Archive for the Food Category

The Still Life Examined: Asparagus in Art

Posted in Christine Cariati, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Flora & Fauna, Food, Painting with tags , , , , , , on March 23, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Édouard Manet, Asparagus, 1880
Oil on canvas
Musée d’Orsay, Paris

In honor of the arrival of spring, I thought I’d continue my exploration of the art of the still life by concentrating on images which depict that quintessential spring vegetable, asparagus. The subtle whites, mauves, purples and greens of asparagus are beautifully portrayed in this famous image (above)—Édouard Manet’s single white asparagus, which was a gift from Manet to Charles Ephrussi. Manet had just sold A Bunch of Asparagus (below) to Ephrussi for 800 francs. When Ephrussi sent him 1000 francs instead, Manet painted this single white spear and sent it to Ephrussi with the note: “There was one missing from your bunch.”

Édouard Manet, A Bunch of Asparagus, 1880
Oil on canvas
Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne

Through the use of subtle color, volume, atmosphere and light, a beautifully rendered still life takes something that no longer exists—and shows it to us as a palpable, living thing. The Golden Age of still life painting was  1500-1800 and flourished in the Netherlands, France and Germany. Still-life painting was not merely an aesthetic exercise, although technique and composition was extremely important. It was also meant to provide a record of familiar objects—china, flowers, vegetables, fruits, dead birds, game and fish, et al—and to provide reference points for the flow of the seasons, the passing of time and mortality (tempus omnia terminat—time brings an end to all things.) Still life painting also reflected the wealth and social standing of the patrons—and often the sources of that wealth and position were depicted in the work: exotic spices, Venetian glass, porcelain from China.

Cornelis de Heem, Vegetables and Fruit before a Garden Balustrade, 1658
Oil  on copper
Städel Museum, Frankfurt

Art historians like to ascribe an iron-clad iconography to still life painting, where every element is depicted for a specific reason, each with absolute symbolic meaning. This may be largely true, but I believe that individual artists also included objects based on aesthetic and personal criteria that superceded the established iconography.

Asparagus has been around a long time. The oldest known recipe for cooking asparagus appeared in Apicius’ De re coquinaria, Book III, in the third century. Since the 17th century, it has been highly valued for its culinary and medicinal properties.

The only painter I have come across, prior to Manet, who made asparagus a primary subject in his work, is Adriaen Coorte (active c. 1683-1707.) This 17th-century Dutch master, whose work was largely unknown until the 1950s, painted many pictures where asparagus is a very important—or sole—element in the composition. This was unusual among his peers, not least because asparagus was a luxury item in the 17th century.

A. Coorte, Still Life with Asparagus and Spray of Red-Currants, c. 1696
Paper on cardboard
Pieter C.W.M. Dreesmann Collection

Adriaen Coorte, A bundle of Asparagus, 1703
Paper on canvas
The Fitzwilliam, Cambridge

Adriaen Coorte, Still Life with Asparagus, Cherries and a Butterfly,
c. 1693-95
Paper on panel
Private collection, Switzerland

Many 17th-century European artists painted asparagus in combination with other still life elements. The painting below is one of almost two identical compositions by German painter Peter Binoit (1590/93-1632/39)—only in this version, he added a squirrel.

Peter Binoit, Fruit and Vegetables, Roses in a Glass Vase, and a Squirrel, probably 1631
Oil on wood
Private collection

Isaak Soreau, Basket of Fruit and Vegetables, c. 1628
Oil on wood
Private collection

François Habert, Kitchen Bench with Carp, c. 1645-1651
Oil on canvas
Hessiches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt

French artist Louise Moillon (1610-1696) had a long and successful career as a painter of Naturalist still life. She was noted for her sensitive rendering of plants and her exceptional use of chiaruscuro. Moillon was raised in a family of painters and her father also owned a prominent art gallery on the Left Bank.

Louise Moillon, Still Life with a Basket of Fruit and a Bunch of Asparagus, 1630
Oil on panel
The Art Institute of Chicago

Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670), known as the miniatura (miniaturist)  was an accomplished still life painter who had a long and successful career. Her paintings, mostly gouache or tempera on vellum, were collected by the Medicis and other aristocratic families and were highly prized and valued. This painting, unusual with it’s white background, has an extremely light and contemporary feel. A contemporary art historian, Emanuele Tesauro, wrote that Garzoni had the ability “to penetrate the most minute and subtle causes underlying every subject.”

Giovanna Garzoni, Plate of Asparagus with Carnations and a Grasshopper, undated
Gouache on vellum
Private collection, Italy

I will close my homage to the asparagus with this amusing 18th century etching which I found on Bibliodyssey. Elaborate wigs were all the rage at the time and many satirical artists found it irresistible to parody them. Among the vegetables and herbs adorning this creation, note the large bunch of asparagus at the top.

Wider connections

The Magic of Things, Still-Life Painting 1500-1800, edited by Jochen Sander

The Still Lifes of Adriaen Coorte 1683-1707 by Quentin Buvelot

Creative Food Play: Adventures With Buddha’s Hand

Posted in Food, Liz Hager with tags , on November 24, 2008 by Liz Hager


buddhas-handBuddha’s Hand. Photo ©2008 Liz Hager

Over the weekend, while in the process of hunting and gathering in the gargantuan fruit section of my favorite market, I had noticed a middle-aged woman lingering in the vicinity of my shopping cart. As I returned to the cart and attempted to reach for its bar, thinking it was somehow blocking her way, she accosted me. “What do you do with THAT?” she asked, pointing to the yellow, squid-like fruit whose tentacles were peeking up among the bags of pears and apples. I saw no reason to lie. “I have no idea,” I grinned. “I’m using it for a photo project.”

Fortunately my traveling companion for the day was Tia, who is an expert on all sorts of food. Turns out, this thing—this Buddha’s Hand, aka citroncedraCitrus medica var.sarcodactylusis an ancient relative of the lemon. It has the rind of a lemon but not the pulp. It’s used in Asian cultures to freshen rooms. In the Western world, outside of a few daring chefs, who use it raw, it’s mostly used for making candied fruit. Those little cubes of succade in fruit cakes? Some of them originated from the rind of this strange-looking life form.

Armed with that knowledge, I put the Buddha’s Hand out of my mind as a reliable food source.

A day later, however, my penurious nature got the better of me. How wasteful to throw out the carcass after the photo shoot! Nature had designed something more beautiful than any human could have invented—a fruit with gorgeously gnarled fingers. Think of the presentation possibilities. The ooo-ahh factor spurred me on.

I consulted Tia. She attempted to instruct me on the details of preparing candied citron by phone. She went over the instructions a second time, making a few modifications.  I should have taken notes. I’m not a novice in the kitchen, but I absorb new concepts best visually through interactive watching. I hung up the phone, a bit fuzzy about the numerous and seemingly-complicated steps that would allow me to candy the fruit properly, while leaving the fingers whole. They are fairly thick, was our method going to cook them all the way through?

I consulted the internet. The scant recipes out there are all slightly different and none of them mention a way to do it so the fingers stay whole.

This afternoon I decided just not to worry about the whole thing. I cut into the fruit, running my knife along the grove that separates each finger. I carved out some of their pulp, but left the fingers whole.

Buddha's Hand

They’re in their third boiling bath. Stay tuned for results.

Wider Connections

Chris Minnick’s recipe

Carolyn Carter’s recipe

Sky Gyngell’s chocolate dipped recipe

Hangar One Buddha’s Hand vodka

Savory Recipes using Citron

Buy a Buddha’s Hand tree

Why We Love (Kae-Sa-Luk) Watermelon

Posted in Food, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 18, 2008 by Liz Hager


Kalaya Tonghcareon Paragas, “Thai-Styled Watermelon Carving” (photo © Saveur Magazine)

A few months ago the September issue of Saveur arrived on my doorstep. On its cover was emblazoned the confident tagline—”Why We Love Watermelon”—a pugnacious answer to an unbidden question. Personally, I prefer the more meaty varieties of melon, such as cantalope and honeydew. As a result, I had every intention of skipping the article. But that was before my eyes came to rest on a page-size resolution of a this watermelon carved to resemble a camilla, or perhaps a lotus?   

What a tour de force of ornamental embellishment! It caused me to turn back the pages and read this article on the global joys of watermelon.  Well, read superficially anyway. What hooked me, though was the following little tidbit from Saveur author Katherine Cancila—

In Thailand. . . the elaborate carving of watermelon and other fruits is a long-standing and respected tradition that dates to the 14th century, when the art evolved in the court of King Phra Ruang. Chefs for Thai nobility and royalty were expected to make food that was not only delicious but also beautiful, even fantastical. Today in Thailand, carved fruits and vegetables are presented as religious offerings, used as displays at weddings and banquets, and entered into judged competitions. 

As I discovered through additional digging, the carving of fruits and vegetables (Kae-Sa-Luk), has a long history in Thailand. Legend suggests that the tradition was created during Loi Kratong (Krathong), a popular festival during which Thais launch krathongs—banana leaf boats filled with incense, flowers and other offerings—as inducements for the water spirits to carry away their troubles. The story tells of one of the King’s (though not specifying which one) servants, alternately referred to as Nang Noppamart, Lady Nopphamat, and Thao Sichulalak, who, wishing to please the King, distinguished her krathong by carving beautiful flowers and birds from fruit.

Reality is no doubt more prosaic. Many believe the artform was adopted from the Chinese, although scholarly sources on the subject are difficult to find. It may well have originated, as Ms. Cancila suggests, under Phra Ruang, although this was not one king but a dynasty of kings, which ruled the in north-central Thailand from 1238-1368.  The dynasty is generally considered to be the forerunner of modern-day Thailand, because its first ruler, Phokhun Si Intharathit, led the rebellion against the Khmer regime that established the first independent Thai state.  The appellation of their kingdom—Sukhothai (Dawn of Happiness)—derives from the dynasty’s capital city. Today, Sukhothai is a UNESCO World Heritage site; parenthetically UNESCO sites are always well-worth the visit.  In its short 100+ years, the Phra Ruang dysnasty successfully expanded its territory along the entire Chao Phraya River basin (to present-day Bangkok, situated at the delta of the river), and is credited with lasting influence on Thai culture and political custom. 

In her description above, Ms. Cancila may actually be referring to Pho Khun Ramkhamhaeng (Ramkhamhaeng the Great), the third king of the Phra Ruang dynasty, who ruled the Sukhothai from 1277-1317. Ramkhamhaeng is credited with establishing the Khmer-derived Thai alphabet, still in use today, and with promoting nascent Thai art forms, including painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, and of course fruit & vegetable carving.

Kalaya’s other watermelon carvings

Kalaya is a 55-year-old Thai immigrant (she lives in Long Island, NY), who has been carving fruits and vegetables since her teens. 

Master Pam Maneeratana Carves a Pumpkin (and other things)

Vegetable and Fruit Carving Book

Indian Food Kitchen Blog

The Art of Thai Food Carving

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