Pig Snouts & Peppermint

Portrait of Penelope Fitzgerald
by Jane Brown, via The Guardian
Penelope Fitzgerald's hauntingly spare and reserved novel The Blue Flower, a fictional account of Novalis' love affair with a very young girl named Sophie von Kuhn, doesn't contain a lot of food description, but the foodie bits it does trot out are pretty phenomenal.

For example, this meal from the opening pages of Chapter 30 "Sophie's Likeness":
The servants had already brought in the soups, one made of beer, sugar and eggs, one of rose-hips and onions, one of bread and cabbage water, one of cows' udders flavoured with nutmeg. There was dough mixed with beech-nut-oil, pickled herrings and goose with treacle sauce, hard-boiled eggs, numerous dumplings. It is dangerous—on this, at least, all Germany's physicians were agreed—not to keep the stomach full at all times.
Good appetite!
A towering Alp of boiled potatoes, trailig long drifts of steam, was placed in the axact centre of the table, so taht all might spear away at it with oustretched silver forks. Rapidly, as though in an avalanche, it subsided into ruin.
"I don't want you to look at me now, Herr Maler," Sophie called across the table [Maler is an artist commissioned by Novalis to paint Sophie]. "Don't study me now, I am about to fill my mouth."
And here is the start of Chapter 38 "Karoline at Gruningen":
There are still Kesselfleisch festivals to this day in Germany
Even Tennstedt had its fair, specialising in Kesselfleisch—the ears, snout and strips of fat from the pig's neck boiled with peppermint schnaps. Great iron kettles dispersed the odours of pig sties and peppermint. There was a music of sorts, and athe stall-keepers, who had come in from the country, danced with each other to keep warm. Karoline had been accustomed to go to the fair at first with her uncle, then with her uncle and step-aunt, and she did so again this year. — A fine young woman still, what a pity she has no affianced to treat her to a pig's nostril!
E.T.A. Hoffmann's Description of a Berlin Marketplace
Vintage French Sausage Ad

Miniature Chinese Altar

Below is a miniature model (13 5/8 inches wide) of a Ming Dynasty altar (1368-1644) complete with offerings of food and incense and possibly vases to hold flowers. Judging from what looks to be sugar cane on the left-hand side of the table, this is perhaps a Hokkien altar. In the Hokkien tradition, the Chinese New Year has its high point on the Jade Emperor's birthday (the ninth day of that fifteen-day long celebration) and sugar cane is always included in the altar offerings in remembrance of how the "king of the heavens" answered the prayers of the Hokkien people and protected them from their persecutors by hiding them in a field of sugar cane. Other foods include what look like a calf's head and a whole carp, cakes, and dumplings. More information about the role of sugar cane in the Hokkien New Year tradition can be found here and here.

image from Christie's website

The model above, although six or seven hundred years old, looks strikingly similar to this modern-day altar, arranged for Chinese New Year in Bangkok (sans sugar cane). For anyone interested in food customs and preparations during the Ming Dynasty in general, this is a fascinating page, providing such recipes as "Stir Fried Chicken Legs with Mushrooms" as prepared by a monk in the Wuhu Buddhist Temple, who "cleaned the chicken legs and mushrooms in water . . . then added oil and wine to a wok and stir–fried . . . until they were well done."

From the webpage "Ancestor Worship in Toaism"

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Seven Sexy Food GIFs and Five Disturbing

Food GIFs are often surprisingly funny, playing with time in the oddest way. The food-sex connection is old news, but GIFs like these make it new again. Be forewarned, the last five GIFs in this line up are actually a kind of disturbing snuff film of a baby octopus (or squid?) drowning in soy sauce. I was depressed for days after I first saw it. If you share that sort of sensibility, do not scroll past the butter-plopped stack of pancakes.

to stop 

(All GIFs found on Tumblr—attributions unknown.)

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Six Furry Canapés and a Levitating Sandwich

Curious food collages from Ruth Marten... Little moles populating an old encyclopedia get dressed up in a ruffled toothpick, a tortilla, and a toasty vol-au-vent:

Canapés, 2007
And below, a zebster stares down a levitating grilled cheese sandwich:
Matt Forderer, Rooster Zebra Contemplating a Grilled Cheese Sandwich (2002)
This image, bMatt Forderer, is available as a poster, here.

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Interview with Amorette Dye (a.k.a. Sakurako Kitsa)

I'm thrilled to present Food Culture Index's first interview—with bento artist Amorette Dye, who works her magic under the name Sakurako Kitsa. There are two previous posts on Ms. Dye's work on this blog (here, and here). She has been featured on Gourmet magazine's website,  Geeknews, CBC Radio's blog, Le Monde's website, and elsewhere. She has contributed to the books Face Food by Christopher Salyers and 501 Bento Lunches, from Korero Books (for which she also wrote the forward). More information about Amorette Dye and her creations is available on her flickr page as well as her bracingly honest blog, The Sururako Chronicles.  In addition to answering my questions (our exchange took place via email over a few days), she's been kind enough to share one of her most recent creations: a sea turtle made from a mushroom.

You use a Japanese name—Sakurako Kitsa—for your bento box creations. Why is this?

Sakurako Kitsa is just a Russo-Japanese mishmash that sort of loosely means "Cherry Blossom Kitten." I've always loved cherry blossom season and I had just adopted a Siamese kitten when I came up with the name. When I first started doing bento art, it seemed like people liked my work but were really hung-up on the fact that I wasn't Japanese. I'm not as worried about it now, but at the time it was extremely important to me that people just be entertained by my food-art without worrying about my ethnicity. People were satisfied enough by the ambiguity of the name that the focus went back where it belonged: the silly food pictures I was trying to show them in the first place.

bento frog

How did you get interested in the Japanese art of bento boxes?

I was one of those kids who always saw faces in woodgrain and wallpaper patterns, and it kept on right through to adulthood in the grocery store. I'd pick up a strawberry and a cleft in the pointy end would make it look like a bunny's face, if it just had some ears. So I'd get it home and try to make it match what was in my head, and it always neat to see if I could really make it work. That sort of turned into trying to make interesting garnishes, then I'd find myself arranging things a certain way when I packed my lunches for work. When other people noticed that my lunches were pictures, I'd get self-conscious and stop. Later, when I decided it didn't matter whether people noticed or not, I just went ahead and had fun with it.

Obento is an art form that's very friendly to that way of thinking. If you think that your leftover pot roast looks like a gnarled piece of driftwood, you're encouraged to go with it. It's always fun to see what other people come up with, as well. Some people get hypercompetitive with "kyaraben" (making accurate representations of anime characters, etc), and kyaraben can get really amazing, but I always just preferred to keep it casual and fun. The more freeform style I do is referred to as "oekakiben".

I love food, and it's so easy to be creative with food. It's so beautiful and so versatile, and there's an infinite variety of colors and shapes and textures to work with. And food is such a natural fit to Japanese art, the respect for form and the beauty of nature. It all comes together in a very simple way that feels very "right" to me.

bento (tomato) lobster

Your thoughts on how a strawberry can be a "bunny face," and a bit of leftover pot roast a piece of "gnarled driftwood" makes me think of something the photographer Minor White said about how an artist needs to see things for what they are, and also "for what Else they are." Food art, like your bento boxes, are kind of the ultimate "what else," and yet, in the end, it's still food, it's still eaten, and no matter how gorgeous the illusion, the art disappears. How do you feel about the transience of your chosen art form? Are you ever tempted to make more permanent, less edible art?

I've dabbled. But I think the ephemeral nature of food art is really a big part of its charm, and of its attractiveness to me. It's more beautiful because you know it's not going to stay that way forever. But no, I can't say that I could just gobble down a plate of vegetables I spent hours carving with no regrets. That's why I began taking photographs of what I did, so there would be some record of it having existed. It's been a good compromise.

I was invited to do a gallery show a couple of years ago, and it was in an upstairs space in the middle of the summer. I was thinking, "Hmm, how is this going to work?". But we made it happen, with a combination of photographs hanging on scrolls and small, fresh dishes on pedestals so that people could see that it was really food. People were poking at the lobster made from Roma tomatoes, thinking it was plastic. I kept having to put the legs back where they belonged, and by the second day, things were definitely looking a little wilted. But that's okay. It sort of drove home the idea that these things have their moment and then they're gone.

And it might sound a little strange, but I get tired of looking at my own work after a while. If I worked in a medium that stuck around, it would all pile up and overwhelm me with sameness. I like to just take the photo and move on. From what I've seen, that's a pretty typical view among people who work with food creatively. It's there to be eaten, and the photograph is enough for me.

bento Marie Antoinette

On your blog, The Sakurako Chronicles, you write quite frankly about living with a lot of incredibly difficult health issues, including spinal cord cancer and a broken neck. Do you think your bento box creations—and, more generally, your apparently deep interest in both food and art—are in any way a response to those health issues?

I was born with my spinal cord cancer, and the 70s-era radiation I received saved my life but left me with lasting problems. I was paralyzed as a toddler, and I didn't regain use of my legs until I was around four years old. My mother jokes (well, she jokes now) that I was the easiest toddler in the world to raise because I stayed wherever you put me. A toddler who can't walk around getting into things has to find other ways to stay entertained, and I read very early. Some of the books I loved best had vivid photos of life and art in Japan. I would just sit there and take it all in, the colors and that wonderful combination of the simple and serene with the ornate, and how perfectly nature became art. A lot of my love for the Japanese aesthetic probably started then, with those beautiful photographs.

My health issues always made a lot of decisions for me. Instead of running around in gym, I'd be helping the art teacher get ready for her next class. Instead of recess, I'd be reading or drawing. So there was the enforced sedentary thing influencing my interests, and also the fact that I was constantly trying to find ways to work around my physical shortcomings. I think that working around my physical issues validated the general creative process for me. I don't hold back, because I know by experience how useful creativity can be.

Geisha bento

Have you ever been to Japan?

I haven't been to Japan yet. Maybe someday. I've always wanted to, for hanami (cherry blossom season). Cherry blossoms are ephemeral, too...the beauty is all around you, raining down on you, but it's so delicate and it's gone so soon.

garden bento

You are the mother of a toddler. What's your policy on letting your daughter play with her food?

I encourage it. She eats well, so I'm not worried about that. When she was a little under two years old, we took her to an Italian restaurant and she had a little piece of ravioli and a spoonful of minestrone on her plate. On her own, she picked up two pasta shells from the minestrone and put them on the ravioli as eyes. Then she thought for a moment and put a little sliver of carrot underneath, slanted downward like a frowning mouth. She told us that this was Problem Face. Then she looked down and said, "What's your problem, Face?" It was great to see because it's such a simple, natural thing to do. She saw a face and she went with it. I would never want to stifle that sort of creativity.

sea turtle bento
Amorette Dye's Bento Boxes
Blue Rice and Unfamiliar Fishes

Clazy, Glape, and Lacist—1950's Food and Drink Commercials

Actually, more like "clazy, glape, and highry steleotypicar." However socially reprehensible the attitudes, there is a certain old-fashioned charm to these hand-drawn cartoons. Hard to image such a simple visual approach to television advertising these days. In the first of these commercials, a Chinese baby tries to eat jello with a pair of chopsticks, in the second, a Caucasian man orders beer with a side of fortune cookies, and in the third, three "black currants" done up in blackface sing about the charms of Ribena brand juice. I couldn't locate any information about the artist(s).

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Elegant Abstracts from "My Jello Americans"

Wow. Who knew there was so much jello art out there? Not I. But a recent internet wandering led me down a very long and twisty trail of jello art ventures. Here is a sampling from the remarkable blog "My Jello Americans," which posts pictures and recipes for "jello shots"—that is, small gelatin creations made with various alcohols. Everything they invent is pretty fascinating, but some things are downright beautiful, particularly in the "abstract" category. A few of my favorites:

"The Transubstantiation"
Ingredients: "just water and gelatin, but with a little faith,
our favorite party god can turn it into wine. Let us pray."

"Lavender-Ginger Aperitif"
Ingredients: Granulated Gelatin, Lavender Lemonade
Vodka, Domain de Canton (Ginger liqueur), Agave

"The Digestif"
Ingredients: Knox, Plum Vodka, Prune Juice,  Bitters,
Red and Blue Food Dye, Ginger Syrup, Edible Glitter, Clove

Ingredients: Knox, Home-made Lemoncello, Edible Glitter,
Yellow food dye, Gin, Rose Syrup, edible rose petals

"The CityWide"
Ingredients: Knox, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Heaven Hill

"Mt. Fuji"
Ingredients: Agar Agar, Plum Vodka, Almond Paste, Food Coloring, Bacardi 151

Flower Foodies

Both down with colds, my husband and I brought in the New Year watching the original Diary of a Chambermaid. This is the 1946 Jean Renoir film (Bunuel did a remake in 1964 with Jean Moreau). There are a few great food scenes in the movie, but the most memorable is certainly that in which Burgess Meredith, as the disturbingly loony Captain Mauger, starts chomping his neighbors' roses. (Full scene containing rose-eating can be found here).

Later, the Captain explains his food philosophy to Celestine, the beautiful chambermaid (played by Paulette Goddard), as she feigns fascination:
"Everybody in the world except me gets into a rut about food. They have no pioneering spirit. Possibly the first man who ate an oyster, they called him crazy or eccentric. Now the same with me. I've discovered new foods that nobody ever heard of before. I'm willing to eat absolutely anything. Keeps me young and vigorous."
The startling image of an older eccentric eagerly gobbling a rose was possibly borrowed by Agnes Varda in her amazing L'Opera Mouffe (1958). That film deserves its own post (I'm working on it), but here is a salient clip in gif animation form, created by Hristos, via his flickr channel (click on gif for best quality).

Harpo munching on some buckwheat flowers (from Cocoanuts)

Fruity Underwear Ads

I love this image—beautiful, wacky. I don't know anything about it, except that it seems to be advertising slips, corsets, and bras, though why the models faces are covered with enormous papier maché fruits, I can't imagine. Perhaps it was an early prototype for the familiar Fruit of the Loom ads, one of which (1970's vintage) follows:

Women's fruit themed-lingerie ad—no further info available

1970's Fruit of the Loom pantyhose ad (via Vintage Ad Browser)
"Fruit makes the best pickings!"

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Chantal Rens' Collages

If you spend any time on Tumblr (and I do, with my Scrapbook project) you've probably run across one of Chantal Rens' collages as she's something of a Tumblr darling. It's understandable. Her collages all share an unusual, slightly magical, slightly spastic, slightly menacing quality, as if they were put together by a brilliant but mildly distracted 3rd grader with asocial tendencies. This childlike naturalness of style provides a refreshing counterbalance to Rens' essentially hardcore surrealistic imagery. Every collage seems governed by an unsettling, vaguely shocking, but nevertheless just barely emotionally decipherable dream logic.

As far as I can make out, Rens' works are untitled, which explains the lack of captions in this post. They also run a wide gamut of subject matter, though predictably, my favorites are food-themed. More info on Chantal Rens' Blog.

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"Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead." —W. H. Auden