The majestic Art Institute of Chicago is my favorite place and has been since I was a child growing up in the suburbs of the Windy City. Our school classes used to take field trips a couple of times a year into Chicago to all the incredible museums, but this one was always my favorite. I loved walking past the massive lion statues and up the steps into another world that captured my imagination. Not that I didn’t also love the Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry, and the Shedd Aquarium, but there was always something about paintings that fascinated me more than the others.
A special exhibit showing now is truly a gift to the city and its residents, not just for food culture and cuisine enthusiasts, but for history buffs as well. Artists used foods to relate to politics, race, class, and gender, and we can view these social moments through the paintings from the 18th century still life to the pop art of the 20th century. There is so much to say about the Art Institute, but for now, we will just look at the latest exhibit of “Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine,” running through January 27th.
The works in this exhibition reinforce the notion that food truly is at the center of our culture. It’s not just for sustaining health, but it includes our identity, aspirations, and most of all, family. Whether you examine the works of Andy Warhol, Norman Rockwell, or Edward Hopper, the food paintings are the framework for social commentary and even the history of our nation, from advertising food products to the all-American Thanksgiving table. Chicago was the perfect venue for this exhibit because of its vital role in the American food industry, from the stockyards, the design of refrigerated railway cars, the kings of the meat-packing companies, and today, for being the city of some of the greatest chefs in the world.
Even if you can’t make it to Chicago, you can still view all the works from the exhibit in this must-have book, Art and Appetite. The book is available at the gift shop of the Art Institute, from the distributor online at www.yalebooks.com/art or at amazon.com. The book is divided into chapters:
1) Thanksgiving: The Great American Food Fest
2) “The Symmetry of Nature”: Horticulture and the Roots of American Still-Life Painting
3) Recipes for Refinement: Art and Sociability in the Mid-Nineteenth Century
4) Drunkards and Teetotalers: Alcohol and Still-Life Painting
5) Matters of Taste: Trompe l’Oeil and the Politics of Food
6) Anxious Consumption: Paintings of Food at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
7) From Tabletop to Table: Food and Eating in the Modern Era
8) Convenience: Pop, Production, and the Making of Art in the 1960’s
The book is very large and heavy and a must for culinary historians or even for those who like to cook, because the book also includes recipes. If you go to the Art Institute link, you will even find an online cookbook with everything from a tomato soup cake to a Graham Elliot seafood chowder, with over fifty recipes of classic American dishes and new offerings from Chicago’s leading chefs. Don’t miss this book. It’s a treasure!
A few of my favorite paintings:
One of my all time favorites, Thanksgiving by Doris Lee, 1935. My mom had a print of this and my great-aunt in Iowa had a copy hanging in her kitchen. I have a big poster of it that I bought at the Art Institute gift shop.
I love the art of Wayne Thiebaud. He is still alive and hopefully still painting, at the age of ninety-three. I love this work titled, Sandwiches, Salads, and Desserts, from 1960.
Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, 1942.