Exhibition Review: “Food: Bigger than the Plate”

By Catherine Price

Fig. 1. Wallpaper designed by Fallen Fruit. Image Credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 1. Wallpaper designed by Fallen Fruit. Image Credit: Catherine Price.

The Food: Bigger than the Plate exhibition is taking place at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London from May until October 2019. The exhibition takes you on a journey through the four zones of Composting; Farming; Trading; and Eating. Here, I highlight what I feel are the most thought-provoking exhibits.

The aim in the “Composting” zone is to encourage you to reimagine waste. Instead of considering waste as disposable and to be forgotten about, either in landfill or oceans, the aim is to think about waste as valuable and beautiful. By doing this, humans become reconnected to ecosystems.

Fig. 2. Oyster mushrooms growing in a bed containing used coffee grounds. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 2. Oyster mushrooms growing in a bed containing used coffee grounds. Image credit: Catherine Price.

Used coffee grounds from the Victoria and Albert Museum café are used in a bed to grow oyster mushrooms. These mushrooms are used as ingredients in the café, reducing waste and illustrating how food can be grown in the city.

Fig. 3. Totomoxtle created from the discarded husks of heirloom corn varieties. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 3. Totomoxtle created from the discarded husks of heirloom corn varieties. Image credit: Catherine Price.

The exhibit also showcases composting efforts from around the world, beyond the walls of the V&A. For example, Mexico has over sixty varieties of native corn. The show exhibits Totomoxtle, a veneer material created from the discarded husks of heirloom corn varieties. It was designed in response to the loss of native varieties of corn following the implementation of industrialized agriculture in the country. This supports the villagers of Tonahuixtla who are replanting heirloom corn varieties by providing them with a second income.

Fig. 4. Different varieties of heirloom corn. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 4. Different varieties of heirloom corn. Image credit: Catherine Price.

The next section of the exhibition concerns “Farming.” Hedge H.U.G.  (Horticultural Urban Growth) encourages you to reimagine a city that is concentrated around the edges of farmland. Instead of having hedges separating fields, buildings are built in their place. People living in cities are fed directly from the land.

Fig. 5. Hedge H.U.G. (Horticultural Urban Growth) exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 5. Hedge H.U.G. (Horticultural Urban Growth) exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.

 

Human-animal relationships are explored in the exhibit of ‘This Little Piggy.’ Elaine Tin Nyo followed the life of a piglet named Zelai from birth to death, including the final production into ham. She filmed his journey, and this video is actually very difficult to watch. Zelai’s hams will age two years, which is twice his actual lifespan. The rest of his flesh is preserved in 182 cans, which are on display and contain sausages, meat, and pâté.

Fig. 6. Some of the 182 cans containing sausages, meat and pâté in the ‘This Little Piggy’ exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 6. Some of the 182 cans containing sausages, meat and pâté in the ‘This Little Piggy’ exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.

The “Trading” zone encourages you to consider how food is transported, traded, and packaged. Uli Westphal created three landscapes designed to be both perfect and unsettling. They are intended to show how food marketing is designed to appeal to our desires to purchase food that is healthy and wholesome. As people are now so detached from agriculture and food production, we have to rely on the information provided to us by the food industry.

Fig. 7. Three landscapes created by Uli Westphal. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 7. Three landscapes created by Uli Westphal. Image credit: Catherine Price.

Björn Steinar Blumenstein and Johanna Seeleman’s ‘Banana Story’ is an exhibit which tells the story of a banana on its journey from a tree branch in Ecuador to a supermarket in Iceland. The banana was given a passport and an extended label to show its amazing journey. It travelled 8,800km, crossed multiple national borders, and passed through 33 pairs of hands. The accompanying video illustrates how important global shipping has become and how deeply we rely on it for the food we eat.

Fig. 8. The ‘Banana Story’ exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 8. The ‘Banana Story’ exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.

“Eating” is the final zone in the food story journey. It features three photos of women eating items that make them feel good, as part of a series taken by Sana Badri. They are an act of defiance against a food press that can be elitist, judgmental, and fat phobic, encouraging agency over pleasurable food choices.

Fig. 10. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 10. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Image credit: Catherine Price.

This section also features the 1861 publication, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. This book was aimed at the rapidly expanding Victorian middle classes, and includes recipes, advice on childcare, etiquette, entertaining, and how to manage household servants. Curators included it in the exhibition to demonstrate both household management and curating food for a reading public. The curators describe how ‘instructions on how to boil a cabbage rub shoulders with plans for seating guests at the dinner table. The positioning of the book in the exhibition is also interesting as it sits alongside cookbooks which are collections of handwritten or newspaper clippings of recipes accumulated over time.

Fig. 11. Instagram images of food. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 11. Instagram images of food. Image credit: Catherine Price.

Juxtaposed with the historical are images from the contemporary in the form of Instagram posts. Instagram enables us to see into the culinary lives of others, as well as celebrating everyday creativity for cooking for loved ones. It also provides businesses with the opportunity to sell food products by posting mouth-watering photos.

The table laid out at the end of the exhibition is designed to provoke deeper engagement and thought about our food, our bodies, and each other. New tableware and food products can prompt us to interact with each other as we eat, sharing food, conversation, and ideas. A plate from Paul Scott‘s project Cumbrian Blues depicts the bleak realities faced by farmers in one of the worse affected areas following the UK’s Foot and Mouth outbreak of 2001. Six million cattle and sheep were culled in an attempt to prevent the spread of the disease.

Fig. 12. A plate from the set called the Cumbrian Blues. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 12. A plate from the set called the Cumbrian Blues. Image credit: Catherine Price.

The highlights I describe provide just a snapshot of the exhibition. These are all designed to encourage us to question what we eat and to ask ourselves if we could eat differently. Eating is not just about health, diet, traditions, and cultures, but also land use, water consumption, energy and transport systems, and human and animal welfare. We have to determine the value we place on quality and the conditions in which our food is produced.

Spicing up the Victorians: Teaching Mrs. Beeton’s Recipe for Mango Chutney

Isabella Beeton Beeton’s Book of Household Management  (London. S.O. Beeton, 1861).  New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed September 5, 2015. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/8ed44a87-9220-cb3c-e040-e00a18060cbd
Isabella Beeton Beeton’s Book of Household Management (London. S.O. Beeton, 1861). New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed September 5, 2015. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/8ed44a87-9220-cb3c-e040-e00a18060cbd

By Erika Rappaport

I love to teach with Isabella Beeton. Her biography and her opus, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) confound several popular stereotypes about gender, middle-class Victorians and British foodways. The book is important for studying the development of the modern cookbook and recipe and reveals the international context that produced national cuisines in the nineteenth century. My students at University of California often imagine that “British cuisine” is an oxymoron. Except for a good cup of tea, the popular conception of British food is that of overcooked, bland vegetables and simple roasted meats. One look at Household Management dispels all such myths.

I first introduce students to the book itself. At over 1,000 pages, it is huge. I bring in an old edition available in my university library, but it is now available in full via Project Guttenberg. There are also useful background essays for students and instructors on the British Library website and via BRANCH: Britain, Representation, and Nineteenth-Century History. I first ask students to examine how the recipes are written, arranged, to look at what ingredients and tools are used, and finally what is in the book beyond the recipes. They notice right away, for example, that the first line compares the Mistress of the house “with the Commander of an Army” (7). We talk about what or who the housewife is “fighting;” who her soldiers might have been, and why Mrs. Beeton used a masculine metaphor while addressing a largely female audience. This opens a discussion of the complicated nature of the mistress-servant relationship, particularly surrounding foodwork, and this leads to a broader discussion of domesticity, gender and class identity.

I then ask students to make a list of adjectives they would use to describe Mrs. Beeton. They invariably come up with terms like old, solid, stocky, severe and tell me she must have been an aging Victorian cook, likely from a large aristocratic home (such as that they have seen in television series such as Downton Abbey). They are surprised to find that Mrs. Beeton was in her mid-twenties when she wrote Household Management and that she was a fashionable and modern (by the standards of the day) woman married to a very successful journalist. Among other important texts, Samuel Beeton brought out the first English edition of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He published mass-market magazines for children; and, with his wife he published the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine (started in 1852), one of the first inexpensive women’s magazines for the growing middle-class female market. We talk then about the standardization and commercialization of culinary literature.

I assign several recipes from Mrs. Beeton, but in my upper division, food and world history course I especially like to use the recipe for “Mango Chetney” (124). The recipe, Mrs. Beeton tells us, “was given by a native to an English lady, who had long been resident in India, and who, since her return to her native country, has become quite celebrated amongst her friends for the excellence of this Eastern relish (124).” This passage opens up a discussion about race, gender, and how food knowledge travelled between metropole and colony. We discuss how “Eastern” tastes were surprisingly acknowledged, absorbed, shared and celebrated by middle-class women just a few years after the “Indian Mutiny.” At the same time Mrs. Beeton published her guide, the same middle class readers were being inundated with frightening tales of the dangers of the East, particularly for white women. This leads students to contemplate the complex but everyday nature of the Empire and the way that cooking and dietary might have been considered a way that women in particular participated in the colonial project.

We then look at the ingredients. Mrs. Beeton is very precise, with the ingredient list right at the top: 1 ½ lbs. of moist sugar, 3/4 lb. of salt, ¼ lb. of garlic, ¼ lb. of onions, ¾ lb. of powdered ginger, ¼ lb. of dried chilies, ¾ lb. of mustard-seed, ¾ lb. of stoned raisins, 2 bottles of best vinegar, 30 large unripe sour apples. Students are struck by the ample amount of onions, garlic, ginger, mustard and chilies, salt, and sugar. We think about the supposed British distaste for spices in the modern period and talk about how spices might be used differently (or similarly) than in the Middle Ages. It is about this time that someone notices that “Mango Chetney” has apples not mangoes, and this leads to a discussion about adaptation, availability, trade, grocery shopping and authenticity.

We next turn to the “mode” of cooking, which involves a lot of pounding and drying of the spices, peeling, coring and chopping, and simmering everything until it is thoroughly blended. The concoction is then stored in bottles, corked and tied with a “wet bladder.” Finally, Mrs. Beeton tells us that “this chetney is very superior to any which can be bought, and one trial will prove it to be delicious” (124). Students are struck by the apparent contradiction between the use of the wet bladder and the large amount of work involved, which they see as old fashioned, and the fact that clearly there are at least several types of chetney for sale. Mrs. Beeton is thus advising the use of homemade as superior to store bought. I ask students whether they think this is a modern recipe, or a rejection of “modernity,” or both. This leads to a discussion of what precisely modernity might mean.

Finally, just when students start rethinking the nature of British cooking, Mrs. Beeton starts talking about “Garlic.” Next to the recipe she writes a brief history, but begins: “the smell of the plant is generally considered offensive and it is the most acrimonious in its taste of the whole of the alliaceous tribe” (124). We then learn that garlic was introduced into England from the Mediterranean in 1548, and was “in greater repute with our ancestors than it is with our selves, although it is still used as a seasoning herb. On the continent, especially it Italy, it is much used, and the French consider it an essential in many dishes” (124). Here we see how a national “British” cuisine emerged through the process of dissociation and absorption with continental Europe and the Empire. Invariably someone wants to start researching the history of garlic, Victorian chutney brands, and recipes for curry and Indian food in Britain.[i]

Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management (1861: Abridged edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 124. Photo courtesy of Erika Rappaport.
Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861: Abridged edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 124. Photo courtesy of Erika Rappaport.

[i] Some helpful books on this include, Lizzie Collingham, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); Anita Mannur, Culinary Fictions: Food in South Asian Diasporic Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010) and Krishnedu Ray and Tulasi Srinivas, ed. Curried Cultures: Globalization, Food and South Asia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).

Erika Rappaport is an Associate Professor in the History Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has published, Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London’s West End (Princeton UP, 2000) and many articles on gender, consumption and middle-class culture in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. She is on the editorial board of Gastronomica and an associate editor of the Journal of British Studies. She recently co-edited Consuming Behaviours: Identity, Politics and Pleasure in Twentieth-Century Britain (Bloomsbury 2015) and is completing a major book on the history of tea that explores the connections between imperialism, consumerism, foodways and globalization from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries. The book is tentatively titled, An Acquired Taste: Tea in the Age of Empire (Princeton, forthcoming).

Different ways to cook a rabbit: Georgiana Hill and Mrs Beeton

By Rachel Rich

Georgiana Hill's cookbooks are serious books for serious foodies.
The sober title page matches Georgiana Hill’s serious approach to cookery. Credit: The Internet Archive

 

 

Georgiana Hill was a prolific cookery writer around the time when Mrs Beeton published her Book of Household Management (1861). Each woman wrote from an educated perspective, drawing on history and mythology to contextualise the ingredients they wrote about. Isabella Beeton was a young, successful journalist, who probably spent very little time in the kitchen. Much less is known of Hill’s life, but the introductions to her many publications, as well as the recipes themselves, suggest certain possibilities.

Unlike Beeton, whose Book includes recipes for every food imaginable, and advice about every aspect of domesticity, Hill keeps her focus solely on the food. In the introduction to The Gourmet’s Guide to Rabbit Cooking, In One Hundred and Twenty-Four Dishes (1859), Hill discussed her childhood fascination with rabbits, before moving on to their culinary purpose–a flight of fancy one can only imagine Mrs Beeton would have found pointless if not downright distasteful. Whereas Beeton depicted herself as the solidly English, economical and practical mistress of a well-run home, Hill consciously allied herself with the French ‘who possess an aptitude for delicacy of expression of which an English cook is totally deficient.’ Hill went on to write that ‘the charm of rabbits consists in their being so easily and agreeably accommodated (mark the word), and in their capability of producing a variety of compositions, which, if proceeding from the hands of an able artiste, may, for elegance, be ranked among the most recherché dishes that can dignify the table of refined and enlightened amphitryons.’

General advice for every eventuality, including the cooking of rabbits.
Mrs Beeton’s more ornate title page illustrates the contrast of her more domestic  femininity with Hill’s gender neural approach. Source: British Library/wikipedia

Hill’s recipes also differed from Beeton’s. Beeton started every recipe with a list of ingredients, then methodically went through the instructions, and finished with information about time, cost, number fed, and seasonability. Hill did not take up such modern practices, keeping rather to the traditional, discursive from. Thus, recipe 56 ‘To Curry Cold Rabbit’ reads:

Cut up two good-sized onions, one cucumber, two apples, and a slice or more of ham and cut into dice. Put these things into a stewpan, with a quarter of a pound of butter, and stir them well until they are done; then add your pieces of rabbit, and the juice of a lemon strained from the pips; shake it for a few minutes, pour in a pint of good stock, and let it simmer for twenty minutes, skimming frequently. When done, you can either dish it as it is, or arrange the rabbit in your dish, and strain the sauce through a sieve over it. Serve boiled rice apart.

The difference between Hill and Beeton is that Hill was writing as a cook and food enthusiast who assumed that her writers shared her passion. Beeton was writing for women for whom she imagined the running of the home to be a serious business: ‘As with the commander of an army, or the leader of any enterprise, so is it with the mistress of a house.’ Clearly each book found an audience and a market, but where Beeton wrote condescendingly to (imagined) morally and intellectually weak housewives, Hill chose a more neutral approach, calling herself ‘An Old Epicure,’ and eschewing domestic advice in favour of a specialist’s approach to food preparation.