed dining room always provided the perfect setting for this society. The room was typically a large and opulently decorated room. The London Social Mirror stated that the proper dining room “should be furnished with a view to convenience, richness, and comfort.” These rooms were filled with stylish furnishings, elegant flowing linens, elaborate tableware, and an astonishing assortment of china and glassware which would set the stage for these stylish, formal dinners.
The paintings of Pamela Johnson offer us a Tiffany setting with a jewel like reverence to the glories of empty carbohydrates. Chocolate and sugar laden breakfast cereals are posed upon a satin black backdrop of amorphous space. Each of the treats containers give witness to the haste in which consummation and ultimate absorption of the high-fructose product was achieved. Super-sizing is clearly the point in Burger 1, where the artist has painted an infinite column of burgers that reach skyward toward a punishing caloric intake.
In contrast, Eric Wert takes the wholesomeness of slow food to fetishistic levels. Each fruit or vegetable is rendered in meticulous and exacting detail and displayed in a cornucopia of extravagancy that does not so much as invite to dine, but to inspect. These paintings are akin to molecular gastronomy where there is the intent to investigate the physical properties beyond the mere culinary. This extreme reduction of the sensuality of food to an alchemical exploration is a far cry away from the harvest of an autumnal farmers market.
Lee Price in her series of self-portraits surrounded by a plethora of food attempts a middle ground between the stark commercial intake of prepared food with the profound moment of satisfaction that a well prepared meal can provide. Hot Chocolate depicts one of those rare private moments. The artist is shown with the last cup of cocoa in a long bath; hair wrapped, water cooling and marshmallows strew amidst ladle and pan. This painting with its cool balance of black and white is steeped in a luxuriant calm where food is not theoretical in practice or promise.