Edible Art

  • Posted on Mar 26, 2012 by

I recently walked through the Elizabeth Sackler wing on the 4th floor of the Brooklyn Museum and found myself at Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. This led, quite naturally, to thoughts of food and entertaining. Food evokes an emotional response through both flavor and presentation, and new recipes are the result of creativity. All of these qualities tie the edible to the artistic. Entertaining, too, has a connection to art. The host picks china, glassware, and linens that please the eye and sprinkles them with food to please the tongue and conversation to please the ear. A dinner party could be described as a performance piece enacted by the host and guests. This connection has resulted in a gorgeous array of artists’ books on the subject of food and entertaining.

The Dinner Party
Judy Chicago (American, b. 1939). The Dinner Party, 1974–79.Ceramic, porcelain, textile, 576 x 576 in. (1463 x 1463 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, 2002.10. © Judy Chicago. Photo: © AislinnWeidele for Polshek Partnership Architects

The books range from discussions of food as art, to traditional housewifery, to humor, and finally come around to art as food. An excellent place to start is with Nicole J. Caruth’s With Food in Mind.Caruth looks at how artists use food to convey their message. She looks specifically at 30 artists’ books (some of which I will describe below) and the ways in which food compliments or enhances the artist’s vision.  One example she discusses is Robin Kahn’s Dining in Refugee Camps. Kahn discovered the ties between food, ritual, and tradition during her stay with the Sahrawi in refugee camps in Algeria and The Free Territories of the Western Sahara. She tells this story and accompanies it with pictures of meals, recipes, and lists of spices for medicine and cooking. The women of the Sahrawi have strong ties of kinship to each other on which they rely to bring the community together. They enforce these ties with visits and place a great importance on hospitality, ritualizing visits with tea ceremonies.

Beeton, Mrs. (Isabelle Mary). Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management: A Guide to Cookery in All Branches, Daily Duties, Mistress and Servant, Hostess and Guest, Marketing… [et al]. London: Ward, Lock, & Ltd., 1906.

Western Eurpoean cultures also place an importance on hospitality and celebrating with meals. No place is this more evident than in Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. This three volume collection advises the reader on how to maintain a large household. Written in the early 20th century, with advice on entertaining, managing servants, healthcare, and a comprehensive collection of recipes, it quickly became indispensable to housekeepers and their mistresses and would more than likely have graced the shelves of Downton Abbey. Midway through the 20th century, another ideal of cooking and entertaining developed. In the fifties, the traditional image of the perfect housewife developed with her emphasis on presentation and interesting uses for canned goods and Jello. Scott McCarney portrays a selection of these recipes with scanned copies of his mother’s recipe index cards in A Selection of Cards from the Collection of Lela McCarney.

In the last decade, a humorous take on fifties housewives and their recipes and entertaining has become popular. One example of this is Nava Atlas’Secret Recipes for the Modern Wife. With recipe titles like “Broiled Sacrificial Chicken,” “Mother in Law Fruitcake,” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Tart,” Atlas parodies the traditional American housewife side by side with collage-style pictures of fifties housewives in action. Another book in the spirit of parody is RirkritTiravanija’sSoccer Half Time Cookery Book.Divided into sections for each round of the finals, the English is juxtaposed on the page opposite with the same recipes in German. The recipes range from sandwiches and soups, to Asian inspired, to Halibut. Like Secret Recipes, The Soccer Half Time Cookery Book is illustrated with collage images scattered throughout, including soccer balls and kicking feet. Aleksandra Mir also brings humor to the table in The How Not to Cookbook: Lessons Learned the Hard Way. Containing advice from a variety of sources, she lists quotations telling stories of culinary disaster. One such is: “Never allow your university-educated girlfriend to boil water in a plastic cup on an electric cooker ring. It will melt the cup and cause a bad smoke to fill the tiny apartment. If this happens, do not ask pointless questions like: ‘Why did you boil water in a plastic cup? Didn’t you know it would melt?’ Henceforth, be suspicious of all educated people in general.” (38) As a university-educated woman, I can assure you that I have never boiled water in a plastic cup. But you should be suspicious of me.

Mir, Aleksandra.The How not to Cookbook: Lessons Learned the Hard Way. New York: Rizzoli, 2010.

Artists’ books on food can also take on a more serious tone. Katherine Ng explores her identity as a Chinese American in Banana Yellow. A book shaped like a Chinese food take-out container, Banana Yellow contains facts about Ng juxtaposed with words that relate to her story in English and Cantonese. The title refers to her attempt to determine her identity, as she details in a poem on the final page:


Yellow on the outside,

White on the inside.

Chinese and Asian people

who assimilate with the white culture,

denyingthe color

of their own culture. (16)

My favorite in the collection is probably Mary Jane Dougherty’s The Dudie Bird Cookbook.  Dougherty begins with “The Dudie Bird Cookbook is a comprehensive guide on how to prepare a bird from scratch. With this step-by-step method, perfect results are guaranteed even for the uninitiated cook.”  She demonstrates this method for the preparation of a bird for roasting in twelve black and white photographs. Her chicken, however, is slightly unconventional.

Dougherty, Mary Jane. The Dudie Bird Cookbook. Chicago: Running Dog Press, c. 1976.

Rather than creating art from images of food, she uses art to represent food. This book shows how far we have come since Mrs. Beeton, whose diagrams for trussing a chicken were far less imaginative.


Beeton, Mrs. (Isabelle Mary). Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management: A Guide to Cookery in All Branches, Daily Duties, Mistress and Servant, Hostess and Guest, Marketing… [et al]. London: Ward, Lock, & Ltd., 1906.

Katy Christensen, Guest Blogger, The Brooklyn Museum Libraries & Archives

Katy is a lifelong Brooklynite with masters in Library and Information Science from The Pratt Institute. She is currently employed as a tutor for The Brooklyn Learning Center and has been volunteering as a guest blogger for The Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives since July 2011.


Great job Katie!

I enjoyed your essay which reminded me of several things, one of the Saturday my father decided I needed to know how to bone a duck. Another was the similarities between Mrs Beaton and Florence Nightengale in some culinary approaches. I am sending it on to friends. Thank you.

Would love to see and relish a display of edible art.

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