May 22, 2013
Throughout history, food has been sketched in pencil, painted in watercolors and oils and cast in stone. In the 1960s, Wayne Thiebaud replicated cakes and pastries in great pastel detail. Centuries before that, the Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo painted fruits and vegetables in the shape of human faces.
Designer Kate Jenkins immortalizes food in a different medium: lambswool.
Jenkins crochets meals that look almost realistic enough to eat, from birthday cakes and chocolates to roasted chicken and topping-heavy pizzas. “The possibilities are kind of endless with food, because it appeals to everybody,” says the Brighton-based designer. “We all have to eat.”
Jenkins began crocheting food in 2003 to boost publicity for her new accessories label, Cardigan. “Everybody loves food,” says Jenkins, who studied fashion and textile at Brighton University. Before that, she spent a decade as a knitting consultant, selling her designs to fashion labels such as Marc Jacobs, Missoni, Donna Karan and others.
Her first piece was a woven take on the full English breakfast. Jenkins fashioned the eggs, sausage, bacon and beans out of wool, which she says is “a comforting kind of textile to use.” The medium aligned perfectly with her first collection, “Comfort Food,” which chronicled the usual suspects of British cuisine: fish and chips, bangers and mash and fried eggs and beans on toast.
A few years later, Jenkins borrowed inspiration from across the pond. “Kate’s Diner,” a collection of classic New York foods, featured burgers and fries, hot dogs, pretzels and donuts. Her crocheted chow mein in a takeout box appears on Smithsonian magazine’s June cover.
One crocheted dish can take between one to three weeks to complete, depending on the level of detail involved. She usually lays out the ingredients, or photos of them, out in front of her as a reference. While traditional artists can sketch out an idea on paper and erase what they don’t like, Jenkins must weave part, if not all, of an ingredient before seeing if it will work.
“Often I’m making something for the first time, and there’s a lot of trial and error involved and stopping and starting,” she says. “It’s not as quick as a pencil sketch—it’s a lot longer because I’m making a 3D piece.”
Jenkins’ favorite foods to crochet are crustaceans, which are usually adorned with shiny sequins. She’s woven enough of them in her career to fill an entire collection featuring canapes, caviar, “sewshi” and different types of fish. Crocheting bread is another story. “A slice of bread is quite boring to look at,” says Jenkins, who will spice plain-looking loaves and slices with a more textured look or deeper color in the crust.
While Jenkins says she’s a healthy eater who cooks for herself, she’s not an avid home chef. “I’d prefer to crochet the food than spend hours making it. Being a cook is an art form in itself, and I think it takes a lot of practice to become really good at cooking. My time is best spent sticking to something I’m good at.”
April 19, 2013
Artist Piet Mondrian used oil on canvas to create his famous geometric composition of neat red, yellow and blue squares and straight black lines.
Caitlin Freeman’s interpretation of this work of art is slightly different, and sweeter. Her medium? Flour, sugar, eggs and vanilla extract in a baking pan.
The pastry chef pulls inspiration from art and whips it into cakes, cookies, gelées and parfaits at her café on the fifth floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The Mondrian cake, a compilation of moist yellow cake cubes coated in chocolate ganache, is the best seller at the museum location of the Blue Bottle Coffee Bar, which she runs with her husband, James.
In the café’s four years of operation, Freeman and her team have created nearly 100 desserts inspired by artwork that has appeared, at one time or another, on the museum’s walls. Twenty-seven of them, gleaned from works by Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo and Henri Matisse, are featured in her new cookbook, Modern Art Desserts: Recipes for Cakes, Cookies, Confections, and Frozen Treats Based on Iconic Works of Art, published this week. Each recipe is accompanied by a photo of the original artwork, with detailed history written by Janet Bishop, the museum’s painting and sculpture curator.
Freeman includes a photo of her very first attempt at a Mondrian cake, which she says is quite embarrassing to look back on. “It wasn’t perfect, but we just had to make a few thousand of them to feel like we had a hang of what we were doing with that cake,” Freeman says. “You don’t know until you do that final cut whether or not it’s all come together, so that one’s a tricky one.”
Crafting art-inspired cakes wasn’t always the plan for Freeman. She studied photography at the University of California, Santa Cruz, but figured she’d eventually become a dentist—a career goal she explains was likely thwarted by her big sweet tooth. During a trip to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Freeman fell in love with frequent pastry-painter Wayne Thiebaud’s Display Cakes, a 1963 oil painting of a trio of ready-to-eat cakes. Determined to become a pastry chef, she joined a new, small bakery called Miette, learning on the job and graduating from dishwasher to cake decorator (and business partner). She left Miette after seven years. Shortly after, the modern art museum called her and her husband about Blue Bottle Coffee setting up shop in its new rooftop garden.
“My reaction, since I was young, going into art galleries was seeing a piece of art that I really like, and liking it so much that I want to steal it or eat it,” Freeman jokes. “This is my way of doing something about it—just liking something so much that it inspires you to do something.”
How does Freeman move art from the canvas to the cake pan? Countless walk-throughs in the museum’s collections and multiple brainstorming sessions with her team. Some pieces lend themselves immediately to their dessert doppelgangers. For example, artist Ellsworth Kelly’s Stele I, a one-inch-thick, 18-foot-tall rust-colored oblong steel plate looks like an over-sized fudge popsicle.
But sometimes, Freeman says, the inspiration just doesn’t come. Landscape art, in the style of Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe, was tough to delineate in dessert form, so Freeman told her baristas to do the best they could with leaf-like latte art.
The colors in a given work of art usually drive the flavors in the resulting dessert. “If it’s all filled with blues and greens, it’s really hard to come up with something that’s tasty that’s blue,” Freeman says. A Ronald Fischer photograph of a shirtless beekeeper covered in bees led to a white chocolate box with a honey-pistachio parfait filling. The deep reds in Roy Lichtenstein’s triptych painting of a French cathedral became a spongy red velvet cake. Andy Warhol’s famous brightly colored print of Elizabeth Taylor gave rise to a neatly stacked gelatin treat of red, pink and mint squares.
Many of the cookbook’s desserts take several hours or even a day to complete, which can seem daunting to the average at-home baker. Freeman lays out a step-by-step assembly guide, instructing readers on how to temper chocolate, master butter cream and use chocolate transfer sheets, which add elaborate, stencil-like designs to finished sweets. “I didn’t want there to be big barriers of entry,” she says.
Frankly, when it comes to dessert, I think most people would agree.
February 26, 2013
The Chicago seafood restaurant J. H. Ireland Grill opened in 1906 and had a colorful client list. It attracted everyone from gangster John Dillinger (who preferred the grill’s frog legs) to lawyer Clarence Darrow, who went there to celebrate big wins. But the co-founders of Cool Culinaria, which finds and sells prints of vintage menus, remember it for a different reason: its menu design. As colorful as its past, the best-selling menu uses bright colors to convey the fresh and vibrant ingredients to be found inside.
Menus from across the country featured fantastical fare with an artistry that often goes unrecognized, according to Cool Culinaria co-founder Eugen Beer. Along with Charles Baum and Barbara McMahon, Beer works with both private collectors and public institutions including universities and libraries to license menus from the late 19th century through the 1970s. Beer is British, and McMahon Scottish, but he says, “America, for whatever reason, has this vast collection of fantastic art that sits in boxes.”
Their favorites are from a golden age of design and dining ranging from the 1930s to the 1960s.
“You had this incredible explosion of restaurants in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s when the American economy, partly driven by the Second World War, was doing incredibly well. And you had the great highways,” explains Beer. “In Europe at the time, of course, we didn’t have that. I grew up in the United Kingdom in the era of post-rationing and even in the ’50s in England we still had rationing.” But, he says, “In America, you had a fantastic boom in independent restaurants and you had these buccaneering restauranteurs who, in order to give their establishments a sense of identity, invested money in the design of their menus and actually employed well-known artists or interesting designers to produce them.”
Beer firmly believes that the menus they deal with are museum-worthy works of art and will even call in art restorers to handle some of the more delicate cleanup jobs.
But reading the insides can be just as much fun as looking at the artful covers. “I always stop dead at my desk to read the interiors almost like a book and to imagine myself sitting in that diner in the 1940s or a sophisticated nightclub after Prohibition in the 1930s,” says McMahon. Sometimes diners left clues to help McMahon complete the picture: “There was one that I really love, it says in this spidery handwriting, Johnny and I dined here, 1949.”
“They’ve even circled on the actual menu what they ate,” adds Beer.
“Hamburgers, wasn’t it?”
Back then, says McMahon, hamburgers and even a trip to a fast food chain, like McDonnell’s in Los Angeles, was a treat. Serving some of the state’s best fried chicken, the chain actually raised its own chickens on a 200-acre ranch.
The food wasn’t the only reason to head out. If it was Saturday night in Chicago, you could only be one place: The Blackhawk Restaurant, host of the weekly radio show, “Live! From the Blackhawk!“ Opened in the 1920s, the swinging restaurant hosted Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Perry Como and Louis Prima. Beer and McMahon say they like this one for its bold Art Deco graphics:
The Hotel New Yorker struck a serious tone with its 1942 menu designs. With four different wartime themes, including “Production” and “Manpower,” the menus spoke to the patriotism of the hotel, which also had its own print shop. The menus reminded visitors that while they may be having a good time in the Big Apple, they shouldn’t forget what’s happening abroad.
Despite the folksy charm of this 1940s menu from Columbus, Ohio restaurant, the Neil Tavern, the restaurant was actually the premier spot to be seen in the Midwest capital. Part of the stately Neil House hotel, the tavern’s notable diners included Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde, Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Sadly the 600-room establishment was torn down during a 1970s redevelopment project. Beer calls the menu design an incredibly witty ode to American agriculture. But McMahon likes the tiny ships of imported goods, too, including bananas and coffee.
Today, Moscow, Pennsylvania has a population of roughly 2,000. In the 1940s, the borough didn’t even make it on the Census, so it’s a bit of mystery that the town once seemed to host one of the liveliest nights around at the Ritz Grill Club. “Greetings,” reads the 1940s menu cover, “Here stop and spend a social hour in harmless mirth and fun. Let friendship reign–be just and kind and evil speak of none.” And in the interest of providing clients “the best in the line of entertainment, food and drinks” and maintaining “that super-class atmosphere and environment,” the club requested that each patron spend at least $1 for the evening.
Out on the West Coast, things were even more fantastical. At the Oyster Loaf, mermaids rode side-saddle (naturally) atop giant lobsters, as depicted by artist Andrew Loomis.
And at A. Sabella’s, fish donned chef’s hats, lipstick and canes for a night out on the Wharf. Opened in 1927 by Sicilian immigrants, the restaurant was run by the same family over four generations before closing in 2007.
Many of the restaurants included in Cool Culinaria’s collection are no longer in business. “A lot of these were family run, independently run and there would come a point in the 1960s and 70s, presumably when the children said, ‘We don’t want to run the restaurant we’re going into advertising or the motor industry or something,’” says Beer.
A. Sabella’s 1959 menu reveals a culinary fish at the center of a swirl of ingredients and utensils. Alongside the plentiful offerings of seafood, the menu also offers “Spaghetti with Italian Sauce.” McMahon says she comes across this a lot; “You see, Italian-style spaghetti, that’s the phrase, especially in the diners. We’re assuming this was long before the average American household used garlic or olive oil in cooking and it probably signifies that the spaghetti in red sauce had been adapted to American palates.”
By the 1960s, coffee shops became just as cool a place to be seen as any hip nightclub. Lexington, Kentucky’s coffee house, The Scene II, played on that popularity with its 1960 menu featuring a beatnik couple. “Be seen at The Scene,” reads the cover.
But well before beatniks were growing their hair out and smoking pipes, the real place to be seen was Mexico City’s La Cucaracha cocktail club. “Famous the world over,” the club touted its Bacardi rum and English-speaking personnel for visiting Americans. McMahon suspects, but isn’t sure, those visitors included Ernest Hemingway.
February 11, 2013
Let’s just say Dominic Episcopo has sunk his teeth into the “meat” of Americana. In his Kickstarter project, “Meat America,” the photographer has paired iconic images from Lincoln to Elvis (“Love Me Tender”) with hunks of red-meat art. He spent six years gathering what he describes as uniquely American images for the coffee table book-to-be “manifesto” that hits shelves later this month.
“I was absorbed in this world of meat. When I was at the supermarket or at a restaurant, I thought, ‘What else could that be besides a hot dog?’,” he says. “I go in with drawings into the supermarket—they know me there. Now they run into the back to grab extra steaks for me to look at.”
According to his Kickstarter page, the series “is a state of mind, an eye-opening and artery-closing tour of America’s spirit of entrepreneurship, rebellion and positivity.” A few more examples of things you’ll find in the book: A “Don’t Tred on Meat” flag, a map of the “United Steaks,” and the Liberty Bell.
Food art is no new concept (Arcimboldo comes to mind); whether it’s a fruit sculpture at some swanky gala or an Edible Arrangement sent to a loved one for their birthday, playing with food is a thing Americans like to do. But what makes meat uniquely American? According to a Food and Agricultural Organization report in 2009, Americans consume 279.1 pounds of meat per person each year. Australia is a close second with 259.3, but compare that to places like the United Kingdom (185 pounds/ person), Croatia (85.8 pounds/ person) or even Bangladesh (6.8 pounds/ person) and it’s clear: Americans like meat. And we like a lot of it, but what about a big ole’ steak connects the mind to cowboys rounding up cattle on the range? Episcopo says he’s not sure.
“I’m not quite as obsessed with meat as you might think,” Espiscopo says. “But I do think these images speak to a meat fetish thing that is uniquely American.”
He continues, citing his Kickstarter page: “This exhibition celebrates our collective American appetite of insurmountable odds, limitless aspiration, and immeasurable success. Though, some may just see it just as a bunch of states, presidents and American icons shaped out of animal products, which is also fine with me.”
Episcopo received his BFA in photography from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and has lived and worked in the city for the last 25 years as a commercial photographer. Most of his “meat” series was produced in his studio inside of his home—a converted 150-year-old abandoned church—he shares with his wife and three-year-old son.
“A sense of humor in photography is hard to pull off and still be taken seriously,” he says. “Weegee’s got that tongue-in-cheekness to it and Penn’s work influenced my straightforward rendering [of the meat].”
To achieve that simple, untouched look for his meat photos he used cookie cutters and a keen eye for the right cut of steak. For the map of the “United Steaks,” he bought a ribeye, made one cut-in, bent one side to create Florida and the rest he shaped with his hands. The lines from the fat of the slab matter.
For the lettering in examples like “Love and Death” based on the famous Philadelphia statue by Robert Indiana, Episcopo uses deli cuts of ham, roast beef, salami and bologna. The settings and surrounding materials all have meaning and play a roll in telling the image’s story, he says. For “Love and Death” he included what he calls a Philadelphia breakfast: A pretzel, some coffee and the cover of the Daily News—all iconic images for the city.
“I can’t just use a cookie cutter to get a shape of Abe Lincoln,” he says. “I wanted it to look like the steak you bought at the supermarket.” Though Episcopo and his family eats only local, organic and grassfed beef, he says there’s a reason he can’t go organic with his images.
“Organic meat is purple,” he says. “I need a big, ruddy robust piece of meat to get the right idea across.”
He tries to maintain political neutrality with his work, but that doesn’t stop the letters from PETA advocates from coming in, he says. But flack for his flank art hasn’t stifled his creative energy around this endeavor.
“I love when I enter an art show and they ask me the medium,” Episcopo says. “How many people get to say meat or steak? Or ‘Meat is my Muse?’”
While we’re on the subject, a few other examples of “meat art” out there:
- Mark Ryden’s “The Meat Show: Paintings about Children, God and USDA Grade A Beef,” will have you gawking at paintings with Colonel Sanders, Abe Lincoln and a big, juicy steak on the same canvas.
- Though Russian artist Dimitri Tsykalov, may not be going for the “Americana” theme with his work, he’s certainly another meat artist worth checking out. Rather than shaping sausages into the state of Texas, his series “Meat Weapons,” evokes a more visceral response featuring full-suited soldiers outfitted in very rare meat-made machine guns and ammo.
- Marije Vogelzang’s “Faked Meat” goes for the meaty look using anything but: Sapicu-wings with dark chocolate, “meat” lollipops, and veggie-made meatballs. The gist: there are a lot of meat substitutes on grocery store shelves.
- A basic search for “meat art” on Pinterest will find you something red and raw to look at (real or not). A personal favorite: This meat-looking mask by artist Bertjan Pot.
- Lest we not forget America’s bacon obsession: This Foulard bacon scarf just may be the perfect Valentine’s Day present for the bacon-loving, love of your life.
December 4, 2012
I love decorating my apartment for the holidays. The day after Thanksgiving, the tree goes up and it—along with windows and tables and other flat surfaces I can do without for the next four to six weeks—are festooned with whatever seasonal odds and ends I’ve amassed over the years. Not sure what it is, but when I walk into my home at night and am greeted by scads of novelty lighting, I suddenly feel at peace with the world. In recent years, I’ve indulged my love for shabby chic (or maybe just campy) decor by making beer can reindeer, which I’m currently using to decorate the living room shelf used to house bottles of my preferred adult beverages. (It’s a theme. I’ll work it for all it’s worth.) But as I began to look at the decorations in my apartment, and ponder how the halls were decked in past Christmases, it occurred to me that there are lots of ways to use goods in the pantry to make your digs a little merrier. Here are a few ideas for the foodie who has yet to trim their home:
Popcorn and/or Cranberries: When I think of garland, my mind immediately gravitates to the metallic boas used to wrap around bannisters and trees—maybe even a younger sibling. But you can also make your own—and from products that will actually biodegrade. One option is to make a garland out of popcorn: buy yourself a bag of popcorn (not the kind you microwave), prepare and, using a needle threaded with waxed dental floss, string on as many fluffy white kernels as your heart desires. When you’re through with the garland, set it outside for the birds. You can also use fresh cranberries. The fruit should dry nicely on the tree and keep for a few weeks; however, be careful about placing fruited garlands on surfaces that might stain. Alternate cranberries and popcorn, or, as Better Homes and Gardens suggests, add slices of lime for a festive splash of green. Some people spray their garlands with shellac so they can be used a little longer; however, if you do, please do not leave these outside for the animals to eat.
Gingerbread: How could you complain about edible ornaments for your tree? Martha Stewart has recipes for gingerbread that will be strong enough to be used as decoration, but not so tough that you can’t enjoy the fruits of your labors. Roll out a tray of gingerbread people, remembering to make a hole so you can string through a length of ribbon. Bake, decorate and hang. The cookies need to set up overnight, but I also wouldn’t let them stay on the tree but for so long. Stored in airtight containers, they keep for a week—so when out in the open, you have a much more limited time frame to eat them. This might be something you want to do a day or two before Christmas. What could be nicer than waking up on the 25th, gathering around the tree and having cookies to dunk in your coffee? You can also make a gingerbread house, which some people eat at the end of the season, but others spray it with a coat of shellac and use it for several years.
Dough: Another classic option is to whip up a batch of ornament dough. Nothing but flour, salt and water, I suppose this is technically edible while raw (not that I’d recommend that), but because you can make it with items you can find in your kitchen, I’m including it on this list. Roll out the dough and make festive cutouts, bake off and decorate with paints, glitter and any other craft trimmings you like. If you’re a Michelangelo in training, sculpt figures—but remember that the back side is going to be resting on a baking sheet and will be completely flat. You can back those ornaments with colored felt to pretty up the undecorated side after they’re baked and cooled. And before baking, don’t forget to make a hole where you want your ornament hanger to go.
Cinnamon: If you have an abundance of cinnamon sticks in your pantry and you’ve no idea how to use them, I strongly suggest making yourself cinnamon stick Santas. Aside from the cinnamon, you just need some acrylic paint to render the facial features and a product called Sno-Tex (also sold under the name snow paint) to create a textured white beard. Attach a ribbon and hang on your tree.
Peppermint: I love wreaths. Between the splash of color and, if you’re using live botanicals, an invitingly aromatic way to greet your holiday visitors at the door. You can also greet your guests at the door with food by crafting a wreath using star mints. For this, you need a coat hanger or metal hoop, bags of mints or other hard candy with the cellophane tails, and embroidery thread. If using a coat hanger, shape the hanger into a circle and begin tying candies onto your wreath form until you have a full wreath. Top with a bow, and you’re good to go. If you’re using candies with cellophane tails on both ends, your guests will have a tail to tug on to get at a holiday treat. If you’re using hard candies with a tail on just one end, consider attaching a small pair of scissors to your wreath with a strand of ribbon or yarn so your guests can easily snip off their candy.
As our regular readers may know, we like our “five ways” posts so I’m cutting it off here. But I’m sure there are lots more ways to work food into holiday home decor. Let us know in the comments section below how you get crafty with food to make the season a little brighter in your home.
Read more articles about the holidays with our Smithsonian Holiday Guide here