Monday, September 29, 2008

A Viking Hearth in Iceland, Greenland, and Vineland

Women in Viking sagas played a key role in the economic life of their time. "There were certain things no self-respecting Viking man would do, such as weaving or sewing. No man would milk a ewe or make cheese. No Viking would cook, unless aboard ship, and even then it was considered demeaning. ... The wife ... hired and fired servants and was in charge of the food -- preserving it, preparing it, and sharing it out. In those years when winter lingered and supplies dwindled, the wife decided who starved." Viking women had more freedom and power than they had later, when Christianity dictated new ways. Women created much of the wealth: the cloth they spun was a key trade product for the Icelanders and Greenlanders, who needed iron and other goods to survive in the harsh climate. Three women could milk 12 cows and 80 ewes, and then make butter, cheese, fermented milk, and whey to feed the family and store for winter.

At the time of the sagas, one woman named Gudrid the Far Traveler lived in a series of sod houses held up by timber from her Scandinavian homeland -- a modern reconstruction appears at right/above. She and the women in her household cooked over scarce charcoal or sheep dung on a hearth insulated in some cases from the permafrost beneath her floor, and cared for cows and sheep held in similarly constructed barns. On small and vulnerable Viking ships, she sailed to each new home -- at times, she owned ships, land, houses and goods.

The major events of Viking settlement took place in her lifetime about 1000 years ago. Gudrid lived for a while in every settlement. Her long North Atlantic voyages took from Europe to Iceland, Greenland, and Vineland, the latter being the somewhat mysterious temporary Viking settlement in Nova Scotia. Further, at the end of her life, having became a Christian nun, she made a pilgrimage to Rome. Earlier, she had probably worshiped the old gods.

Gudrid's life is the subject of The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman by Nancy Marie Brown: a wonderful tale based on Icelandic sagas, historic documents from other European countries, and on archaeology. The author's own experiences on a dig in Iceland in 2005 and her travels to Gudrid's various homes are spun throughout the book. A web page of her travels illustrates these experiences -- including the photo above. (Initial quote & info, page 69 & 146)

Viking longhouses like Gudrid's consisted of a single rectangular room. The cooking took place there at a longfire: "a narrow hearth running longways down the center. Earthen sleeping benches flanked the fire.... Longhouses are generally about 65 feet long and 20 feet wide." Quite a few household members lived and slept in these houses. A smaller house called a pit house was often built nearby -- they may have served as temporary quarters during construction of the more spacious longhouses, and then become the women's weaving rooms. The hearth could be the scene of a variety of social interaction: "One feud.... started when Thorleif Kimbi grabbed cooking pot away from another Viking, spilling the man's evening porridge, and was whacked with the hot ladle on his neck." (page 129-130; 165)

Gudrid's material goods must have included shears, knives, iron cooking spits, a cauldron with a tripod, and frying pans for the hearth; a kneading trough; milking buckets and cheese-making buckets; spindles and looms; dippers, dishes, spoons of wood or horn; copper scales (because well-off women traded the cloth they spun and wove for coins that must be weighed); and personal goods such as a comb, brooches, and perhaps a bronze bell. Despite her wealth, Gudrid would have milked ewes and cows, and worked making cheese, spinning wool, dyeing the yarn, and weaving a variety of types of cloth for her family and for sale. "While milk was the foundation of the Viking diet, homespun was the culture's chief export." (pages 42, 69, & 92)

The hearth's importance was a key to understanding Viking ways. I like to focus on kitchens and the activity within them, when I learn about a new culture or when I visit friends or restaurants. Obviously, there was no separate kitchen in this remote time -- the hearth is it.

Household goods had to be portable on the Vikings' ships which often took them to new homesteads. Folding beds, buckets for milking and making cheese, iron tools, and even the timbers of the house itself would be packed into small bundles. Chests with padlocks were probably part of her possessions. Grave goods from a variety of digs include examples of all of this and even a bundle of spices, in one instance, including "cumin, horseradish, and mustard seed... [and] cannabis -- hemp seed grown for rope." (p. 92)

While women tended the hearth and the dairy, men gathered gulls eggs and driftwood; hunted swans, seals, and other game; fished in the rich rivers where salmon ran. They tended the sheep in pastures near the house or took them to remoter pastures in the few summer months. In some settlements, they could grow hay, barley, or other crops. Cows and pigs had to be kept in barns during tough Iceland and Greenland winters. Few trees grow in Iceland, virtually none in Greenland, where driftwood was a key source of wood for charcoal and for small wooden objects. Making sure that the household had enough food for winter occupied both men and women. The men also went on walrus hunts, to obtain walrus ivory, the other major trade good.

Rarely Gudrid and her household may have had enough food for a feast: "A feast that included codfish, eggs, milk and cheese, lamb, and beer was a clear declaration that 'this farm stands on many feet.'" (page 108-111)

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Dexter Cider Mill

What wonderful treats you can get at the Dexter Cider Mill! We drank very fresh natural cider -- not pasteurized. We ate very fresh donuts. We brought home a few maple sugar candies.

Picking leaves off the apples before they go down the chute to the cider press:
The donut machine and other wonders of the Cider Mill Kitchen:

For more photos, see my post from September 16, 2007:
Images from the Dexter Cider Mill

Apples waiting to become cider; maple syrup waiting to grace pancakes...

Friday, September 26, 2008

A Bygone Kitchen

Long, long ago, airline travel was a legendary luxury. Passengers and crew dressed up in appropriate costumes. The food was rewarmed in the little, carefully designed galley kitchens, but somehow everyone saw it as miraculous, and even thought it tasted great. I'll never know, but standards were different then in many ways.

More recently, experience with airline food became more and more disagreeable. But now, they've taken the kitchens out, and they sell bags of dry snacks and my least favorite sandwich, the soggy wrap. In first class, they still give away some food, so the kitchens pictured below may not yet have disappeared entirely.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

What is kefir?

The simple answer: kefir is a semi-liquid cultured milk product that tastes really good with sugar. You can drink it from a glass -- flavored kefir is already very sweet. It is in some sense the Russian version of yogurt, with slightly different cultures. The Lifeway company, maker of the kefir I usually buy, has a really interesting history.

If you read the recipe in my earlier post today (about chocolate cake), you know that I've also identified kefir as a convenient substitute for buttermilk in baking. It's convenient because I'm much more likely to have it on hand than buttermilk, which I would buy only for baking. Also, I think it gives a better result than what I would normally use, which is ordinary milk with a few drops of vinegar or lemon juice.

Small or Large Chocolate Cake

Time for a recipe. I made the 9 by 13 inch size cake for my aerobics teacher Marie's birthday and took it to aerobics today. Marie is totally a chocolate lover -- this seemed chocolaty enough for her. A single layer without frosting works well for a small family if you don't want a lot of leftovers.

For one 8 inch round pan

Preheat oven. Grease & flour an 8 inch round pan.
Measure into mixing bowl:
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup buttermilk or kefir
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 egg
2 teaspoons vanilla
Stir the above ingredients together.
Measure, combine, & sift the following:
3/4 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Combine wet & dry ingredients. Stir until not lumpy.
Put batter into prepared pan, bake at 350ยบ for 25 min. Cool 10 min, remove from pan, and serve as is. If using frosting, wait until cake is completely cool before frosting.

Note for both cake and frosting recipes: it's really important to sift the dry ingredients, as they can be quite lumpy, especially cocoa and baking soda.

For two 8” cake layers or one 9 x 13 inch baking pan:
Stir together:
1- 1/4 cups sugar
1 cup buttermilk or kefir
2/3 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
Sift in:
1- 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1-1/4 teaspoons baking soda

Bake according to same directions. Frost with the larger amount of frosting.

Frosting for 2 layers (alternate amounts for 1 layer)
1/2 cup -- 1 stick -- unsalted butter cut in 8 pieces (1/4 cup – half stick)
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped (1 oz)
2 teaspoons vanilla (1 tsp)
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (2 to 3 Tbsp)
2 cups powdered sugar sifted with the cocoa (1 cup)
2/3 cup (about) sour cream* (1/3 cup)

Melt butter and chocolate on medium setting in microwave, stirring from time to time until smooth in large glass bowl. Add vanilla. Using a whisk, alternately add thirds of the sifted cocoa and powdered sugar mixture and thirds of the sour cream until you have added all the sugar mixture. Add just enough sour cream to form spreadable frosting. Spread on cooled cake.

After the cake is all done, lick all the frosting implements: this is really delicious! Since a microwave oven replaces the mess and bother of melting chocolate in a double boiler, this is a really nice alternative to the old creamed-butter-cocoa-powdered sugar frosting.

*NOTE: When I made the cake again, I used kefir in the frosting as well as in the batter, and it worked fine. It needs a bit less as kefir is not as thick as sour cream.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Elmore Leonard's Kitchen

I've been reading Elmore Leonard's Killshot, originally published in 1989. In this great, quick read, Leonard depicted a very ordinary Detroit area couple confronted accidentally by a pair of homicidal thugs, centering a complex plot around this confrontation.

Like many mystery writers, Leonard uses food and cooking to develop character. Tony Hillerman, Georges Simenon, Robert Parker and the more exotic/obscure Qiu Xiaolong all frequently tell readers about the eating habits of their policemen, detectives, victims, and criminals. I covered some of the ideas on this in my June 08, 2008, post: Tuna-Noodle Casserole, Literary Version.

Kitchens are the major setting for action in Killshot -- as well as other sites such as a hotel room where an unfinished breakfast helps touch off homicidal rage, a Seven-11 where victims and thugs go for snack food (the thugs steal it while holding up the store and killing the clerk), and so on. The foods in Killshot are a far cry from the very refined food habits of Parker's detective Spenser and Susan, his picky-eater psychoanalyst girlfriend, and even from Hillerman's detectives' favorite Whataburgers.

Leonard's readers get to know Carmen, wife of the novel's key couple, after the first acts of violence have occurred. She's in her kitchen. It's late afternoon; her phone, which is "on the wall next to the window over the kitchen sink" rings. At that moment "she had her hands in meat loaf, working a raw egg, onions and bread crumbs into the ground beef and pork." As she dries her hands, about to pick up the phone, she looks out into the woods. "She was pretty sure a man was standing in [the woods], in the tangle of dense branches; not at the edge but back in the gloom, his form blending, most of him concealed." It's one of the killer thugs: Carmen's domestic peace is about to be shattered. From this point, her kitchen is a focal point for action, and eventually the scene of the book's dramatic ending. (p. 106-107)

While Carmen serves her husband meat loaf, kielbasa and cabbage (p. 125), or pork chop and escalloped potato casserole (p. 239), Donna, the girlfriend who provides a hideout for the thugs serves mixed drinks and heats up a Swanson's chicken pie (p. 247) or a wide selection of other TV dinners and frozen foods. There's also a role for the thugs' choice of frozen pizza and frozen waffles (but detail here would be a spoiler).

Obviously, lots of non-food details also build the pictures of these antagonists, as well as depicting the policemen who ineptly try to save the situation. The suspenseful plot builds in a wonderful way, but the food and kitchen details add a great deal to the atmosphere Leonard created.

Another Blogger on Food in the Golden Age of Amsterdam

Author Catherine Mambretti did a very interesting guest post at a blog called "Judy's Stew" -- Judy's Stew: Food in the Golden Age of Amsterdam. This interested me in connection with the blog posts I did last week, especially Favorite foods of the Dutch Golden Age and Embarrassment of Riches.

Mambretti was looking for information specifically on the food of the Jewish population of 17th century Amsterdam for a historical novel. Now she's looking for publishers for her book. Note: her post has a lot of introductory material before it gets to the interesting part about what people ate in that era.

A key paragraph lists the main foodstuffs available in that era:
Because it was the undisputed leader in world trade during the 17th century, Holland had an amazing array of choices of foods--perhaps more extensive than any other European country. They had all sorts of spices and tea from Asia, all sorts of New World vegetables and nuts (tomatoes, potatoes, maize [small, kernel corn], squash, sugar cane, chocolate), and tropical fruits, including lemons, tangerines, and occasionally pineapples. Because Holland was a coastal nation, they had copious fresh seafood, including herring, eels, salmon, sturgeon, mussels, mollusks, and crustaceans. Like most of Europe, they had game (venison, fowl, wild boar) and domesticated cattle (beef, pork, lamb, and goat). Their dairy products were famous even then. They farmed grains, berries, and orchard fruits, such as apples, pears, pomegranates, peaches, plums, and prunes.

An Invention from the Dutch Golden Age

Last week I was writing about food in the Dutch Golden Age, the 17th century. Today's New York Times food section has an interesting related article. It describes genever, a predecessor of modern gin, which originated in Amsterdam at this time. In particular, the Lucas Bols company began production in 1664.

Author Florence Fabricant writes about the past and the present of genever:
Gin was born as genever in Holland in the 17th century. It was renamed gin when it got to England about 100 years later. Eventually, the English style, which is stronger and lacks the touch of sweetness that is typical of genever, came to dominate the market. But genever is making a comeback.

Next week Lucas Bols, a Dutch company that was founded in 1575, will start to sell its genever in the United States again. It was last imported in quantity about 50 years ago, but small amounts have seeped into the United States since then. Grain shortages in Holland during the world wars and Prohibition in the United States combined to do in the export of genever.

Distilled spirits were a mixed benefit to society of that time. They did seem to lead to over-use and alcoholism, at least later in England. At left is William Hogarth's well-known "Gin Lane" which shows the effects of English gin in the following century.

The article is: Malty and Complex, the Original Gin Is Making a Comeback

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Modern Kitchens in Japan

Modern Japanese home and apartment kitchens, as far as I know, differ little from similar-sized American or European kitchens. Space is at a premium, but modern appliances are made to accommodate the needs. A rice cooker is essential, while sometimes the space is simply too small for the kitchen to include an oven. From the book Japanese Style: "the cluttered kitchen" close to the seating area of "Tower House" which stands on a 200-square-foot lot in Tokyo.

Books and articles about high-tech design often show the largest and most lavish styles, in kitchens of very rich (and sometimes famous) chefs or celebrities. The following images appeared in Four Japanese Kitchens, a photo essay in the New York Times. They represent a totally modern, all steel kitchen and one that somewhat blends modern and traditional ideas.

The modern industrial kitchen deserves some attention. In another image from Day in the Life, we see the sterile preparation of bento box lunches in a large work space.

Everyone has seen the kitchen area at a sushi bar, since the food is prepared in plain sight. In fact, witnessing food preparation might really be a Japanese thing. For example, the food prep area of those performance cooking Japanese steak houses -- I don't know if they have them in Japan, but they're very popular here. Do these qualify as a kitchen? The chefs play with food, toss eggs in the air, flip shrimp, and above all, make big fires:

Monday, September 22, 2008

Japanese Kitchens

Austere simplicity in visual design characterizes many Japanese arts. The beauty in simple arrangement of Japanese food -- sushi and many other traditional dishes -- has made it a model for many modern cooks. What about the kitchens where these striking plates are created? For example, is a tea-ceremony room a kitchen?

The tea master ritually prepared tea in a purpose-built room or garden space, using special kettles, cups, storage vessels, and bowls. Every item and gesture was full of meaning. I don't think you could call this a kitchen: it was more like a performance space. The master made only tea; even the small, austere bits of food served sometimes with the tea had to come from elsewhere. Eating and drinking was ritualized to an extreme point. A full meal including tea was called a Kaiseki dinner; however, the kitchen/food preparation area was never visible to the diners, only the key actions of taking out the tea leaves, stirring the pot, and pouring tea into the chosen tea bowl.

Real kitchens, though, were part of the landscape in old Japan. Street vendors appear in various depictions of festivals in many eras. The vendors prepared food and sold it to the crowds. In the image to the right/above, you can see such a stall, as depicted by the wood-block artist Hiroshige (1797-1858).

Below you can see the entire scene. Shoppers at the market could buy goods like cloth, have their hair done, or have a snack just prepared in a large wok on a small open fire.

Similarly, compact food stalls -- kitchens visible -- sell snacks or small meals in today's urban Japan. The next picture, from A Day in the Life of Japan (June 7, 1985), shows a tiled kitchen where chicken skewers are being offered to late-night travelers. It's 11:30 PM: almost the final photo in the book.

Photographers love to make images of the remnants of traditional activities in Japan. Also from Day in the Life, the following shows a woman wearing traditional fabric, cooking an octopus in a picturesque tub. It's not really focused on the kitchen, but it's a start at imagining traditional Japanese cooking space.
A kamado is the stove in a traditional Japanese kitchen, made of adobe, used to boil water for rice and vegetables. Fire was always a terrible danger, since Japanese homes were made of wood with room dividers of paper screens. Disastrous fires sometimes burned whole neighborhoods or cities, most famously the fire after the 1923 earthquake in Tokyo that killed around 100,000 people. I assume these ovens were made in such a way as to help contain the danger. Below are two such ovens, in museum-type homes:

Before modern times, Japanese kitchens had simple stone or wood sinks and water storage vessels. Cooks sat on the floor to do most tasks. The image at left dates from the 1860s, from a book called Once Upon a Time: Visions of Old Japan. Next is a modern picture of an old-style kitchen sink in a wooden farmhouse.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Very Different Kitchen

"Making tea in front of a cafe in Mahabalipuram" -- from a New York Times slide show.

Someone commented that most modern kitchens that I've posted look very similar. This one is truly different.

Civil War Rations

In war time, provisions and hospitals are a major element of strategy. Louisa May Alcott became a nurse in the Civil War when she was thirty years old, the minimum age accepted for women in war work. She worked in a hospital in Washington, D.C., which was quite near the battle front.

Alcott's description of the staff meals served in the hospital is very interesting:
"The three meals were 'pretty much of a muchness,' and consisted of beef, evidently put down for the men of '76; pork, just in from the street; army bread composed of sawdust and saleratus [baking powder]; butter, salt as if churned by Lot's wife; stewed blackberries so much like preserved cockroaches, that only those devoid of imagination could partake thereof with relish; coffee, mild and muddy; tea, three dried huckleberry leaves to a quart of water -- flavored with lime -- also animated and unconscious of any approach to clearness. Variety being the spice of life, a small pinch of the article would have been appreciated by the hungry, hard-working sisterhood, one of whom, though accustomed to plain fare, soon found herself reduced to bread and water; having an inborn repugnance to the fat of the land, and the salt of the earth."
Alcott continues by describing how extremely quickly the hospital meals were devoured: "some twenty hungry souls rushed to the dining-room, swept over the table like a swarm of locusts, and left no fragment for any tardy creature who arrived fifteen minutes late." (p. 86, Louisa May Alcott's Civil War, Edinborough Press, 2007; illustration p. 79 is from the 1881 edition, illustrator not identified.)

Before writing Little Women, Alcott was an industrious but not very well-paid author. (Little Women became an instant best-seller that made her rich and famous.) She created an earlier alter ego, Nurse Periwinkle, for a series of sketches and stories based on her own nursing experiences; the quotations are from these sketches, first published in 1863 as the war continued.

Most of the book describes the enormous task of nursing that Alcott faced. The casualty rate among Union soldiers was enormous, and the effort of caring for the wounded was unimaginable. Large numbers of patients, filthy and in terrible pain, were brought into the hospital; many had lost limbs or received clearly fatal injuries. Surgeons treated those that they could; Alcott's job was to wash them, help them eat or drink, write letters to their loved ones, and very often to ease their final hours by any means she could devise.

Fatigue and an infectious illness cut Alcott's service as a nurse to only around a month; she became so ill that her superiors contacted her family in Concord. Her father came and took her home to recover. Devotees of Little Women will recognize the event, which was essentially reversed in the novel. Jo March, Alcott's surrogate, and her sisters stayed at home. The fictitious father, Mr. March, went to Washington and became too ill to continue his service, and Marmee, the girls' mother, traveled to bring him back.

As a child, I read Little Women many times, but I'm just reading the Civil War stories for the first time. I feel as if I recognize the voice in the stories; something about Alcott's approach seems constant in these grim tales meant for rugged adults, not for the young girls who later became her best and most permanent audience. I also recently learned much more about Alcott from the book Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and her Father by John Matteson (Norton, 2007).

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Chutney is Ready

This is a delayed post to tell me that the chutney made 2 weeks ago (as shown in the pot) is ready to eat! And to remind those of you who haven't made chutney: maybe it's not too late this fall -- see Chutney Recipes. Just be sure to let it cure for 2 weeks!

Update: it's delicious:

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Last Word

A work of art becomes truly valid when its imagery is so well known that people start to make parodies or use it decoratively (at least that's my view). By this measure, my favorite parody subject, the Mona Lisa, is the most validated work of art ever made. Runners up include "American Gothic," "Whistler's Mother," "The Birth of Venus," and "The Scream." You can probably add a few more.

From classical Dutch painting, the most validated work would be "The Arnolfini Marriage" by Jan Van Eyck -- irrelevant to my focus on food, and also a couple of centuries too early. However, I now present a final word on the amazing Dutch 17th century theme of food and kitchens:

Mrs. Rembrandt defrosts her refrigerator, from Great Housewives of Art.

Vermeer's Milk Maid from the Cat's Gallery of Art.

And some random Dutch elders, eating a cupcake with their beer.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Potato Eaters

Centuries after the Dutch Golden Age, the Netherlands was home to another painter who captured the world's imagination: Vincent Van Gough. In his early life, he lived and painted among the poor of his native country. The humble meal, eaten at the kitchen table, certainly resonates with the centuries' earlier paintings of humble people eating simple meals. Just one thing: the potato was a New World vegetable, that became the staple dish of the poor somewhat later than the Golden Age.

"The Potato Eaters" -- from 1885 -- is often contrasted in theme and color palate to Van Gough's creations from the south of France, painted a few years later in his very short life. For example this painting, "Cafe Terrace at Night" has a completely different feel to it. People are eating, to be sure, but Van Gough is no longer celebrating them as he did the humble potato eaters.

Update: there's a new show in New York about Van Gough's paintings of night scenes, reviewed here: Nocturnal van Gogh.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Favorite foods of the Dutch Golden Age

Joachim Antoniszoon Uytewael, a painter from Utrecht, painted the above kitchen scene in 1605 -- that is, quite early in the Dutch Golden Age. (Click on the image to see more detail.) His chaotic kitchen suggested the wide range of ingredients that went into Dutch cooking: fowls and garlic braids hang from the wall; fish, cabbages, carrots, and baskets of vegetables are on the floor and on the work table; ewers and cooking vessels appear on shelves and tables; and beyond the kitchen door is a banquet table where people are consuming the food. If you read the popular accounts of a modern chef's life, you get the impression that this chaos hasn't disappeared from the lives of professional cooks.

In The Embarrassment of Riches, Schama provides a wide ranging description of the diet of people in Rembrandt's era, including what they ate for breakfast, for dinner, for lavish feasts, and for pious fast-days. Floris Gerritsz. van Schooten's breakfast still-life (left) suggests the range of bread, cheese, pastry, and fruit for this meal. Schooten was a painter of still-lifes, market scenes, and other food depictions.

A favorite Dutch dish was called hutsepot, a beef or mutton stew. Schama provides a contemporaneous recipe for this dish. The principal ingredients were mutton or beef; greens, parsnips or stuffed prunes; and liquid -- juice of lemons, oranges, or citrons, or just "strong, clear, vinegar." Of course, every cook and every family had a personal favorite way to make it -- probably semi-secret. The quoted recipe continues: "Mix these together, set the pot on a slow fire (for at least three and a half hours); add some ginger and melted butter and you shall have prepared a fine hutsepot."

Schama characterizes hutsepot as a dish that was "copious rather than gluttonous, modest rather than mean, ... the perfect way to sanction abundance without risking retribution for greed." He points to the varied origin of the ingredients: meat, vegetables, and butter from local Dutch farmers; spice -- ginger -- from the Indies; and citrus, prunes and vinegar from the Near East or the Mediterranean. (Schama, p. 177) I haven't tried this recipe, and I imagine that it needs some imagination to guess the secrets of the cooks that made it 400 years ago.

The Dutch were very much a sea people. Fish -- especially herring -- were a big part of their diet. Scenes of selling fish were another significant genre topic for painters, including this one by Adriaen van Ostade. Painters also concentrated on dike building, maintenance, and sometimes dike breaches -- an important fact of history during that era. Scenes of oyster-eating, still lives with fishes, and other genre works contrast to Rembrandt's hanging ox.

Jan Steen's painting "Girl with Oysters" is both realistic and symbolic, as was his usual custom. Schama refers to "the potential naughtiness of the innocuous ... that blurred the moral contours of the household." (p. 462) Steen was himself both a painter and a tavern keeper, so we often see scenes like this: suggestive and beautiful at once. Oysters were undoubtedly an innocent pleasure, as well as a tempting danger.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Rembrandt's Kitchen and an Ancient Royal Feast

On a visit to Amsterdam some years ago, we visited Rembrandt's house. Because Rembrandt once went bankrupt -- he was a much better painter than businessman -- the museum creators were able to reproduce his material surroundings quite effectively based on the records of his possessions made by the court. He also painted images of the material world so effectively that his works allow recreation of his daily life.

From a website about the Rembrandt house, the photos show the reconstruction of his kitchen. We can see that this kitchen is relatively modest, and in the context of the house, would not have produced lavish feasts, but rather, ordinary daily meals.

Rembrandt, who lived from 1606-1669 offers a somewhat different face of the Dutch Golden Age than did the other painters I've been thinking about. His portraits of individuals, couples, groups, and of himself seem to probe an inner person, while so many of his contemporaries used surface details to express their ideas.

A trip to the Louvre is overwhelming, but if you've made it to the rooms displaying paintings of the Dutch Golden Age, you have surely been impressed by Rembrandt's painting of an ox hanging in a butcher shop. Yes, it represents food, but it also suggests his quest for visual understanding of flesh.

Rembrandt and his contemporaries all created dramatic depictions of Biblical, Classical, and historical scenes. Using dramatic effects of light Rembrandt illuminated the most dramatic moments of a well-known scenario.

The painting of "Balshazzar's Feast" in the National Gallery in London is one of his most famous. The mysterious hand is writing on the wall, "MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN" in Hebrew letters (which Rembrandt probably learned from his many Jewish neighbors, but that's a long story for another time).

Simon Schama says that other painters had other interpretations of Belshazzar's feast and the moment of revelation:
But it was ... Rembrandt who chose the narrative climax for his great history painting, when the king sees the spectral hand inscribing its cryptic message of doom. These moments of nemesis -- invariably decoded by venerable and untainted prophets (like Daniel) -- were favorite themes of history painters. ... For Israelites, Babylonians and New Hebrews [i.e. the Dutch] alike the moral was clear. Instead of gluttonous feasting and wanton behavior, fasts of solemn penitence should be decreed. (Schama, p. 150)

Belshazzar, according to the book of Daniel, was using the vessels that he had taken from the Temple in Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, "for the profane purposes of his feast." (Schama, p. 149)

The lavish food on the table, along with all the other details, add to the drama of the moment. Feasts, Schama explains at length, were "deeply embedded in ancient Netherlandish usage," and the Dutch did not want to fear that they were indulging in a dangerous passtime such as that depicted. This dual commitment to both piety and luxury was an important characteristic of Dutch attitudes.