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 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 crochet 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 crocheted 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.
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?
February 22, 2012
Robert Rock Belliveau worked for years as a pathologist. He examined human tissues and tumors and he says he never tired of the job. “I would go to work and spend ten hours a day looking through a microscope. A couple of times a week, I would say to myself, ‘I can’t believe they pay me to do this.’ I just loved going to work and doing what I did.”
Belliveau continues to examine the world with his polarizing microscope. He’s turned his lens on paper, wildflowers and whatever he can get his hands on. Most often, he focuses on the incredible jungle found in fruits and vegetables. He has more than 2,000 images; two of which—cucumber and tomato trichomes—were recently featured in Science magazine. I talked with him from his home in Nevada.
How did you arrive at such a great enthusiasm for the microscopic world of food?
When I retired, I took a course in botany and I started looking at wildflowers. We had a couple years of drought—I’m out in Las Vegas—so I started looking for a more reliable source, which was going to the grocery store. I couldn’t believe the things I found on the things we eat every day. It’s like another planet. What intrigued me most is that these are things that we put in our mouth and chew up and swallow. We do it every day.
Do you go to the store specifically to shop for specimens?
Well, at first, I said, “As long as I’m shopping for groceries, let’s see what I can see.” Then, I started seeing these amazing things, so sometimes I would go to the grocery store just to find things to look at under the microscope. We have a Vietnamese and a Chinese market, so I began looking at exotic fruits and vegetables. Same thing there. I do it seven days a week. It’s not difficult for me to do. It’s a labor of love and I’m learning a lot about fruits and vegetables that I never knew about. I love talking about it. I talk to my wife about it. I talk to my friends about it. I’d stop people on the sidewalk to talk to them about it.
Tell me about your process. Once you’ve dissected a fruit or a vegetable, how do you go about searching for its compelling parts?
In the beginning, I didn’t know what I was doing. I said, “Let’s take a look just to see what’s there.” Every once in a while, I’d say, “Wow! I can’t believe it.” I began to learn that certain things—the pulp of an apple, the pulp of a pear, or the pulp of a peach—are, by and large, not that interesting. Occasionally, though, you’ll find something interesting, like the pulp of a kiwi. Last week, I was looking the skin of an avocado. I said, “Maybe it’s a waste of time to look at.” But it blew my socks off. After a while, you have a database of what you expect might see. Every once in a while, though, you just can’t believe what you see. It’s like Willie Sutton: You go where you think it’s going to be.
Are there particular hotspots?
The skin of a fruit or a vegetable. The endocarps. The seeds and the seed coat. Sometimes the mesocarp is bizarre. The leaves are sometimes astounding, particularly the under-surface of the leaf, which is a gold mine.
Has examining fruits and vegetables changed your eating habits? Is there anything that makes you not want to eat something now?
There are people in the Philippines, who eat certain fruits. The construction of their pulp has long fibers. If they eat too many of those, they get a bezoar, a coagulation of food, like a hairball in your stomach. They have to have surgery to remove them. There are two or three different fruits that do that same thing. If you want to eat those fruits, you should only eat one or two. We have cactus pads, like prickly pears, and those fruits have a lot calcium oxalate in the skin, which wear down your teeth; it destroys enamel when you chew on them. But the one thing I have sworn off is the skin of cucumbers. I lived in Japan for three years and they never eat the skin of a cucumber because of what they perceive as bitterness. What I can tell you, this has been a real education from me.