consider the vegetable: produce as modern art

Squash growing five feet up an elm tree; Eugene, OR
Sweet trompe l’oeil pastries shaped like bok choi mimicking jade sculpture in National Museum, Silks Palace Restaurant, Taipei

Of all the odd patterns I’ve discovered through my study of food in modern literature,  fruit and vegetables as victims of circumstance is probably the one I like best.  Meat, since Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1905), had its battleground drawn between the forces of good and evil.   But produce, it would seem, was contested land.

Red cabbage sauerkraut lacto-fermenting; Eugene, OR
Seed zucchini in the winter rain; Open Oak Farm, Sweet Home, OR

Breaking free from the cornucopia and vanitas imagery that played out in paintings over and over again from the Dutch Old Masters onward, the vegetable in particular was portrayed in new and unusual and almost unrecognizable ways, frequently being destroyed by man’s (or woman’s!) hand: decaying, tortured, forced to adapt and survive in unfriendly conditions.

Display at Food Network’s Food and Wine Festival Grand Tasting, 2011; New York, NY
Native but tropical-flavored pawpaw, first crop in seven years; The Gourd Patch, Springfield, OR
Indian drumstick vegetable (Moringa oleifera), steamed; Oakland, CA

Be a modernist.  Try it yourself. It’s winter and raining and your imagination has nothing better to do to combat the Christmas onslaught of kitschy, rehashed icons and themes. Promote, as M. F. K. Fisher did, a tonic of mixed leftover vegetable juices as a tasty treat.  She fooled no one.  Would you have better luck with an apple-paw paw-drumstick cocktail?

Or think of vegetables not as their perfectly ripe, brilliantly colored, archetypal forms, but rather in a state of decay, too big and fecund, too shrunken, cut into pieces, out of place, misshapen, a seed, growing awry, doomed…

First harvest of Belgian endive, next it goes into deep chill then darkness to grow the familiar pale yellow chicon; Sunset Lane Farm, Brownsville, OR

…or is it dormant, exceptional, whole in its fragmentation, full of promise?

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