Food in Art or Art in Food?

The food & art of an artichoke

I love being a food essayist, and especially like it when I’m asked to read my essays aloud.

This happened recently when WAMC, Northeast Public Radio, invited me to be part of a series of broadcasts entitled Mixed Ingredients, which was made possible through the support of the New York Council for the Humanities.

Below is the essay I offered. If you prefer, you can hear it for yourself and listen to the other contributors’ works too. I begin by saying:

Art and design sell everything we touch.

We are delighted by the curve of a wine glass and the innovative artistry of a wine label.

Lavish sums are spent not only on what food goes on a restaurant plate, but on the plate itself, perhaps a lovely cobalt blue glass plate on which to serve the rosy pink smoked salmon, or the rustic pottery casserole for the beef stew, the perfect lavender-colored plate on which to display the chocolate cake or the pristine white porcelain pot for the mint tea.

Even the display and presentation of the food itself can be considered visual art.

Daring chefs are presenting their food on twigs and wires and other wildly creative forms. Working with sculptors and jewelers, they are inventing new artistic ways to serve — and even eat — their food.

Anyone who has attended a banquet or sailed on an ocean liner will gasp at the creativity of food and ice carvings. And visitors to the TV Food Network are astonished to see the breathtaking constructions of cake designers and chocolatiers.

It was The Four Seasons restaurant in New York that permanently changed the way we now view fine dining restaurants.

When it opened in 1959, the Four Seasons became the inspiration for the modern American restaurant. It was one of the purest examples of an idea transformed into vibrant reality.

The planning for the restaurant consumed two and a half years, and cost four and a half million dollars — a mighty heap of money in the 1950s. At that time the average price of a car was $2,200 dollars. Gasoline was 30¢ a gallon, and the average annual income was considerably less than $6,000.

This was the first restaurant to employ famous architects and graphic designers. Philip Johnson, the architect for New York’s famous Seagram Building, designed the space and graphic designers of the stature of Mies van der Rohe and Eero Saarinen were invited to join the planning team. Their work has endured and can still be admired today.

The Four Seasons was a pioneer in many ways: it was the first restaurant to purchase fine art to grace the space. Dubious New Yorkers scoffed at the idea of hanging Picasso, Miro and Chagall paintings on the walls of a mere restaurant.

Now art and design are essential elements that contribute to the success of grand restaurants, bustling bistros and even comfortable cafés like Panera.

Under the steady rain of goods and services we know as the consumer culture, the graphic designer is the invisible force in nearly every transaction between producer and purchaser. His is the persuasive hand responsible for the design that says to the buyer: “Look at me, remember me, trust me, want me, and buy me — NOW!”

We spend more in a well-designed supermarket, and often choose our food on the basis of the attractiveness of its packaging.

Brilliant design even plays a persuasive role in packaging for fast food restaurants, soda cans, bottled water, many specialty foods and even dog and cat food.

The art director is a trained specialist in color, texture, form and function, who creates the look and feel of magazines, newspapers, cookbooks and menus.

You need only to step into a gallery, craft shop or museum to discover that artists have been working for centuries to turn food into art in the form of decorative Faberge eggs, and distinctive serving dishes.

Jewelers, potters, glass blowers and craftspeople use every media from clay to precious metals and gemstones to render food into images to admire and to use.

Food is art for everything from shopping bags to Christmas tree ornaments and greetings cards. Commercial designers and manufacturers produce a dazzling array of kitchen equipment and elegant, useful tools for cooks.

Still life paintings depict the last supper, a recent hunting expedition, a silver bowl of ripe fruit, a table laden with a simple loaf of crusty bread, cheese and a goblet of wine, or an entire meal consisting of ham, pheasant, figs, cheese and cherries.

Here are feasts to last for gastronomic eternity in the form of fine and everlasting art.