FX’s The Bear is, ostensibly, about a kitchen. A kitchen—The Original Beef of Chicagoland cum The Bear—inherited by the French-trained, highly-decorated Chef Carmy, who attempts to install order and structure to disruption and disarray. A kitchen that barely marshals a brigade system to deliver everything from greasy breakfast sandwiches to braised short-ribs and risotto (and desserts that I do not understand). Every day in this kitchen is chaos, caught somewhere between group therapy and a seven-alarm fire. Ultimately, The Bear’s kitchen is a space where professional identities succumb to financial maleficence, family legacies, and personal failings.
The Bear, of course, stands as a multifaceted metaphor for the uncontrolled chaos of kitchens that involves navigating the hierarchical labor of cooking, professional-family relationships, and the emo-sensational experiences of food. As Sydney, the overqualified sous-chef, surmises late in the first season, the professional kitchen is often a site of despair.
“It Would Be Weird To Work In A Restaurant And Not Completely Lose Your Mind.”
–Sydney, Season 1, Episode 8
For those who have toiled in the food industry or those who have worked on the scholarship of food, these themes may appear timeless and a bit too real. At The Recipes Project, we’ve been publishing accounts on shifting understandings and approaches to food (and medicine…and magic) for more than a decade, so a great many of the themes related to kitchen struggles resonate in our archives.
Time management is no doubt critical to food production, but its historical development is relatively recent. Printed recipes of the nineteenth century paid particular attention to order and structure. Time became an important component to both meal preparation and social aspects in the kitchen. Rachel Rich’s 2013 post called“Keeping Time in the Victorian Kitchen”noted that English cookbooks prioritized timing. “The recipe contained in nineteenth-century cookbooks was more than the sum of its parts; this was not a simple collection of instructions for how to cook soups, sauces, roasts and game, it was the recipe for success.” Disrupt the timing of a recipe and a meal can be ruined. Disrupt the timing of a restaurant kitchen and, well, chaos…
Food elicits emotions, both in its production and consumption. From the joy of discovering a new dish to the rage of a poorly executed recipe, there are no shortage of emotions the culinary realm. The labors of kitchen activities have long been means to express personal conditions and reaffirm relationships. In a post from 2013 called “The ‘Emotional’ Nature of Recipes in Correspondence,” Katherine Allen highlighted familial letters focused on recipes and cooking, but also captured expressions of sympathy, hope, and desperation. Written remedies served to tie family members to their shared history and reaffirm their relationships. Emotions are critical to the process of cooking, as well. As a part of our “What is a Recipe?” series from 2017, we introduced a story-telling game focused on “Cooking with Anger.” Lisa Smith, long-time editor of the RP, posted a galvanizing original recipe called “The Terror of Chard.”
(Capriciousness, steak, and terror… Season Three of The Bear?)
But kitchens are not just spaces for production and individual experiences, they are spaces that reflect social systems and changes. Leah Astbury’s 2016 discussion “Recipes for Relationships’: Food, medicine, families and cultural engagement” stands to remind us that diets reflect communities. Through medical accounts of chocolate (a topic close to my heart, and stomach), the piece shows how food served personal, restorative roles for communities in seventeenth century England. Preparation of food as medicine, therefore, could be socially reinforcing acts that bridged households. More recently, Nikarika Tripathi reflected on how hierarchical, familial, and social systems could be manifest in food in a piece called “Unlearning Patriarchy: Flavors of Change in the Kitchen”. In the family kitchen, changing social relations can transform and enlighten and Tripathi noted a “subtle revolution” in which the “kitchen became a space where everyone’s voices were heard, preferences were respected, and contributions were celebrated.”
Ultimately, The Bear’s kitchen centers on dreams and aspirations to make brilliant food, often in spite of the cadre of conflicted chefs. And on The Recipes Project, we’ve had countless works that highlight the elevated food of the past. Here are but a few:
While The Bear’s kitchen is a space of chaos and conflict, it is also a space where social and family bonds are negotiated amid both disgusting and sublime food. For those connected to the world of professional kitchens, the show appears to have conjured a trauma that is real to life, possibly too much so. For those of us at The Recipes Project, however, this aspect of pop culture reflects the multifaceted history of kitchens of the past.
In this episode, Sarah Kernan talks to Deborah Krohn, Associate Professor and Chair of Academic Programs at Bard Graduate Center, about the recent exhibition Staging the Table in Europe 1500-1800 at Bard Graduate Center Gallery. Staging the Table explores early modern dining practices through illustrated manuals featuring instruction and carving and napkin folding. The books are considered alongside early modern material artifacts such as table linens and carving knives, as well as modern napkin folds based on period designs. Follow Deborah Krohn and Bard Graduate Center on Instagram to learn more about current and future projects.
Frédéric Chopin, Etude Op. 10, no. 5 in G flat major
Provided by Musopen.org through Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0
This is Around the Table, a new podcast from the Recipes Project. I’m your host, Sarah Kernan. Together, we will learn about exciting scholars, professionals, projects, resources, and collections focused on historical recipes.
Today I’m speaking to Deborah Krohn, Associate Professor and Chair of Academic Programs at Bard Graduate Center about the exhibition she has curated, Staging the Table in Europe 1500-1800. The exhibition at Bard Graduate Center Gallery explores dining practices through illustrated manuals featuring instruction and carving and napkin folding. The books are displayed alongside early modern material artifacts such as table linens and carving knives, as well as modern napkin folds based on period designs. Deborah, thank you so much for joining me today.
Deborah Krohn 1:02
Sarah Kernan 1:03
So, Staging the Table has so many different components, including physical and online exhibitions, a catalogue, a symposium, performances, lectures, workshops. The project also pairs texts with imagery and material objects, including modern reproductions and interpretations of really exquisite napkin folding. This comprehensiveness is so helpful for conceptualizing the early modern table. Could you talk about how you developed the idea for Staging the Table and how it came to encompass so much.
Deborah Krohn 01:39
Sure. So, like so many of our projects it came really out of a very long-term interest in culinary history, as well as the history of books and print culture and early modern Europe. And I had been teaching classes for a number of years where I was using recipe books as primary sources to try to understand cultural history. You know, the culture of the table, food production, food distribution, images, images of food and still life painting, in more prescriptive texts like herbals and, you know, botanical treatises, anything that had to do with anything that was potentially edible, and recipes of all kinds, cosmetic recipes as well as culinary recipes. So, really that whole sort of very, very broad group of ideas and material things and images. And I had written a previous book about a 1570 cookbook, Bartolomeo Scappi’s Opera. And that was, that really sort of got me into book history in a major way because I kind of, as an art historian, trained as an art historian, I realized after being really, sort of, gripped by the incredible illustrations in this recipe book that in order to actually understand what they were doing there I had to read the book. And then, you know, it sounds pretty obvious, but for art historians I dare say it is not always obvious to read the book. And then once I’d read the book I realized, well, you know, why it is what kind of editions are there, and how many times was it published, so it sort of was like, almost like following a breadcrumb trail to get, to use a food metaphor, to get to the whole. And after I’d written that book, I realized that there was a lot of other stuff that was similar: carving manuals that were, by the end of the sixteenth century, very specific; books that were didn’t have any of the other kind of stuff that was in these larger recipe compendia and that were much more focused. And I just started kind of collecting references and exploring those and realized that there was a lot of, a lot of copies of these just in the New York area. Because part of the exhibition at Bard Graduate Center is part of a program that we call the Focus Project, where faculty (it’s mainly faculty and postdoc-curated exhibitions that are done as part of a curricular enterprise within the teaching structure) and we’re not really supposed to borrow stuff from far away places. You know, we’re really supposed to keep it as local as possible. So, I realized that there was this kind of treasure trove of these carving manuals really at five or six libraries in the tri-state area around New York, and that it would be really potentially very, very good to develop it into an exhibition so that’s a kind of long-winded answer to your question.
Sarah Kernan 04:50
No, It’s great. Um, so by the time this episode is released, the in-person exhibition will have ended at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery, but the catalogue and all the digital components like the online exhibition and the YouTube videos are all still going to be available. Before we actually turn to those lasting components, I just have a few questions about the physical in-person exhibition.
Deborah Krohn 05:17
Sarah Kernan 05:18
So, Staging the Table showed how dining at elite early modern tables was really a multi-sensory experience and every part of the meal from the food to the napkin folding, the room and table decorations, even the small details like the carving knives, that those could really represent or highlight a family, or a specific event, or a theme, and every aspect of the meal could be highly manipulated to a really dramatic degree. This exhibit really hits home that the table encompassed so much more than just the food that was on the table and there’s really a wealth of extant material culture to examine. Could you, could you talk about this for a moment, reflect on this for a moment?
Deborah Krohn 06:07
Sure, probably more than a moment. Um, yeah. So, the table was a really important space because in the early modern period there wasn’t that much else to do besides work, sleep, and eat. And, so, a lot, I think, a lot of social life came, came down to what happened around the table, whether it was in, a very illustrious banquet in an aristocratic or princely home or castle or even in a modest home in, in a town, or you know, perhaps even in the countryside, that meals were central to people’s lives, and so, understanding how important that was, I, I realized that it was, it would be really interesting to pull together as much information as, as I could about that event. And one, one parallel that became really evident to me when I was preparing the exhibition was thinking about the table as a kind of, of a Wunderkammer, a chamber of wonders. You know there’s been a lot of attention amongst art historians and historians of material culture to look at this phenomenon in the early modern period of these collectors cabinets where all kinds of objects were, were thrown together for private consumption and, and enjoyment, but that these were really the nucleus of the modern museum. And it struck me that the table was also a place for display, and contemplation, and kind of a socializing around a group of objects in the same way that the Kunst- and Wunderkammer was.
Deborah Krohn 07:59
But the table was in motion. It was, it was set up and put away. Tables were not permanent pieces of furniture. They were trestles. And they could be taken down. They wouldn’t, there wasn’t a dining room for a lot of this period, right. Not a set place in the home where dining took place. It was, could, you know, usually in the biggest room there was when it was a banquet and then it would became something else afterwards or the next day, so you know there, these were not kind of permanent spaces. But they were nevertheless very important, so I wanted to get a sense of what these spaces looked like. A lot of people think about and talk about the culture of food and dining and a lot of the objects as ephemeral, as things that sort of come and go, they, they, they, they’re not around. They’re not lasting. And I find this word somewhat problematic because they are a lot of the objects themselves were ephemeral but then there’s ways to kind of access the experiences that people had through texts, through images, through prints, through objects, that you know, and through recipes and all of that.
Deborah Krohn 09:02
So, so really I was trying to presuppose that the table is a kind of space for all of these activities and and it’s it’s also, doesn’t come out so much, I mean in an exhibition you have limited space to explain all your ideas, right? You have these labels, and labels are amongst the most frustrating things for somebody to write because you know they have to be really short and there’s so much that you want to kind of cram in, an object does speak a thousand words and for a label you often only have 150, and how you can possibly do that. So my labels are a little long. Um, but that’s actually what’s on the website. The labels are there. They’ve been slightly edited to be sort of in conjunction with the online exhibition but that information has been preserved on the website. So, yeah, I mean that’s sort of the idea of bringing together the um, especially the knives, some of the cut the carving knives and the linens is to just give people a sense of like the look and feel of this in a material sense and, you know, the one thing that you can’t have in an exhibition in a museum is food. So how to get around that, you know that’s another topic we could potentially talk about that, you know, in in another part of this, but that because it’s a huge subject, but I don’t know, does that answer your question?
Sarah Kernan 10:27
Yeah, yeah, I was able to visit the exhibition a few weeks ago, and…
Deborah Krohn 10:33
Oh great. You should have gotten in touch with me!
Sarah Kernan 10:38
I was really struck by just seeing some of these objects in person, especially the table linens, seeing the napkins. That’s not something you usually see on exhibit in too many museums. So, being able to see those and then see the the modern reproductions or interpretations of these Renaissance and early modern napkin folds was so fantastic, and seeing how they repeated a lot of these same ideas and themes like sugar sculptures, that I think might be a lot more familiar through people who look at these recipes and see recipes for how to mold things out of sugar paste.
Deborah Krohn 11:20
Sarah Kernan 11:22
But actually seeing these sculptures in essence out of linen repeating that same idea and having the same visual impact was really stunning.
Deborah Krohn 11:31
Right. Well, we were really fortunate to be able to have some reconstruction folded linen centerpieces made by Joan Sallas who lives in Barcelona and whom we flew over for the first week of the exhibition so he could bring some of his amazing creations, and he really has recreated these based on very, the very limited information in the treatises. You know, they explain how to make the basic folds but they don’t explain, you know, the step-by-step of how to take these basic folds and make a crab, or, you know, a double-headed eagle, or a turkey, or some of these fantastic objects that he, that he has created so, you know that’s, that’s a part of it too understanding the kind of ingenuity and the craftsmanship that went into it and all of what people sometimes refer to as tacit knowledge, right? You know, you have these books and there’s information in them. But what does the information actually tell you, how far does it take you, what other types of pedagogical support would be needed to create these, these objects and that’s something that, that’s very hard to kind of communicate that in an exhibition. But that was a big part of the research process for me was trying to think about how you might make these things and what kind of training and how that training was, was communicated. I guess you saw some of the wonderful frontispieces from the carving manuals where there were pictures of these, these men who were in it, caught in the act of teaching and sort of depicting that pedagogical moment is something I found super interesting and something you don’t often see in other types of imagery and visual material from the period. You know, to had it, teaching is not something that’s easy to represent visually.
Sarah Kernan 13:27
Deborah Krohn 13:29
So that was something that I, I mean there, you could, there is a whole history of it and that would be a whole other interesting topic, like you know Bolognese fourteenth-century legal scholars, you know, tombs with pictures of, you know, people standing at a cathedra teaching there, that they exist. But it’s a very specific kind of iconography. So, you know that was just like one of the many things that interested me about these books.
Sarah Kernan 13:56
How did you actually decide on what items to include in the exhibition? Was there really, was there anything you really wanted to include but couldn’t?
Deborah Krohn 14:07
I mean, yeah. If you, if I could have made a wishlist of everything I wanted from every museum in the whole world, yes, there would a lot been lots of things I would have borrowed from that, you know, the Kunstkammer in Vienna and, you know, the V&A, and any other number of European museums that have fantastic examples of this. So yes, but I did I think I did manage through the generosity of the Metropolitan Museum and the Cooper Hewitt which both of those have great collections of cutlery that’s completely understudied and it’s usually not out in the galleries, it’s hidden away in the storerooms. So I was able to find examples of, of objects that that were illustrative of this culture and which helped me to tell the story in ways. So yes, I think that everybody, every curator, would say that there are things that got away, but given the limited kind of construct of this exhibition, I was very pleased to have the loans that I, I got and to be able to kind of make them carry that the sort of messages and the meanings that that I wanted to convey, so, you know, that’s important that you, you have ideas and then you have to find objects that, that you can use to kind of illustrate those ideas. I think the process is different than if you set out to do an exhibition of, you know, impressionist painting for example, where there that the objects speak for themselves. There’s, there’s the early, middle, and late style. There’s all kinds of thematic ways you can organize a show like that, but it’s basically a paintings by an artist, whereas here, you know, an exhibition that involves all these different kinds of things I think involves really figuring out what the narrative is and what the basic ideas are that you want to communicate and then finding ways to do that through the objects that are available to you.
Sarah Kernan 16:09
Could you tell us a bit about the team of people who helped you put together Staging the Table?
Deborah Krohn 16:15
Sure. Well first, first I should mention the, the two designers, the designer of the book Jocelyn Lau and the exhibition designer Ian Sullivan, because they really helped me to kind of make my visualization that I had in my mind come to fruition, that was really important. I had very specific ideas of how I wanted this material to be displayed and both of them were incredibly good listeners, but, and creative, and so they kind of work with me and wait. It was a really good team I think that was part of it. But then beyond that, you know, we have the whole installation team and the students who over a period of three or four years, actually was drawn out because of covid. The exhibition was originally supposed to take place in 2021 and was delayed for two years and honestly, that was a kind of godsend because it would have been a totally different exhibition if I had mounted it in 2021. So, as a result of that, multiple generations of students got to work on it in the context of the of the two-year MA program that we have and they contributed through their research both directly and indirectly to parts of the exhibition. One really specific way that they contributed was through an amazing website based on a deck of playing cards published in seventeenth-century London that we were not able to borrow from the Beinecke Library, but we used a digitized copy of those decks of cards, and they created this fantastic website that brings food, and that was the brief was find recipes that the carving animals and fruits on the on these cards could have, how they would have been made, and so they they use the cards as a kind of way of getting into the whole period in terms of food. So, so that’s one very specific way in which other people contributed to the exhibition and then, you know, then of course there’s the usual: the editors, and, you know, the people that work with you to make sure that your labels make sense and are are clearly expressed and don’t have too many convoluted sentences and and all of that. So I guess you don’t mean really that, you mean more sort of intellectual collaboration.
Sarah Kernan 18:45
Well, those are all people I, I was thinking of, you also, there were also people who popped up in the exhibition itself, like Ivan Day…
Deborah Krohn 18:56
Ivan Day. Absolutely, right.
Sarah Kernan 18:58
…with his recorded, audio recordings of reflections about different appropriate food history commentary, and then Sallas’s napkin folding and his workshop and involvement in that. So.
Deborah Krohn 19:13
Yeah, I mean those people, both of those people I was, I was obviously aware of their work, and Ivan and I have known each other for maybe ten or fifteen years and I’ve, I’ve been to various conferences, and over the years have really come to understand the incredibly unique way that his knowledge and experience can be activated for an audience and the ways that that kind of practical understanding of things is so key to, to bringing the period alive and and bringing the objects alive. So I was really thrilled that he agreed to come to New York and and see the show and and comment on it and bring his reproduction set of knives with him and some other objects that he used for some of the programs that are, I think you’ll have links to those on on the podcast. But, but, yeah, I mean he his knowledge contributed both in direct ways and and in indirect ways as well in terms of my own kind of study and research and and coming to understand this in the way that I I did to put together the exhibition. So we we we stand on the shoulders of all of these people as we do our research.
Sarah Kernan 20:30
Absolutely. Well speaking of all these other people who do this research, could you speak a little bit about the symposium that was associated with the exhibition, I believe it was called Instruments of Dining, and also the other events like Settings and Sounds and how they complimented and added to the exhibition? And for our listeners, all these programs are going to be linked in our in our podcast notes.
Deborah Krohn 20:53
Deborah Krohn 21:59
Great. So, I wanted to do something for symposium that would kind of be accessible to a, to a larger audience than than simply the four or five people that might be interested in early modern recipe books. I mean, I know that there are a lot of people and that they’re probably all listening to this and thinking well like, why not just do programs that are geared to us? But part of it is the the person who’s the head of our public programs and research program, his name is Andrew Kircher, really was very encouraging in terms of trying to open it up to a, to an audience, which I really appreciate. This is something that a lot of places in thinking about public humanities and other ways of engaging a broader public with with kind of research projects, right? So that’s kind of the bigger background. So the symposium, I invited a scholar who I’d met at various conferences, Molly Taylor-Poleskey, who who works on dining at the German courts in the seventeenth century and she gave an archivally-based paper that was very interesting and really spot-on in terms of the courts and the the types of things that would be happening based on these archival sources that she’s researched and then I I had some, the music side of it.
Deborah Krohn 22:24
Well then Ivan, of course, because for the evening program, that was the Settings and Sounds, and the symposium, did different lectures where he was talking about ways that objects and he he made this wonderful sugar sculpture tazza that he demonstrated its use and shows showed us some cutlery from the period, so he did a lot of really great, very hands on things. And then the music, that came about because one of the carving manuals and folding manuals that became kind of the protagonist of the exhibition was something compiled, translated from the Italian in the 1640s by a German Baroque literary figure named Georg Philipp Harsdörffer. And Harsdörffer, I’d never heard of him before I was engaged in this project, but he’s actually an incredibly important person for other publications and and activities and among which he wrote the first libretto for the first German opera that was produced in the early 1640s and so I started digging around and finding all kinds of fascinating stuff and and in almost all the images of dining and banqueting from the period you see musicians and and a number of the images in the show and some of the prints, and I wanted to try to imagine what that what it would sound like to be at a meal and to have the the kind of music that would be played at a banquet at the table.
Deborah Krohn 23:54
And Andrew Kircher has a lot of contact in the performance world and was able to create a relationship between a wonderful early music group called Sonnambula, and specifically the person who is the the sort of director of Sonnambula, Elizabeth Weinfield, and together we kind of crafted a program where they actually went back and found the score for some of the music that was connected to one of the events that’s pictured in one of Harsdorfer’s books is the banquet to celebrate the Peace of Westphalia, which is the end of the Thirty Years’ War that took place in Nuremberg in 1649, and so we went back and found some of the music and she was able to, you know, play a snippet of it live for the event. And that was something that was really significant for me was to put together the the kind of soundscape as well as the tablescape for these events and and that was the idea of it and there were some other music um Telemann and some other more well-known kind of table music Tafelmusik that that she found to play for this. So, you know, a kind of involving people in what the the term Gesamtkunstwerk, you know, sort of “total work of art” is something that often is used in conjunction with German opera from the nineteenth century, but it it was really the case that these banquets from the seventeenth century were were total works of art with the with the food, the the visual stimulation, music, and and then sort of poetry and recitation and emblematic literary inscriptions that apparently would appear on so a lot of the sculptures made out of food or made out of sugar or linen. So there were all these elements and dimensions that I that I you know couldn’t really even in an exhibition communicate to say nothing of in, you know, a monograph, so that was really what I I tried to use those programs to do is to bring in all this other content and to kind of, you know, obviously one could quibble endlessly about authenticity and you know that’s another, that’s a whole other conversation, but I think in terms of just getting a broader sense of it with a, with the proviso that it’s not completely authentic and it’s impossible to to go to a situation where you have complete authenticity and any kind of reconstruction or recreation, but it at least provides a sense of what that experience would have been like.
Sarah Kernan 26:33
If we could switch gears now to the catalogue.
Deborah Krohn 26:37
Sarah Kernan 26:38
I absolutely love this catalogue, actually. I don’t normally say that about catalogues. They’re usually really large and unwieldy and not exactly the most easy books to use. But this is really so manageable to to hold and to flip through. It’s such a beautiful book. It’s so evocative of the text of the period from the exhibition. It uses both red and black font throughout, like it’s so often the case with these early print books. There are decorative elements, they’re really evocative of the woodcuts found in books at the time, the different sorts of typefaces that you often see. So I really just love the visual aspects of the book as well. But it’s also such a valuable scholarly resource as well, and I was wondering if you had actually visualized this exhibition as a book or a monograph before an exhibition because this catalogue actually reads so fluidly, more like a monograph than an exhibition.
Deborah Krohn 27:49
Well first of all, thank you. It’s it’s wonderful to hear that because those are all things that I was very, very engaged with sort of making happen and and this. And to answer the question, I mean, you know, it is a monograph. A lot of catalogues are multiple authors and part of the the, this focus project idea, is that it’s a way for faculty members to deploy their research in a way which is more public-facing, so in a sense it I did think of it as a monograph, but I but I wanted it to be written for a broader audience. When I first started thinking about this, it was sort of amorphous. Once I got into it, I realized how significant visually it would be for an exhibition.
Sarah Kernan 28:40
So, the exhibition is now digitized and it’s freely available online. Could you tell us a bit about the process of digitizing a physical or in-person exhibition and some of the challenges associated with that, as well as some of the benefits you see?
Deborah Krohn 28:57
Sure, I mean the benefits are pretty clear, because an exhibition is around for a limited number of months and then it disappears. So having some permanent record of it is really important and it’s really nice because it’s it’s actually it’s so sad to think about the end of an exhibition. You know you work so hard on these and then and then they inevitably come to an end. So it’s really great that it exists in the digital form. So in order to create that, we have two wonderful, sort of digital people at BGC, Jesse Merandy and Julie Fuller, and I worked really closely with them to figure out how to, you know, organize it into some form, choose the order that the objects would occur in, but the process was pretty straightforward. I I just we we used the the images that, we had digitized images because of because of the book and the book illustrations, uploaded them, and uploaded the label material, and Jocelyn Lau who had designed the book created the design for the website, so that it was kind of a seamless transfer of all the graphic details that you mentioned, that were so important in in the sort of look and feel of the exhibition. So, in this case, the the online version does capture a lot of those aspects that you mentioned that the mixed typefaces the color scheme and all kinds of, kind of the quirks of early letter press printing which was what we you know we really wanted to communicate that. So I’m glad that came through.
Sarah Kernan 30:34
Well, final question. Did you have a favorite book or object from Staging the Table?
Deborah Krohn 30:42
Hard question. Who’s your favorite child. Um, let’s see. I, a favorite single object. Gosh. I mean…
Sarah Kernan 30:55
Or a couple, if you can’t really choose.
Deborah Krohn 30:57
Yeah, I mean, you know. One of the napkins that we borrowed from the Met that was, it’s it’s a napkin that was from seventeenth-century Haarlem or Belgium, sort of that area, that has a wonderful kind of label that’s sewn onto it with a series of names of different family members over several generations. And it’s it’s an American family, that’s how it got to the Met, and it was it’s actually in the American Wing at the Met, it was donated by an American family along with a lot of other objects. But the fact that this napkin had such an important status in the family that it became this kind of locus of of these different memories and the the kind of set of names on it. I I found that just so moving to see how something that many people would consider a kind of humble object, a napkin, became really the bearer of memory and transmitting family, you know, the family history, so that that object to me was just like a really important thing. Because you know these napkins, people had hundreds of them in the early modern period, literally hundreds, because they um they were used constantly. And they were really, you know, necessary to to this the rituals of dining and they do survive but people don’t really use them anymore.
Deborah Krohn 32:30
They’re too much work. I think when you start asking questions and talking about this, so many people when I was doing tours of the exhibition would say, oh yeah, I have all this big box of of of linens from my grandmother, but I never use them because they’re so hard to wash and, you know, and iron, and so but these are really these sort of humble material objects. And and so that’s something that’s that was one of my favorite objects. And then I’ll have to say some of some of the books that just the illustrations. There’s there’s one illustration of a carver and he’s standing in what looks to me very much like a Kunstkammer, and I think it’s kind of riffing on this the the theme of the Kunstkammer, you know that, I found that actually at the very end of my research process and we didn’t have time to even borrow the book, so I have a reproduction of it. And and one thing I’ll just say this really quickly. In the exhibition we also have a lot of reproductions because when you’re doing a book exhibition one of the challenges is you can only open a book to one page, but what I chose to do is to attach all of those reproductions with nails to the wall so it looked sort of like the workshop and so that the visitor. wasn’t deluded into thinking these were actual objects. I wanted it to be really clear what was a reproduction and what was, you know, an actual object. So this this image of the carver in his workshop that looks like a Kunstkammer, to me made that exact connection. And instead of having precious objects like jewels, and cameos, and ancient sculpture that you’d see in a in a Kunstkammer illustration, they’re carcasses of animals and and carved fruits. So, and I think it was actually humorous. I mean, whoever made that had a sense of humor about the sort of visual tradition that was being quoted, and that, so that to me was, it’s a favorite object because it seemed to kind of embody some of you know some of my ideas about the exhibition.
Sarah Kernan 34:25
Wonderful! Well Deborah, thank you so much for joining me today and talking about Staging the Table.
Deborah Krohn 34:32
It’s been a really wonderful opportunity for me to reflect as the exhibition is coming to a close and to think about some of the themes. And I really appreciate your interest. Great to meet you.
Sarah Kernan 34:43
Thanks to everyone for listening today. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast so you never miss an episode! I’ll see you again next time on Around the Table.
While we’ve never received an RP pitch for a Barbie post (*ahem* get cracking) we have, over the years, featured many amazing and insightful posts on beauty standards, cosmetics, makeup regimes, and the art of gender. Our authors have shown decisively that beauty standards have changed over time, and that while these beauty rules often encourage people to enact idealised versions of femininity and masculinity, individual people — the women and men who populated the past — have interpreted, adopted, furthered, and rejected these standards in their own individual ways.
But the post that spoke to me most strongly was this one, written byDaisy Payling in 2019: “Beauty and the Beaumont Magazine: Transgender Make-Up.” Payling blends insights from Trans activists, such as Charlie Craggs, with sources from the past that illuminate the lives, struggles, and triumphs of Trans women and men. In particular Payling focused on the Beaumont Society, the longest running support organisation for the Transgender community, and the past issues of the society’s publication, The Beaumont Magazine. The post shows how organisations and publications like these could be a helpful source of advice, while also offering senses of community, care, and support to members and readers.
This brings us to this vintage 1966 advertisement for “Hair Fair” Barbie.
The quote that Payling uses to open her piece, from Charlie Craggs herself, speaks provocatively to the ad for “Hair Fair” Barbie, above. Craggs talks about makeup as a crucial tool, a powerful mechanism by which to shape identity and self-presentation. It is something to be respected, celebrated, and treated with care. This is something that comes across clearly in “Hair Fair” Barbie, whose close-cropped head can be covered with any number of elaborate wigs. Appearing in 1966, in the midst of the second wave, this advertising campaign celebrates beauty choice and variety. Changing this Barbie’s hair, the ad says, is just as deliberate, desirable, and possible as changing her clothes.
Of course the ad has its limitations, many of which are serious. Everyone in the spot is white, from dolls to humans. Nearly everyone is blonde. There aren’t any boys playing with Barbie. And this Barbie’s look is stereotypically and traditionally feminine, all skirts and dresses — although she does sport a pretty groovy pair of tights around 0:22.
So while we should be cautious about celebrating “Hair Fair” Barbie uncritically, she does have one thing in common with Margot Robbie’s interpretation of the iconic woman-who-does-it-all: she owns her sense of style. The tools of fashion, which can include makeup, hair styles, accessories, clothing, and anything else that we use to decorate, shape, and adorn our bodies, all have, as Payling suggests, “a transformative power.” How we own those transformations is up to us.
In this issue’s publication highlight, we are delighted to share an interview with Dr. Rebecca Whiteley, whose book, Birth Figures: Early Modern Prints and the Pregnant Body was just published this spring by the University of Chicago Press. Dr. Whiteley is a British Academy Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham. An art historian by training, her research works on the intersections between visual and material culture, medical history and social history. Her current research focusses on the nineteenth century, the material culture of obstetric education, and the entanglements of medicine and sex. Her book, Birth Figures, is the first full-length study of the printed images of the pregnant womb that circulated widely in midwifery manuals and surgical books from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries.
Below, Dr. Whiteley shares her insights about birth figures’ relationship to recipe knowledge, histories of women as practitioners and knowledge-makers, and the practicalities and pleasures of using images as historical sources.
MR: First, congratulations on the publication of your book! It’s a really important contribution to our understanding of early modern cultures of care work, medical practice, professionalization, print, and visual culture. I’m delighted to share it with our readers. Let me start with a simple but important question: What are “birth figures,” and why do they matter?
Birth figures are images of the fetus in the womb that describe the different ways in which it can present for birth.
Images of fetal presentation had long been produced in medieval gynaecological manuscripts, but my focus in this book is on the explosion of printed versions in early modern surgical and midwifery guides. They mattered to early modern readers because they described an aspect of pregnancy and childbirth that was very important, but invisible and hard to detect, even once labour had begun. Most babies are born head first, but other positions do occur, and make it more difficult or even impossible to deliver without the intervention of a midwife or surgeon. The role of birth figures in the development of techniques to identify and deal with ‘malpresentations’ is one of the things this book tracks.
But birth figures were important beyond this relatively narrow and technical use. They were a wonderful window into the mysterious interior and held all kinds of power for early modern viewers: an expression of the troublesome womb; a symbol of the alchemy of conception; a tool for shaping the fetus; an argument for the good practice of their commissioning author; a picture of the anticipated child. I tried, in my book, to think as broadly as possible about the way that these little images might have been used and understood by their early modern viewers. Indeed, that is the core of why they are important: they were seen and used by all kinds of people, men and women, professional and lay, and so they encompass something of the vibrant plurality of early modern body culture.
MR: An important argument in your book relates to the idea that birth figures are “practitional images,” by which you mean that birth figures are “images of the body that are primarily concerned not with anatomy but with medical practice” (36). This framing got me thinking about the broader economy of early modern texts/prints that bridge a perceived divide between theoretical and practical knowledge, of which recipes are an important component. Are birth figures and recipes similarly “practitional,” or do you see key differences between the textual directions in midwifery manuals and their visual components?
Yes and no, I think! I find birth figures so interesting partly because they are visual productions, which could communicate things that people struggled to express in text: position, direction, temporality, sensation. Birth figures from the late seventeenth century get really experimental with what they could communicate. Recipes, as largely textual sources, often imply, but rarely attempt to teach this kind of embodied knowledge. A recipe is an aid to a skill still largely learned in the practice. Birth figures, at least in some cases, were attempting to transmit embodied knowledge at a distance (though their success in this is something I debate in the book).
On a deeper level, however, I think there are strong links between recipes and birth figures. Both are abstract, static and permanent expressions of embodied knowledge and lived experience. They make knowledge durable and shareable. They are sources that we need to treat in similar ways in that they give insight into lost knowledges, but they also draw our attention to the gaps, what wasn’t and couldn’t have been recorded. On a related note, in Birth Figures, I speculate briefly about whether birth figures were not just practitional, but also a tool for practice. Both paper and images were important parts of materia medica, especially in Catholic countries where holy printed images were regularly kissed, touched, worn and consumed to effect healing. Even in Protestant countries, prints were widely understood to have very direct and physical effects on the mind, shaping understanding, taste, and emotion. I would love to find out more about how printed images, including birth figures, worked as materials for recipes as well as conduits for knowledge.
MR: One of the themes that I loved the most in your book is its emphasis on women readers and users of birth figures. You reclaim the birth figure as an especially important epistemic site for women, through which they could learn about their bodies, about pregnancy, and about labor and delivery. I can’t help but think about similar arguments regarding recipe collections and recipe knowledge in works by Elaine Leong, Sharon Strocchia, and Alisha Rankin, to name just a few. How do birth figures, like recipes, better help us understand women as healers, practitioners, and experts in their own right?Andbuilding from that question, how do birth figures help to complicate a longstanding narrative in the history of medicine and science about women’s displacement from positions of authority as healers and practitioners?
There’s lots of evidence to suggest that birth figures were as much a part of women’s culture of birthing, as they were of men’s culture of learned medicine. Not only do they cross this boundary, they show it up for the flimsy thing it is! Some women were learned, expert medical practitioners who used tools effectively and kept up to date with the medical literature. Others, of course, were completely without these professional masculine spheres and incorporated birth figures into their own epistemologies of birth. Women of both camps, particularly when they worked as midwives, were respected within their communities as experts. Focussing on a printed source that had valence in these different social and epistemological spheres shows the real mobility, flexibility and power that early modern women could have as medical practitioners.
If we take a rare but interesting comment on birth figures by the seventeenth-century midwife and surgeon Percival Willughby—
“all the schemes, and various figures, on which midwives look, making their women to think of wonders, by shewing them these pictures of children, assuring them, that, by these, they bee directed, and perfected, and much enlightened in the way of midwifery”
—we can see that birth figures worked as symbols of women’s knowledge and practice that was simultaneously denigrated, exploited, and respected by medical men. If Willughby was ambivalent about the usefulness of birth figures, he knew better than to try to remove them from his planned midwifery manual. Because, as with recipes, we really can link birth figures to women’s practice and knowledge in childbirth, they offer a valuable insight into these aspects of history that are both difficult to trace, and too often neglected or side-lined.
MR: Finally, recipe collections often feature diagrams or illustrations intended to represent process, very much as birth figures do. What advice would you give to our readers who might be interested in thinking about visual sources of “practitional” knowledge alongside textual sources like recipes?
I would say… good idea! Technical or informational images, which are often called ‘epistemic images’ in scholarship, are rich and valuable sources that haven’t received nearly enough attention. Working on them, then, is not only interesting, but it can also help historians to break new ground. I imagine that images in recipes might help scholars to enrich their understandings of practice, to unearth hidden elements of knowledge, but potentially also to read at a cross grain, to see criticisms, challenges or jokes on the textual matter. Images are good at doing these things because they can be more ambiguous and pluralistic, less direct and implicating, than words.
Working on this kind of image involves juggling different disciplines. To research Birth Figures, I combined methodologies from book and print history, art history, social history, the history of medicine, and material culture. But there is also an increasing body of excellent work on epistemic images specifically. Guiding lights for me include: Susan Dackerman; Lorraine Daston; James Elkins; Peter Galison; Nick Hopwood; Matthew Hunter; Sachiko Kusukawa; and Alexander Wragge-Morley. My one word of warning is that if you want to work with images, be prepared to approach them as complicated sources in their own right. It is all too easy use an image as a simple illustration for a point you want to make, or as ‘evidence’ for a practice you think existed. But all images are creations, they are interpretations of reality, not simple records of it. You need to interrogate not only what they say, but how and why, and always with an awareness of the capacity of an image to be read and used in very diverse ways.
Thank you, Dr. Whiteley! Readers interested in learning more about birth figures and their relationship to medical practice should order Dr. Whiteley’s book here.