Around the Table: The Making and Knowing Project

This month on Around the Table, we have a very special treat. Many of our contributors have been a part of the Making and Knowing Project and we have enjoyed occasional updates on the project throughout the years. Here, we have an update and reflection provided by previous Recipes Project contributor Tillmann Taape, in coordination with his former Making and Knowing team.

In 2014, Pamela Smith founded the Making and Knowing Project, an initiative in pedagogy and research to investigate the intersection of “craft” and “science” in the Renaissance. Combining experimental laboratory work with more traditional ways of doing history, the Project has explored a unique manuscript source, BnF Ms. Fr. 640, a collection of notes and recipes on craft practices from 1580s Toulouse (see Pamela Smith’s introduction to the Project in a previous post on the Recipes Blog). Over the past six years, the Making and Knowing Team and students of Columbia University’s “Craft and Science” seminar have accumulated insights into early modern materials, making processes, and the relationship between nature and human artifice. Some of these previously featured on this blog, in posts on making powder for hourglasses and the role of sensory perception in artisanal expertise. The sum total of our work has recently been published in Secrets of Craft and Nature in Renaissance France: A Digital Critical Edition and English Translation of BnF Ms. Fr. 640, containing intensively marked-up versions of the manuscript text (diplomatic and normalised transcriptions plus an English translation), over a hundred essays by collaborating scholars, “expert makers,” and students, as well as other resources such as a glossary of over 13,000 technical terms in Middle French. [1] Looking back over the past years, our intense experimental, historical, and digital engagement with this fascinating text has changed the way we think about recipes and how to read them as historians.

Recipes, instructions, observations: texts of action

Fig. 1. A page from BnF Ms. Fr. 640 showing headers and text units. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. Source: gallica.bnf.fr.

Ms. Fr. 640 consists of around one thousand semantic units of text, usually with a heading in a distinct italic script, followed by anything from a few lines of text to several pages of densely-written observations, corrections, and marginal annotations (see Fig. 1). Are these recipes? We started out calling them that, and to be sure, many of them have the structure and elements one would expect of a recipe: a statement of the end product(s), often in the header, enumerations of ingredients, with or without indication of the amount, and instructions for what to do with them, in more or less the intended sequence – sometimes the “author-practitioner,” as we call him, gets halfway through a sentence of instructions and only just saves himself with a “…having first done x.” [2] There is even a group of entries/text units on making varnishes and colouring wood that fits the definition of a recipe like a glove: the great majority start with the imperative prens or prenes (“take!”), the French equivalent of the Latin imperative recipe that gives us the English word for recipe. Four of these are explicitly labelled as a “recipe” (recepte), as in “Another recipe for making varnish” (fol. 73v).

But there are also pages filled with magic tricks, pranks, silly puns, and early modern equivalents of the dad-joke (How do you fix a candlestick to the wall without making a hole? – Have a servant hold it). Other passages break out of the recipe form through their sheer meandering length. Once the author-practitioner gets going on his favourite topic – different types of sand for making casting molds – he often does not stop for at least a few pages. What starts as a note on “experimented sands,” for example, promptly grows into a lengthy discussion of diverse sands and their merits, including the author-practitioner’s own observations and speculations about future improvements, more closely resembling detailed field notes than a mere recipe (fol. 85v–87v). Given this variety, we eventually decided to call these units of text “entries” – a more neutral and capacious term that takes its cue from the overall structure of the text more than the content.

It is clear, however, that the vast majority of entries – “recipes” or not – have one thing in common: they are texts of action. Whether walking potential readers through metalworking techniques or observing how different artisans (from day labourers to goldsmiths) do their jobs, these entries encode sequences of gestures and material processes. The challenge for historians is that writing encodes action imperfectly. However detailed the recipe, there is always much that remains unsaid, and perhaps cannot be said, but only known and experienced by the body performing the action. This is true of modern recipes, of course, but add a few hundred years, and a recipe becomes like a fossilised, flattened husk of a once-dynamic process unfolding in real time. Much of the Making and Knowing Project’s work has focused on how to re-hydrate this instant noodle of practical expertise to the extent where it makes a certain amount of sense to modern historians. Reading alone, it turns out, doesn’t get us very far. With their sparse prose and minimal structure, often only amounting to a list of ingredients and a handful of imperatives (chop, mix, heat, etc.), recipes deflect the kinds of analytic tools that historians are used to unleash on their sources. In a sense, the Project was founded around the idea that recipes and other texts of action become more fully accessible when we place them back in a context of action, reading them with our hands rather than just with our eyes.

Performative reading and emergent knowledge

Thus the Making and Knowing Laboratory was born. Housed in a 1940s chemistry lab at Columbia University, it has been home to cohorts of students’ hands-on reconstructions of objects and techniques described in Ms. Fr. 640. In its drawers and shelves, a peculiar material microcosm has accumulated, from tiny vials of pigments to counterfeit jasper made from buffalo horn to preternaturally preserved plants and animals.

While it seemed obvious from the outset that reconstructing or “acting out” recipes would tell us more than simply reading them, precisely what the payoff would be was not at all clear. In that sense, the Project was itself a true experiment. In a recent article that forms part of a special issue on “Rethinking Performative Methods in the History of Science,” the Making and Knowing Team had occasion to reflect on what we have gained from our reading-by-doing approach to recipes, for both pedagogy and research.[3]

Fig. 2. Foot of a life-cast lizard showing traces of the pin used to fix the animal in place during moulding (detail). Wenzel Jamnitzer, Writing box, c. 1560, silver, 22.7 x 10.2 cm x 6 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Kunstkammer, 1155 bis KK 1164. Photograph by Pamela H. Smith and Tonny Beentjes.

One of the key outcomes of hands-on work is that it recalibrates our eyes and hands in a way that allows us to appreciate the material literacy artisans of the past must have possessed. Early on in their research on lifecasting, a technique whereby a real animal or plant is molded in plaster and then cast in metal, Pamela Smith and Tonny Beentjes noted hitherto unexplained knob-like protrusions on the feet of lifecast lizards (Fig. 2). Their reconstruction of lifecasting instructions in Ms. Fr. 640 revealed that these protrusions were caused by metal pins used to fix the dead lizard on its clay base before molding.[4] This performative research produced a more informed reading not only of the text, but also of surviving lifecast objects whose subtle traces of the making process now revealed themselves to the attuned eye.

Starting out as a way of answering pre-formulated questions, reconstruction also turned out to be a powerful way of raising new questions that do not arise from reading alone. The work of making hourglass sand according to a recipe in Ms. Fr. 640 (introduced in a previous post by Stephanie Pope on this blog) involved mixing salt with molten lead. Having got this far, our students balked at the instructions to wash this mixture in water. Would this dissolve the salt and thus undo their work? As it turns out, it does not, but their question sparked further research into the interaction of hourglass sand and water, turning up a fascinating story: until the middle of the eighteenth century, it was impossible to blow an hourglass in one piece, and since there was always a danger of moisture entering through an improperly sealed joint between the two halves, it was imperative that hourglass sand be non-hygroscopic, i.e. non-reactive with water. Thus the hands-on reading of the recipe led to detailed questions about materials, production, and calibration – questions that would not have been raised by a “dry” reading of the recipe.

Other entries encode cultural and spiritual meanings that emerge fully in doing rather than reading. A recipe for burn salve, for example, includes instructions to wash with holy water for specific intervals, measured by the time it takes to recite the paternoster (the Lord’s Prayer in Latin). The connections to religion and timekeeping practices are obvious at first read, but the full extent of their relationship with the process and the final product only emerge when we immerse ourselves in the making process. As we add holy water while reciting prayers, we can witness the dramatic transformation of the transparent yellowish mixture of wax and linseed oil into a thick, fluffy substance of an opaque white – a vivid material instantiation of the spiritual purification implicit in the use of prayers and holy water (Vid. 1).

Vid. 1. Burn salve made according to the recipe in Ms. Fr. 640 (fol. 103r). Note the transformation of the transparent yellow mixture of melted wax and linseed oil into a thick white salve (beginning at around 04:15). (c) The Making and Knowing Project (CC BY-NC-SA).

Such insights from our own experience into the mental and cultural worlds of people in the past are powerful and evocative, but they need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Historians have shown that early modern people had diverse and completely different ways of understanding and experiencing their bodies compared to us moderns. For a start, few of us trained our bodies to specific manual tasks and expertise through years of apprenticeship. And that is before we get into problems of historical authenticity surrounding the use of pure modern ingredients and reading the paternoster off a laptop screen rather than reciting it by heart from lifelong habit. Properly considered, however, these limitations of reconstruction can be turned into a virtue, especially in a pedagogic context. They force students to think carefully about the historicity of materials and embodied experience, and thus help them problematise terms such as “body,” “craft,” and “nature” – categories that historians take for granted at their peril. Future researchers leave the laboratory with a greater critical awareness of what it means to understand material processes and to know by doing rather than through text, both in the present and the past.

All of this underscores a key point about recipes as texts: they are texts of action, and to fully read them, we have to get our hands dirty, however imperfect our modern ingredients and bodies may be for the job. The knowledge encoded in recipes is practical and, to use Pamela Smith’s term, emergent: it unfolds not in the reading, but in the doing. At best, reconstruction allows us glimpses into past worlds of materials and expertise; at worst, it shows us the gaps in the recipe that most early modern artisans or householders would have easily filled in, and the gaping holes in our own mastery of the requisite materials, gestures, and ideas.

The Making and Knowing Project is committed to sharing its own “recipe” for the kind of historical, practical, and digital work that we have been doing. In addition to the Digital Critical Edition, we are preparing a “Research and Teaching Companion” – a scalable template for hands-on teaching and online editions that teachers and researchers can adapt to their own needs. It will be ready in about a year’s time, and we look forward to bringing it to the “Around the Table” series.

Thanks, Tillmann, for the update on Making and Knowing! If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.

 

[1] Making and Knowing Project, Pamela H. Smith, Naomi Rosenkranz, Tianna Helena Uchacz, Tillmann Taape, Clément Godbarge, Sophie Pitman, Jenny Boulboullé, Joel Klein, Donna Bilak, Marc Smith, and Terry Catapano, eds., Secrets of Craft and Nature in Renaissance France. A Digital Critical Edition and English Translation of BnF Ms. Fr. 640 (New York: Making and Knowing Project, 2020), https://edition640.makingandknowing.org.

[2] Francisco Alonso-Almeida, “Genre conventions in English recipes, 1600–1800,” in Reading and Writing Recipe Books, 1550–1800, eds. Michelle DiMeo and Sara Pennell (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), 68–90.

[3] Taape, Tillmann, Pamela H. Smith, and Tianna Helena Uchacz, “Schooling the Eye and Hand: Performative Methods of Research and Pedagogy in the Making and Knowing Project,” Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 43, no. 3 (2020): 323–40.

[4] Pamela Smith and Tonny Beentjes, “Nature and Art, Making and Knowing: Reconstructing Sixteenth-Century Life-Casting Techniques,” Renaissance Quarterly 63, no. 1 (2010): 128–79.

Around the Table: Celebrating Our Contributors

By Sarah Peters Kernan

As the new academic year begins, the Recipes Project would like to celebrate the accomplishments of our contributors from this most unusual past year. Our community has been busy completing PhDs, publishing, securing new fellowships, enjoying promotions, and more. We heartily congratulate all of you for your successes! We also wish to congratulate and encourage the many contributors who are teaching, researching, and writing in extraordinary circumstances, often at home while negotiating the schedules and needs of several others in the household. This, too, is noble work worthy of much acknowledgement and praise. We invite contributors to share your news anytime with the Recipes Project community on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

Agnese Benzonelli completed a PhD in Archaeological science at the UCL Institute of Archaeology in February 2020. Her thesis, “Technological traditions and trajectories in the production of black bronze alloys,” was competed under the supervision of Ian Freestone and Marcos Martinón-Torres. Agnese continues to work at the same institution as Technician in Archaeomaterials Preparation and Analysis, a position she has held since 2015.

Clare Gordon Bettencourt has served as Editorial Assistant for the Journal of Asian Studies since summer 2019 while continuing her role as a Social Media Editor for the Recipes Project. She co-authored an article with Yong Chen on the effects of COVID-19 on dining in the U.S. and China (forthcoming in the Journal of Asian Studies). Clare also recently completed drafts of all her dissertation chapters.

Claire Burridge recently completed her PhD, “An interdisciplinary investigation into Carolingian medical knowledge and practice,” at the University of Cambridge. She began a postdoctoral fellowship at the British School at Rome (BSR) in 2019 on the project “The Movement of Early Medieval Medical Knowledge: Exchange in the Italian Peninsula.” Although the fellowship has been temporarily paused due to the pandemic, Claire will be returning to the BSR this fall to complete it. She was also recently awarded a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship for my project “Crossroads: The Evolution of Early Medieval Medicine in Global & Local Contexts” at the University of Sheffield. She will begin in spring 2021 after completing her time in Rome. Finally, Claire published her first article this year: “Incense in medicine: An early medieval perspective,” Early Medieval Europe 28, no. 2 (May 2020): 219–255.

Nadja Durbach published a book, Many Mouths: The Politics of Food in Britain From the Workhouse to the Welfare State (Cambridge University Press, 2020). She also published several articles: “Keeping Kosher in the Camp: Feeding Interned British Jews During the First World War,” Immigrants & Minorities, (published online August 2020); “Dead or Alive?: Stillbirth Registration, Premature Babies, and the Definition of Life in England and Wales, 1836-1960,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 94(1) 2020; “Atypical Bodies: The Cultural Work of the Victorian Freak Show,” in Joyce Huff and Martha Stoddard Holmes (eds.), A Cultural History of Disability in the Long Nineteenth Century (Bloomsbury Press, 2020); “Comforts, Clubs, and the Casino: Food and the Perpetuation of the British Class System in First World War Civilian Internment Camps,” Journal of Social History, 52(3) (2019).

Sietske Fransen started a research group at the Bibliotheca Hertziana-Max Planck Institute for Art History in Rome in 2019. The group is on “Visualizing Science in Media Revolutions.”

Thijs Hagendijk successfully defended his dissertation in 2020. “Reworking Recipes. Reading and Writing Practical Texts in the Early Modern Arts” is about reading and writing practices in the early modern arts, with a specific focus on text usage in historical glassmaking, painting, and metalworking. He also co-authored an article with Márcia Vilarigues and Sven Dupré: “Materials, Furnaces, and Texts. How to Write about Making Glass Colours in the Seventeenth Century,” Ambix 67 (forthcoming fall 2020). Thijs is a lecturer at Utrecht University and member of the ERC-funded ARTECHNE project “Technique in the Arts: Concepts, Practices, Expertise, 1500–1950.”

Sarah Peters Kernan is a 2020–2021 Scholar-in-Residence at the Newberry Library. She wrote “Recent Trends in Food History Research in the United States: 2017–2020,” Food & History 18:1–2 (forthcoming 2020). Sarah has also been co-organizing a virtual conference on Food and the Book: 1300–1800 with David Goldstein and Allen Grieco to take place in October 2020. The conference is co-sponsored by the Center for Renaissance Studies at the Newberry Library and the Folger Institute’s collaborative research project, Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Diana Luft published Medieval Welsh Medical Texts Volume 1: The Recipes (University of Wales Press, 2020). The book is an edition and translation of the Welsh-language medical recipe collections in four late fourteenth-century manuscripts, the earliest medical texts to appear in the language. The research work for the book was funded by a Wellcome Trust Research Fellowship which Diana held from 2015–2019. The book is available in an open access format, funded by the Wellcome Trust, and can also be purchased.

Eveline Szarka received her PhD in July 2020 from the University of Zurich. In her dissertation, she analyzed the impact of the Swiss Protestant Reformation on the belief in ghosts and spirits from 1570–1730. In 2020, she was granted a scholarship from the Swiss National Science Foundation to visit Harvard University and University College London from 2021–2022 as a postdoctoral fellow. Her current project focuses on handbooks about magic tricks and life hacks as related to the history of knowledge and science (1650–1850).

If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.

Around the Table: Events

This month on Around the Table, we will learn about the Folger Shakespeare Library’s tradition of teatime. Since renovations recently began at the Folger, the Library’s afternoon tea has also undergone some changes in order to keep the Folger community together. I had the opportunity to speak to Leah Thomas and Haylie Swenson about the teatime tradition. Leah and Haylie both recently joined the Folger Institute staff and thoroughly enjoy afternoon tea breaks!

Leah completed an MA in Art History at UNC Chapel Hill. She worked for the Smithsonian as an Education Specialist before joining the Folger Institute as a Program Assistant in early 2019. Leah enjoys the constant stream of Ceylon Tea brought by her partner’s family from Sri Lanka; her favorite cookies are ones containing chocolate. Haylie joined the Folger Institute as the Program Assistant for Scholarly Programs in September. She holds a PhD in English from George Washington University and is the author of Wild Things, a series about animals in early modern life and culture for Shakespeare & Beyond. Haylie’s favorite tea is English Breakfast in her Dolly Parton-inspired “Ambition” mug, and her favorite cookies are gingersnaps.  

Could you tell Recipes Project readers about the Folger Shakespeare Library’s tradition of teatime?

Afternoon tea is one of the Folger’s most cherished traditions. The practice of serving tea at the Folger began in 1936, according to the annual report for that year. Director Joseph Quincy Adams’ description of tea at the time is, well, interesting: 

No use has ever been made of the Founders’ Room with its charming atmosphere of Elizabethan times. But this year we started the custom of serving tea there each afternoon (at 3:30 o’clock) in the English manner, with the young ladies of our staff acting in turn as hostess.

Speaking as two of the current “young ladies of our staff,” we are very glad that some things have changed. The main purpose, of tea, however, remains the same: 

To bring together the scholars who come to us from various places, in order that they might meet one another socially and also come personally to know the members of staff. The experiment has proved to be of the greatest value, not only in building up a spirit of friendliness that permeates the entire Library, but also in promoting a free discussion of the research problems under investigation. Those discussions are always stimulating, and often lead to suggestions that are highly profitable.  

Although we’re no longer in the Founders’ Room, tea is at 3:00 (not 3:30), and nearly 100 years have passed, researchers and staff still consider afternoon tea an essential foundation of the Folger scholarly community.

Photo by Elman Studio/Folger Shakespeare Library.
Photo by Elman Studio/Folger Shakespeare Library.

Why is this kind of community-building so important at the Folger? Do scholars and staff find it useful and meaningful?

Folger tea serves two essential purposes. First, it allows researchers to learn from and be inspired by each other’s work. One of our past Folger Fellows, Peter Sherlock, describes how “the simple medium of a table, a hot drink and a biscuit engendered lively discussion … What are you working on? How are you doing your project? Have you thought of this? Do you know that? It was at tea that friendships and research partnerships were forged through that most basic human activity, conversation.”

Photo by Elman Studio/Folger Shakespeare Library.

Second, by providing a space for readers to talk to each other, Folger Tea helps to ease the sense of isolation that can come along with long-form research. Anyone who has ever engaged in scholarship knows that it can be a lonely business. Researchers spend long hours grappling with difficult questions and trying to make complicated arguments clear, and that’s tough to do if your only company consists of voices from the past. It’s nice, towards the end of a day studying, for example, 16th century recipe books, to spend some time having tea and cookies with living humans. 

Because the Folger tea room is now closed, due to renovations, the Folger is hosting a virtual tea. Tell us about it! Who can drop in? (and could you include a little bit of general information here about the renovation, as well?)

We are so excited to introduce a new tradition of #FolgerTea for the Twitter community during our renovation. The Folger’s renovation project, which began in early 2020, will expand public spaces, improve accessibility, and enhance the experience for all who come to the Folger. The researcher experience, in particular, will benefit from new ergonomic furniture, better lighting and internet connectivity, and access to collaborative, multi-purpose study rooms. Not to mention, a communal space for enjoying wine and coffee in the Great Hall!

Photo by Elman Studio/Folger Shakespeare Library.

Until we can gather for that drink and chat in the Great Hall, we invite the scholarly community to gather virtually for #FolgerTea. Every Thursday at 3:00pm EST, @FolgerResearch opens tea with a live thread. Participants reply to the thread using the hashtag, along with a picture of what they’re drinking and an update on what they’re reading, writing, or plotting for their current research project. This is a space for people to make new connections, check in with friends, offer advice, give reference suggestions, and post silly GIFS. At exactly 3:30pm EST, the iconic tea bell rings to signal the close of #FolgerTea. As in life, we encourage everyone to ignore the bell. 

The virtual #FolgerTea is open to anyone who wants to drop in for a bit of scholarly discussion. We would love to hear from scholars, researchers, grad students, artists, theatre professionals, educators, Folger staff, museum workers, librarians, etc. The interdisciplinary nature of Folger Tea is a huge part of what makes it so special! We’re also delighted when we hear from “official” Twitter handles such as other institutions and university departments, or from groups of people who are gathering for things like transcribathons, conferences, or scholarly programs. For people in other time zones who want to participate–feel free to chime in later! 

What kinds of interesting things have been Tweeted so far?

So far, we’ve learned that the James Joyce community has a fussy citation style, the Smithsonian has a useful collections resource called “Learning Lab,” and a researcher wrote a poem about Folger Tea in 1945. We have heard from scholars who are writing conference papers, dissertation chapters, novels, fellowship applications, course syllabi, and essays. It is especially exciting to see photos of the rare materials scholars are working on elsewhere (minus the tea, of course!). #FolgerTea is also a great place to hear news and updates about #FolgerOnTheRoad offsite programs, dispatches from #FolgerFellows, and opportunities for scholars to gather.

Is there anything else we should know about #FolgerTea?

We routinely award #FolgerTeaBonusPoints for photos that include cute animals alongside your beverage of choice. Fun mugs also receive honorable mentions. In fact, Haylie tracked down and bought her current mug after someone tweeted a photo of it during #FolgerTea!

“Staff Tea at the Folger Library,” a poem by Friend of the Folger, Jessica Kerr, published in 1945.

Thanks, Leah and Haylie, for chatting with me about #FolgerTea! If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.

Around the Table: Museum Exhibitions

By Sarah Peters Kernan

The Christian liturgical season of Lent is upon us. Centuries ago, this was a long and difficult period of fasting in Europe. Some Christians still abstained from all meat and animal products for the forty days of Lent, others undertook a less rigorous abstention of foods. It was an austere time with regards to food. It is fitting, and quite purposeful timing for the curators, that this year’s Lent marks the final weeks of the exhibition Feast & Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500–1800 at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK. This exhibition explores food in early modern Europe including periods of excess and feasting as well as fasting and hunger. There is much to be found online about this exhibition, from the detailed website, related programming (including a recent conference about pineapples in the early modern world), a myriad of reviews and essays, an episode of The Feast featuring Laura Carlson’s interview with the curators, and a beautifully photographed exhibition catalogue. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Melissa Calaresu, co-curator of the exhibition with Victoria (Vicky) Avery, about some other aspects of the exhibition you may not find in these other resources, such as the process of mounting such an undertaking and her excitement about bringing new audiences into the Fitzwilliam.

Still life with a lobster, Joris van Son (1623–67), Antwerp, Belgium, 1660. Oil on canvas. 64.1 x 89.2 cm. C.B. Marlay Bequest, 1912 (M.76). Feast and Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500–1800. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Melissa and Vicky began thinking about an exhibition featuring food when they partnered on the acclaimed 2015 Treasured Possessions from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment exhibition at the Fitzwilliam. Treasured Possessions featured beautifully crafted and engaging objects that were once treasured by their owners, included a number of food-related items. Melissa, especially, became intrigued with the idea of focusing on the range of artwork and material objects for depicting, storing, preparing, and serving foodstuffs. Melissa credits Vicky for allowing her the freedom to search through the Fitzwilliam collections to find art and artifacts to relay a cohesive narrative about food and eating practices over time.

Recreation of an English confectioner’s work space, c.1790, conceived and made by Ivan Day. Feast and Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500–1800. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Gradually, Melissa and Vicky curated an enviable exhibition collection from Fitzwilliam items, items on loan from other private and institutional collections, and food recreations crafted specifically for Feast & Fast by Ivan Day. Melissa wanted to include Ivan, a longtime friend, in the exhibition planning. Ivan developed ideas for food sculptures and recreations to compliment the artwork and objects planned for display. Inspired by paintings, culinary tools, recipes, and more, Ivan created three large installations. A few elements were initially created as part of installations at other museums, such as The Edible Monument exhibition at the Getty Research Institute, but a vast majority of the elements are completely new and breathtaking. There are few, if any, places one can see a table set with lavish pies made of exotic birds like swan and peacock, or a mock confectioner’s shop window display. And importantly, all of the exotic birds used in the displays were ethically sourced. The swan, for example, was retrieved upon its death in an overhead electrical line.

Recreation of a Baroque feasting table, c.1650, conceived and made by Ivan Day with taxidermy by David Astley and seafood and fruit models by Tony Barton. Feast and Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500–1800. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Several works on display in the exhibition first underwent conservation, some of which was extensive. The Hamilton Kerr Institute in Whittlesford, the art conservation department at the Fitzwilliam Museum, undertook the conservation. The cleaning of several paintings revealed more vibrancy and detail than the curators had hoped. Melissa described her excitement when she learned that after a thorough cleaning, a painting of Dives and Lazarus revealed a pertinent bit of information: forks were discovered in the image! This was a major departure from earlier versions of the image in which diners ate with their hands and knives. Deep cleaning of other paintings like the seventeenth-century kitchen still life by Floris Gerritsz van Schooten and contemporaneous still life with a lobster by Joris van Son revealed significantly brighter, richer, and intense color palates.

Dives and Lazarus, Flemish School, Antwerp, Belgium, adapted from a 1554 engraving by Heinrich Aldegrever (c.1502–1555/61), early 17th century. Oil on panel. 17.8 x 23.2 cm. Daniel Mesman Bequest, 1834 (274). Feast and Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500–1800. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Melissa enthusiastically spoke to me about how she wanted the exhibition to be useful for educators and the broader public, not just regular museum-goers and academics. The exhibition is signaled, for example, by a giant pineapple sculpture designed by Bompas & Parr on the grounds of the Fitzwilliam. This hard-to-miss fruit is showy enough to attract attention from passersbys with no intention of visiting the museum and entice them to enter. Melissa also noted that the Fitzwilliam, especially the Education Department, has been doing an outstanding job of drawing in new audiences to Feast & Fast. Several community groups, like the North Cambridge Academy Museum Ambassadors, the Rowan Art Centre, and Dancing with the Museum, had the opportunity to interact with exhibition objects in truly unique ways (a video about this initiative is available here). Participants who had the opportunity to touch and work with select objects made some moving connections to the pieces and related to these early modern objects in a very personal way. The museum has worked to incorporate Feast & Fast into major event planning, like the most recent “Twilight at the Museums,” aimed at children, and “Love Art after Dark,” an annual event for University of Cambridge students. Local businesses have also partnered with the Fitzwilliam and the exhibition: the Cambridge restaurant Vanderlyle created a five-course tasting menu inspired by the exhibit, artwork, and early modern philosophies about food.

One-handled pipkin with pouring lip, unidentified Harlow pottery, Essex, England, 1650 Lead-glazed red earthenware with cream slip-trailed decoration, inscribed: ‘FAST AND PRAY 1650 W’ Dr J.W.L. Glaisher Bequest (GL.C.35-1928). Feast and Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500–1800. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

A few of the Feast & Fast objects will be familiar to those who previously visited the Treasured Possessions exhibition, like the pineapple teapot and the honeypot. Items like these were crowd favorites and have been pleasing visitors again. Melissa has many other favorite objects on display. While she was hard pressed to select a favorite, her love of ceramics shines through as she mentions the exhibit’s seventeenth-century pomegranate charger and a seventeenth-century burnished pipkin declaring “Fast and Pray.” Beyond what visitors might first see in these and other exhibition objects, Melissa encourages all to consider the anonymous consumption, labor, and stories behind each object, like the women who created sugared confections, men who collected shells, and slaves toiling in the Caribbean.

Feast & Fast is sure to delight and inspire contemplation of the origins of many modern food concerns. The objects and installations of this exhibition invite visitors to consider premodern fasting, vegetarianism, the conspicuous consumption of exotic victuals, and the labors of all who grow, sell, cook, and create our food.

Feast & Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500–1800 is at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 26 April 2020.

If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.