As well as studying early cookbooks, prints, and paintings, those of us who love the history of food can learn about past delicacies by studying the shapes of dishes and their ornament. In the Winterthur exhibition Dining by Design: Nature Displayed on the Dinner Table (open through January 6, 2019), such references abound!
Tastes regarding how prepared foods should look when they arrived at the table have changed over time. Today, for example, diners in America or Europe might not expect a cooked goose to arrive at the table complete with its head! However, based on the tureen shown above and cookbook instructions from the 1600s onward, such a display was common on many past dinner tables. The goose tureen, originally used to serve soup or other liquid foods, additionally mimics the leafy garnishes that sometimes adorned cooked birds at the table.
In the Dining by Design exhibition, the goose tureen is just one of the treasures included in the portion of the show focusing on food acquisition. There are objects representing hunting traditions, fishing, and the raising of domesticated animals as sources of meat as well as the growing of fruits and vegetables.
Surf-and-turf motifs ornamenting the elegant silver tureen, below, suggest that a variety of foods may have been served from the dish. Two boars’ heads flank either side of the tureen body; a realistic-looking lobster or crayfish on the lid forms a handle, and the dish is supported on “dolphin” feet.
Other references to the abundance available from the sea are obvious in the Portuguese bucket-of-fish tureen, shown below. Paintings and prints from the 1600s onward show coopered wooden buckets, resembling the type forming the lower portion of the tureen as containers for different kinds of foods, including fresh fish.
Hunting, of course, was another excellent source of protein and was celebrated in the shapes of and ornament on dishes. The magnificently detailed tureen and stand, shown below, not only is garnished with oak leaves from the forest but also includes the instruments of the animal’s demise! The fletching (feathers) of arrows is visible beneath one edge of the dish. Although this vessel probably was intended for soup or stew, real boar’s heads often had the skull removed; the resulting cavity was then stuffed with one of a broad range of fillings.
More than a century after the boar’s head tureen was produced in England, American diners who were served “barbecued fawn” apparently were a bit squeamish regarding the dish. The cookbook’s author tells us,
The young deer does not often find its way into the kitchen; hence cooks are not very profuse as to its mode of treatment. When very young the suspicion arises rather too naturally that it has not been specially slaughtered for the occasion, and this idea creates a prejudice against what is otherwise a very savoury dish.
The author then merrily proceeds to provide two recipes, one for barbecued fawn and another for roasted saddle of fawn.
Man (and woman!) cannot live on meat alone, however, and throughout history vegetables and fruit have formed an important part of the dining experience. Some wealthy consumers raised their own produce or bought imported or hot-house-grown vegetables or fruits, such as oranges, lemons, limes, mangoes, or figs. Private orchards and vineyards—such as at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Virginia—also experimented with new types of fruits and vegetables. Most urban shoppers, however, bought produce from street-sellers, local shops, or market gardeners, some of whom grew their stock in enclosed plots or greenhouses within the city limits.
Tureens in the form of melons featured leaf-shaped stands, and some perhaps celebrated the increased availability of a broader range of fruits. Such vessels were used during any course of a dinner, whether for serving sweet or savory foods. The large white melon tureen shown here most likely served soup at the first course of a dinner.
Foods such as rhubarb were introduced to Europe from Asia, along with valuable silks and spices. Although the leaves of the plant are considered to be poisonous, the tart stalk has long been valued as a food. In the kitchen, rhubarb—though actually a vegetable—is commonly sweetened and prepared as if it were a fruit.
The cultivation of leafy vegetables such as cabbage and lettuce dates back thousands of years, although some (such as the cos lettuce, which appeared during the 1600s) are more recent innovations. Such food was easy to grow and eventually was affordable by all levels of society.
Ultimately, though, all of these wonderful dish designs were just the tip of the iceberg…lettuce. (Sorry, couldn’t help it!) Come and see for yourself at Winterthur, when you visit Dining by Design: Nature Displayed at the Dinner Table, open through January 6, 2019.
Post by Leslie B. Grigsby, Senior Curator of Ceramics & Glass, Winterthur