Why do we eat the way we do? Why are tables set the way they are? Why are there three meals a day? The manners and rituals surrounding eating are at once completely natural yet thoroughly mysterious.
It might seem farfetched to reach some understanding from 17th- and 18th-century tureens and porcelain figurines, tea cups and jugs, period paintings and confectionery tools. But using the 240 or so objects gathered at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in “Savor: A Revolution in Food Culture,” Meredith Chilton, curator emerita at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto (where this exhibition originated), argues that a source of much Western culinary culture is France, from 1650 until the 1789 Revolution.
Savor: A Revolution in Food Culture
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
Through Jan. 3, 2021
She asks us to imagine each artifact as it once was, in use. A life-size earthenware boar’s head from Strasbourg in the mid-18th century could seem almost brutish set upon a table, as if just severed in a hunt. But stag and boar hunting, we learn, “were the most prestigious of sports before the French Revolution, reserved for the nobility and kings.” And this head with its pierced nostrils is also a tureen; filled with food, “steam would escape, resembling the hot breath of a living boar.” Could anything be a greater symbol of power or prestige than to feast upon a dish that displays both its fearsome origins and its final conquest?
Other animal tureens here have a more domestic character. Two German woodcocks (c. 1750) are elegantly perched, their prominent beaks pointed up, their curved necks providing a grip for the diner prepared to scoop out their innards. But tureens don’t evoke only the hunt. An array of artichoke tureens from Strasbourg look like preserved examples of the vegetable that presumably would be found within.
The exhibition suggests that such tureens might have evolved out of the Medieval and Renaissance customs of cooks reassembling a cooked bird, say, to resemble its live counterparts, complete with feathers. This makes sense: Cooked food is always a transformation of the natural—a domestication of it, remaking it according to human rules. When food is artfully restored to its original appearance, it is clear enough who is the declared master.
But this notion is also toyed with. Confectionery chefs, we learn, loved to mold ice cream or sorbet into fruit shapes (some are on display) but would sometimes overturn expectations fed by the preparation’s appearance. In 1780, for example, the queen of Naples ate a slice of cold turkey “that turned out to be lemon ice.” Such jest is echoed here by interposing contemporary trompe l’oeil food objects among the artifacts. Many are by a Swiss artist, Dominique Kaehler Schweizer, a psychiatrist now known as Madame Tricot for her knitted wool creations: asparagus, Swiss omelets, a ham bone.
We see a double impulse at work in cooking. The effort is to either resemble or to startle—to echo nature or to overturn it. And when the host is also startled, things get even more interesting. Encounters with exotic food—via imperial conquest and trade—fed the gustatory ambitions of Europe. Rare delicacies like pineapples became marks of hospitality and high fashion.
But new techniques were needed to grow such fruits. At Versailles, nine acres of gardens were overseen by Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie (1626-1688), whose book “The Complete Gard’ner” may have introduced French methods into England. Temperature control could require glass enclosures and the use of “hot horse or donkey manure.” Rectangular beds were devoted to specific plantings. And French cooks of the period, we are told, championed food qualities still valued: fresh preparations and local sourcing.
But the stronger association with contemporary culture is in the way eating was organized. Tables of the nobility, as we see in several books here, were set with artful symmetries. Specialized bowls (many on display) were developed for sauces, desserts, soups and condiments, along with a “rigid theatrical protocol” governing their use. The technology also changed. Cooking fires were replaced, in homes and palaces, by early stoves, allowing controlled temperatures.
On formal occasions, the table became a stage set. Artifice shaped the meal. And manners distanced dining from the breath of wild boars. A 1791 London manual cited “rules of behaviour” at table, “where it is exceedingly rude to scratch any part of your body, to spit, or blow your nose…or to pick your teeth before the dishes are removed.”
In the 18th century, the exhibition suggests, an opposing movement of informality also took shape. In a final gallery, inspired by an account by Casanova, is a “tableau of an intimate dinner for two” in which “nothing is quite what it seems.” It is a scene of contemporary playfulness. Two chairs (2019, by Gerard Gauci) seem to be antiques, until you notice that one displays a seemingly woven image of an ice-cream sundae, the other an order of fast-food fries—implying that contemporary tastes have reduced informality to simple appetite.
This exhibition is suggestive enough to lead to many other questions. Why should a doomed pre-Revolutionary formality have become so influential? How did matters change after 1789? What role did the development of the restaurant in 18th-century France play? And, finally, what’s for dinner?
—Mr. Rothstein is the Journal’s Critic at Large.
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Appeared in the November 20, 2020, print edition as ‘A Taste of Culinary History.’