I’m easily spooked by the sheer indelibility of the printed word, a predicament compounded by the internet’s near-infinite archival capacity. It’d be nice, I often think, to work in a more ephemeral medium, like sandcastles or skywriting or face paint. The medium of food, though, had not crossed my mind until I read Pamela H. Simpson’s smart and thorough new book on the subject, Corn Palaces and Butter Queens: A History of Crop Art and Dairy Sculpture (Minnesota, 2012).
This book is worth reading, in part, for the wild imagery that abounds as Simpson takes us through the history of food as art. A 1660 cookbook for special occasions provided a recipe for a cooked stag filled with dark wine and then pierced with an arrow. During a dinner party, the host would remove the arrow, with the guests sure to gasp and clap as “blood” seeped from the animal. A historical text from 1550 recounts a gathering of Florentine artists at which they feasted on an all-food “church”: “The pavement was formed of jelly, resembling a variously colored mosaic; the columns, which looked like porphyry were large sausages; the bases and capitals parmesan cheese; the cornices were made of pastry and sugar. … In the middle was a choir desk made of cold veal, with a book made of pastry, the letters and notes of peppercorn.” Writers, take note: jotting down your work on peppercorns instead of a computer may be the ideal solution to shelf-life anxiety.
Of course, our tradition of food sculpture in the U.S. is, unlike these elaborate banquets, often divorced from the act of eating. The latter portion of the book focuses on the food art that many of us have encountered at state fairs: livestock carved from butter, busts of presidents carved from butter, whatever else you can imagine carved from butter. Simpson also devotes a fair amount of time to the grain palaces that were very popular in the late nineteenth century. These showy displays can be uncomfortable reminders of the twin presence of endemic food waste and endemic hunger. Here, Simpson does a nice job of tracing these installations back to a period in the 1870s when Kansas, then recently plagued by drought, was desperate to prove the vitality of its crops to the rest of the country by embracing what now seems crass and misguided. Enormous and enormously wasteful displays–the U.S. Capitol rendered in apples, a multigrain Liberty Bell with a gourd for a clapper–seemed the best way to say to the country, “Buy some land in Kansas, and you’ll have more crops than you know what to do with.”
One thing the book makes clear is that, while individual food sculptures may melt and decay, they nevertheless have a profound staying power in the public imagination. The institution of sculpting in butter was resilient enough to make a vibrant comeback after being completely shut down due to food rationing during World War II. Seemingly inherent in the practice of creating food art is a kind of compulsory oneupmanship that keeps state fair sculptors trying, decade after decade, for increasingly intricate and eye-catching new scenes. And rather than curbing the incidence of butter sculptures in the name of sustainability, fair organizers may aim instead to simply reuse the raw material in biofuels after the close of the fair. All in all, it looks like food sculpture may not be going anywhere anytime soon–perhaps it’s not so ephemal a form, after all.