It would be hard to come up with a more universal theme for this fall's exhibits at 10 area museums and galleries than the one organizers have chosen: Food.
"Table for 10: The Art, History, and Science of Food," as the collective project is called, is about food, glorious food -- and about not-so-glorious aspects of food production and consumption.
An exhibit at the Amherst College Museum of Natural History touches on what dinosaurs ate thousands of years ago -- and an exhibit at the Smith College Museum of Art showcases huge paintings of gooey, jam-filled doughnuts that are a guilty pleasure for some of us today. A stark photo in a show at the Hampshire College Art Gallery shows an exhausted looking, blood-stained worker in a slaughterhouse.
When they are all up, the exhibits will be spread out at 10 museums and galleries throughout the area. In addition to the three mentioned above, they are: The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, the Emily Dickinson Museum, the National Yiddish Book Center, the University Gallery at the University of Massachusetts and the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, all in Amherst; Historic Deerfield in Deerfield; and the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum in South Hadley.
"Table for 10" is the third project of Museums10, a collaborative founded in 2005 and administered by Five Colleges Inc. The idea behind Museums10 is that the muthey can alone and that their combined efforts can help promote the area as an arts destination.
"It's a way to promote cultural tourism," says Alexandra de Montrichard, communications coordinator for Museums10.
The group has collaborated on two previous projects. The first was on Dutch art and culture in 2006, the second on the art of the book in 2007.
Why food? The area's rich farming history, coupled with the high level of interest in community supported agriculture today, made the topic a natural choice, de Montrichard said.
"We all thought we could put something interesting together," she said.
From wine to peas
"Wine & Spirit: Rituals, Remedies & Revelry," an exhibit at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, explores the complex role of wine in our lives. It includes paintings that show wine being served at the sacred moment of the Last Supper -- and paintings of revelers who are just plain falling-down drunk.
"The Politics of Food," the show at Hampshire College, has thought-provoking art work about food production, from mega factory farms to small, organic community farms.
Walk through the front door of a house at Historic Deerfield to see what 18th- and 19th-century families ate when they gathered around the table. It might be the first exhibit to make a person wonder, "Which would I have liked better, the cheese curds or the peas porridge?"
Ox tongue and rye
"It's been wonderful," said de Montrichard, as she talked recently about the more than year-long effort to pull the project together.
De Montrichard said the idea to focus on food grew out of Mount Holyoke College's plan to do the "Wine & Spirit" exhibit. The decision to do that exhibit was made several years ago, according to Wendy Watson, a curator at Mount Holyoke. And so with that show already in the works, de Montrichard said other area museums and galleries decided to come up with their own takes on the food angle.
Her office is in the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst. On view there is "Esn! Jews and Food in America" -- esn is Yiddish for eating -- an exhibit devoted to the culinary history of the Jewish experience in America. As we paused at the entrance, de Montrichard pointed out an old sign that had hung at the Garden Cafeteria, long a haven where Yiddish writers met for coffee and conversation on the Lower East Side in New York City.
Among the offerings at the exhibit are storefront signs -- like the one reading "Moishe's Kosher Bakery" -- that reflect the growing presence of Jewish immigrants in New York in the early 1900s. An ad shows a restaurant promoting itself as the first in New York to offer "Kosher Chinese foods." A dinner menu from aboard the Queen Elizabeth, shows that, by 1960, the ocean liner was catering to a diverse passenger list: the Shabos menu featured cold borscht, salami sausage, hard-boiled eggs, ox tongue and rye bread.
Speaking of rye, museum goers of a certain age will instantly recognize the exhibit's posters for Levy's rye bread from the 1960s and '70s. As Jewish companies began reaching out to broad audiences for new customers, Levy's came up with a catchy slogan: "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's."
Dinner is served
At Historic Deerfield, visitors can enter three homes -- the Sheldon, Williams, and Stebbins houses -- where the tables have been set with recreations of period meals, complete with faux food.
The Williams House has the first course of a winter dinner featuring marinated fowl, carrot pudding, pickled beets and those cheese curds. At the Sheldon House, the "food" is inspired by a 1794 letter from James Field of Conway to his sister, Filania Dickinson of Deerfield. The story goes that, after Filania and her husband failed to show up for dinner at the Field house, Field wrote them a letter detailing the effort that had gone into the meal they had missed. The menu, he wrote, included salt pork and beans, beef fricassee, and fried beef tripe -- not to mention the difficulty in acquiring the lard for the apple pies.
On the table at the Stebbins House are desserts -- candied orange rinds, lemon tarts and marzipan fruits.
In addition to the three house exhibits, more than 40 objects, such as 18th century cruets, tureens, decanters and hot water dishes used to keep food warm are on display at the Flynt Center of Early New England Life.
Of course, by no means did everyone have the kind of elegant silver and china that is shown behind glass. In homes where the "other half" lived, as the exhibit points out, everyone tended to just dig in and eat from the same big bowl.
To your health
Studies touting the health benefits of wine -- especially red wine -- have become so commonplace these days that they barely make news. A walk through Wine & Spirit with curator Wendy Watson adds some context. It was really only "a little blip" in the mid-20th century when wine was considered bad for your health, she said, adding that the notion that wine helped people live long, healthy lives goes back some 5,000 years.
Nearly four years in the making, "Wine & Spirit" incorporates pieces from lenders including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Yale University Art Galley, and the Houghton Library at Harvard University, among others. It is the first exhibit, Watson said, that has tried to tell the story of wine and its cultural and spiritual significance through the ages.
Greek vases, Roman glassware, Renaissance drinking vessels and medieval manuscripts that mention the grape's medicinal uses are all on view. Some of the paintings exalt wine, while others suggest a rather dim view of the debauchery on display.
Still others simply show it as part of life. Wine has just about always been with us, the exhibit seems to be saying. Its presence has been a constant, even if our attitudes toward it change with the times.
It's enough to make you want to kick back and think it all over, preferably with a glass or two of good wine. There will be a chance to do just that on Oct. 14, when the museum hosts a tasting from 4 to 6 p.m. Tickets are $25 each and reservations can be made by calling 538-2245.
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