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
August 31, 2012
Considering what passed for children’s fashion in the 1970s when I started elementary school—patterned polyester pants with coordinating turtlenecks—it’s no surprise that picking out new clothes was not my favorite part of back-to-school shopping. Instead, I considered my most important September decision to be choosing the right lunch box. It had to last all year, if not longer, and it was a personal billboard, much like the concert T-shirt was to older kids, that would tell my classmates what I was into. The message I hoped to get across was: “Hey, I dig Snoopy. Wanna be friends?”
An added bonus of my Peanuts lunch box was that it was covered in comic strips, so just in case the lunch box failed to provide a conversation starter, I always had something to read as I ate my cheese and crackers, apple, and alphabet soup from the coordinating Thermos that fit neatly inside the metal box. (I guess my mom didn’t get the memo about Quiche Lorraine, which was a popular lunch item in the 1970s, according to a fun series of food history posts, called What’s In Your Lunch Box?, that Smithsonian intern Ashley Luthern wrote for the blog).
Sadly, the metal lunch box has mostly gone the way of the overhead projector. Today’s kids often tote their lunches in soft insulated polyester versions that fit easily into backpacks, just the latest development in the long and distinguished history of midday-meal transporting devices.
The seemingly inactive Whole Pop Magazine Online has an illustrated history of the lunch box—cutely named Paileontology—that traces the origins to the 19th century. Back then working men protected their lunches from the perils of the job site (just imagine what a coal mine or a quarry could do to a guy’s sandwich) with heavy-duty metal pails.
Around the 1880s, school children who wanted to emulate their daddies fashioned similar caddies out of empty cookie or tobacco tins. According to the timeline, the first commercial lunch boxes, which resembled metal picnic baskets decorated with scenes of playing children, came out in 1902.
Mickey Mouse was the first popular character to grace the front of a lunch box, in 1935. But the lunch box as personal statement really took off in the 1950s, along with television. According to Whole Pop, executives at a Nashville company called Aladdin realized they could sell more of their relatively indestructible lunch boxes if they decorated them with the fleeting icons of popular culture; even if that Hopalong Cassidy lunch box was barely scratched, the kid whose newest fancy was the Lone Ranger would want to trade in his pail for the latest model.
Cheap vinyl lunch boxes made a brief appearance in the 1960s, but metal continued to dominate the lunch box scene until the 1980s, when molded plastic—which was less expensive to manufacture—took over. Aladdin stopped making lunch boxes altogether in 1998, though Thermos continues to make them.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has a sampling of images online from its lunch box collection, which includes some cool-looking miner’s pails and popular models from the 1950s and 60s, many of which are in this post.
What kind of lunch box did you carry?
April 10, 2012
What ever happened to really great advertising characters? This question popped into my head the minute I saw the Sriracha Flamethrowing Grizzly. The character, designed by The Oatmeal’s author/artist Matthew Inman, is a sheer flight of fancy and is not—at least not yet—the official figurehead for the hot sauce. With the manic look in his eye, the waggling tongue and his strange ability to deftly wield an incendiary device, I would readily send in proofs of purchase for the plush equivalent of this creature. As twisted as the image might be, you have to admit the guy’s got a terrific amount of personality.
Advertisers employ characters to set their goods apart from everyone else’s, giving consumers someone—or something—to readily identify with. Characters can assign gender, class and ethos to otherwise inanimate objects in addition to reflecting the culture at large. (General Mills released their Monster-themed cereals like Count Chocula in response to hit TV shows like “The Addams Family” and “The Munsters,” and while those programs were cancelled decades ago, the foods they inspired remain on store shelves.) The use of characters began to decline in the 1970s as photography became increasingly preferred over illustration to sell goods. Also, the target audience got smarter and required more sophisticated ploys. The naive cartoon characters from the primitive days of television would be hard pressed to sell the same products to a generation of people who have spent their entire lives exposed to televised advertising. Nevertheless, some characters are ingrained in our culture, including the following:
Aunt Jemima: Ethnic stereotyping is an embarrassing and regrettable theme in advertising history. If you can lay your hands on the book The Label Made Me Buy It, there is an entire section devoted to insensitive depictions of ethnic groups, including the Irish, American Indians, Pacific Islanders and African Americans. The Aunt Jemima brand of pancake mix was introduced in 1889, inspired by a minstrel performance that featured the song “Old Aunt Jemima.” For decades, the character represented a romanticized view of slavery, and what part of makes her fascinating—and infuriating—is how she came to have such a pervasive presence. In addition to print ads and the use of her image on boxes of pancake mix, local promotions hired local actresses to portray the character, and even Disneyland had an Aunt Jemima-themed restaurant that perpetuated the image of the happy southern mammy at least until 1970. The NAACP began protesting this mascot in the early 1960s, although it wasn’t until 1986 that she finally shed the headscarf and received a complete makeover. Despite a modernized image—she now sports pearl earrings—some consumers don’t believe the character can shed her intensely racist origins and say that it’s time for Aunt Jemima to retire.
Charlie the Tuna: In the course of conversation, have you ever said—or heard someone say—”Sorry, Charlie”? Even if there isn’t a Charles, Charlie, or Chuck in the room? This particular turn of phrase has its roots in StarKist canned tuna. The company’s signature spokesfish first appeared in animated ads in 1961 and the slogan we associate with him came about the following year. Originally voiced by stage and screen actor Herschel Bernardi, Charlie strives to be a cultured fish with consummate taste—but apparently he himself does not taste good enough to be used in StarKist products. Every time he pursues a StarKist fishing hook, he finds it speared with a simple rejection letter: “Sorry, Charlie.” Seems the tuna company won’t settle for fish with good taste in lieu of fish that taste good.
Mr. Peanut: Anyone who has seen Sunset Boulevard ought to remember has-been silent screen actress Norma Desmond snarling, “We didn’t need dialog. We had faces!” Mr. Peanut seems to share those sentiments—although he ended up having the better career. The mascot of Planters peanuts since 1916, he didn’t get a voice until a 2010 ad campaign set about revitalizing the character for a younger generation. (Iron Man actor Robert Downey, Jr. supplied the voice, and you can even get updates from Mr. Peanut on Facebook.) Although other monocled and behatted goobers predate the Planters character, it is Mr. Peanut who has enjoyed serious staying power, appearing on Planters products—not to mention a horde of spinoff merchandise—and becoming one of the most recognizable advertising characters in existence.
The Jolly Green Giant: The Jolly Green Giant always seems like such a personable guy, but would you ever expect him to be nice enough to get someone out of a legal bind? When the Minnesota Valley Canning Company wanted to start canning a variety of especially large peas under the name “green giant,” it tried to trademark the title but couldn’t because it was merely descriptive of the product. But they could conjure up an image—a character even—with which to stake a legally binding claim on the name of their goods. The Green Giant was born in 1928—although in his initial incarnation, he was Neanderthal-looking and strangely non-green in appearance. With a little redesigning by Leo Burnett, he became a jolly, verdant fellow by the mid-1930s and by the 1950s he became so popular that the Minnesota Valley Canning Company re-dubbed itself Green Giant.
Spongmonkeys, the Quizno’s Rodents: I would not lump the Spongmonkeys in the same class as the other characters mentioned above, but if nothing else they show how advertising reflects trends in current popular culture. The creatures are animals—maybe tarsiers, perhaps marmosets—that have been photoshopped to have human mouths and bulging eyes. They also have a fondness for hats. The brainchild of Joel Veitch, who created a video with the spongmonkeys hovering in front of a hydrangea bush singing about how much they love the moon. It’s over-the-top bizarre. And perhaps that was the quality Quizno’s was looking for when the sandwich chain used this work of internet video art as the basis for a national ad campaign. Some people loved the spongmonkeys, others weren’t quite sure what to do with them—but at the very least, people were talking about Quizno’s. And isn’t that the mark of a successful piece of advertising?