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Meat And Booze With A Side Of Still Life: American Painters On Food

In the age of celebrity chef fetishism and competitive ingredient sourcing, it can be hard to remember that there was a time when restaurants didn't exist in America.

Before the Civil War, most people ate at home, consuming mostly what they could forage, barter, butcher or grow in the backyard. But just because food choices were simpler back then doesn't mean our relationship to what we ate was any less complicated.

Food as a symbol of politics, diet, gender roles, technology, isolation, gluttony and blatant commercialism has, in fact, been with us for ages and in many forms.

A massive exhibit that opened last month at the Art Institute of Chicago gathers iconic (Norman Rockwell's Freedom From Want) and not-so-well-known (Francis W. Edmonds' The Epicure) American paintings of food from the Pilgrims right on through to Andy Warhol. And it throws in some elegant (Art Deco martini set) and creepy (cabbage-shaped teapot) tableware, menus and memorabilia for good measure.

The curators of the show, called Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture and Cuisine, "offer a new approach to still-life and food-related genre paintings, revealing their importance in American culture, the history of American cuisine, and the ways that these have shaped and reflected our national identity," says Douglas Druick, president of the Art Institute of Chicago, in the preface to the 125-page exhibit guidebook.

For example, The Epicure, painted in 1838, is one of the earliest-known depictions of a tavern meal in America, according to Judith A. Barter, curator of American Art at the institute.

At first glance, it may just look like a portrait of a well-fed rich guy inspecting the humble daily supper offerings. But Barter points out that the well-marbled side of beef on the table was standard Northern fare, while the pig being offered by the innkeeper was a Southern dish.

"The work may be illustrating as well the political divide that separated North and South," she writes. "During the presidency of Andrew Jackson, the debate over the future of the nation — the Jeffersonian dream of a nation of small farmers and limited national government versus the Hamiltonian vision of centralization and an economy built on international trade, banking, and speculation — came to a head."

All that from just one piece.

Check out the slideshow above for some more Art and Appetite morsels. The exhibit closes Jan. 27.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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