Food & Drink: Field to Table – Ephemera/34 2014
by Bruce Shyer
The voluptuous Sophia Loren supposedly quipped “everything you see I owe to spaghetti.” This remark, although apocryphal, serves as an epigrammatic reminder that the food we plant, harvest, package, prepare and eat is a reflection of ourselves and our culture. The distinguished Ephemera/34 speakers have undoubtedly deeply immersed themselves in the “Loren Theorem” and will demonstrate how the often visually stunning ephemera of food and drink similarly both mirrors and influences culture. While this may sound frightfully over-academic to some, one must remember that others have frequently considered food ephemera to be merely rather modern paper abundantly found in dollar bins at antique malls. Apparently, at least in in the popular imagination, the ephemera of food and drink occupies opposite ends of the collecting spectrum: from highfalutin to commonplace.
Speaker M. Stephen Miller will assist in resolving this tension by showing, for example, how something as simple and “unsaveable” as a seed packet reveals how a Shaker society in New Lebanon, New York, was able to support an entire community through advertising and marketing garden seeds. A Shaker seed packet not only provides evidence of the economics of an American religious sect, but also contains a simple and attractive graphic design, which must, in some way, reflect the sensibilities of the sect. Mr. Miller who has amassed a collection of more than 14,000 items of Shaker ephemera, and has authored numerous publications using his ephemera, is uniquely qualified to engage us on the topic of Shaker Seeds. Ironically, the Shakers may have distributed seeds widely, but they were strict believers in celibacy, acquiring members through conversion and adoptions of orphans.
Speaking of plant rudiments, in 1956, Speaker Dr. William Woys Weaver found seeds in baby food jars in his deceased grandfather’s freezer. He nurtured them back to life and these seeds became the basis for the Roughwood Seed Collection of over 4,000 heirloom plants. In the 1960’s he began collecting food ephemera at flea markets and he speculates that he may have acquired as many as 100,000 items. In 2010, he delivered a series of lectures at Jefferson’s Monticello. This nationally renowned food historian has authored 16 books, including the award-wining Culinary Ephemera: An Illustrated History, which contains 362 illustrations. Dr. Weaver finds that culinary ephemera leaves paper trails of American social history and will speak to us on that topic. In a 2010 interview with the Boston Globe, Dr. Weaver was asked to identify the oddest item in his Culinary Ephemera book. In his response he refers to an 1882 trade card advertising magnetized food for babies. What is this oddity’s’ social paper trail? Dr. Weavers says, “we’ve always been looking for food panaceas in this country, health panaceas, and we’ve been suckers buying this stuff for 200 years.”
Andy Warhol ‘s famous Campbell’s Soup Can (Tomato) depicted a ubiquitous staple food found in millions of American homes and turned it into high art. Speaker Michael Russo, a visual artist and master gardener, has chosen to regale us with humorous and evocative images, using the same vegetable (technically a fruit) selected by Warhol, in a presentation entitled Tomatoes: A to Z. His visual feast will include images from seed catalogs, almanacs, trade cards, labels, photos and valentines. Mr. Russo is the owner of Trout Lily Farms and supports the “Farm to Table” movement, perhaps not coincidentally part of the title of our conference. The movement’s advocates embrace the importance of food freshness, seasonality, local ingredients, small and family farms, and heirloom fruits and vegetables.
Speaker and antiquarian bookseller Elizabeth Young passionately serves up books and ephemera for “foodies” from her inventory that includes a menu from the famous Los Angeles Whiskey A Go Go punk nightclub to a more staid Kraft brochure from the New York World’s Fair (as well as more august publications, such as an 1829 cookbook containing 5000 recipes.) In her talk entitled Remedies to Recipes, Ms. Young will compare the ephemera that predominated in America before the enactment of the 1906 Food and Drug Act, principally recipes, then called receipts, and home remedies (food as medicine, quackery, nutrition) with post-enactment ephemera which dealt with such issues as vitamins and baby care, and the rise of corporate food processing.
Speaker Henry Voigt is the foremost authority on the American Menu. “His menu collection, which he has gathered over the last two decades, is one of the most significant private collections” in the country, according to Gastronomica magazine. “Menus,” says Mr. Voigt “aid our cultural memory-they provide unwitting historical evidencenot only of what people were eating, but what they were doing and with whom they were doing it, who they were trying to be and what they valued.” Mr. Voigt’s website, theamericanmenu.com, contains a treasure trove of illustrated information about the evolution of American culture as reflected in bills of fare from restaurants, hotels, military units, steamships and trains, private organizations and special events. Want to see a menu Jacqueline Kennedy supervised for a White House state dinner? Go to the site. His presentation, entitled, What’s on the Menu? will draw upon his incomparable collection to illustrate how these improbable survivors can teach us about our changing values (and also the price of a steak dinner).
How does culinary ephemera come into existence? Someone designs it. For three decades, speaker Michael Osborne has created innovative designs for such clients as gourmet food and culinary brand Williams-Sonoma, the Jack Daniels brand and Kettle Foods. He has been a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley and the Academy of Art University since 1991. He has been the featured speaker at many design conferences and was the recipient of the prestigious AIGA fellow Award. His design work is on permanent display at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian. He is also the premier label designer for the California wine industry and has created iconic packaging for such brands as Geyser Peak, Robert Mondavi, Silver Oak, Chateau Souverain , Sutter Home and many others. If we imagine ourselves entering a wine shop and confronting hundreds of plain green glass bottles lining the shelves, we can begin to understand the importance attached to labels in giving us the sense of what is in the bottle and what we might want to buy. The label, of course, does not simply convey basic information such as the grape variety, the vintage, and the producer. The label gives the bottle more subtle meaning: this wine might be fun to drink or, perhaps, this wine is seriously sommelier worthy. In his presentation, The Art of the Wine Label, Michael Osborne will discuss how these plain glass bottles are transformed into a branded product. In Mr. Osborne presentation, we will have a rare opportunity to have a forward-looking view of ephemera rather than the traditional historical view.
To many, imbibing is even more important than eating and antiquarian bookseller and burgeoning bibliographer Don Lindgren has kindly agreed to guide us on a tour of cocktail ephemera. He is the owner of Rabelais, which specializes in books and ephemera on food and drink. His subject could not be timelier considering the present revival of cocktail culture. This culture speaks easily of hand-crated libations, using homemade syrups, such as elderberry , and small-batch locally-distilled whiskeys, with such ingredients as absinthe and bitters. Very attentive mixology does the trick. Of course, every time period had its own cocktail culture. The 1920’s era of the Speakeasy had bathtub gin. In the 1950’s-1960’s, the Mad Man era, it was the three-martini lunch. In the 1980’s, it may have been the now dreaded Harvey Wallbanger. Mr. Lindgren will provide us with a broad and colorful survey of cocktail ephemera which undoubtedly will reflect the changing role of these soothing liquid mixtures though the decades.
When many think of culinary ephemera, the image of small, colorful brochures, advertising a brand of food or beverage comes to mind. These brochures, denominated “little cookbooks” in the Michigan State University Library, are extremely well represented in the Alan and Shirley Brocker Sliker Collection, which resides at that institution. Hundreds of companies promoted such products as flour, sugar, milk, candy and cereal by creating small brochures, which invited homemakers to use recipes containing their products. Occasionally, these “little cookbooks” would weave a well-known children’s story or fable into these ephemeral pieces and the food product would become part of the story. Artists such as Maxfield Parrish illustrated these booklets. Speakers Leslie M. Behm, a special collections librarian at Michigan State University and Shirley Brocker Sliker, the remarkable collector, will use some of this vast collection of “little cookbooks” to explore the history of food distribution from 1880-1920. Once again, we see that seemingly throwaway material, when carefully gathered, grouped, and preserved by a diligent collector, becomes an important resource for the study of social conditions and changes.
Did the portrayal of food and drink ephemera in mid-19 th century America truly reflect life as it was or did the emergence of marketing by industrialists portray an illusion of plenty amidst the hunger of the huddled masses? Speaker Donny Zaldin, a founder of the Ephemera Society of Canada and a presenter at numerous ESA conferences, will delve a bit further into the “Loren Theorem” to visually demonstrate that food advertising during this period did not comport with the Dickensian realities faced by some members of the general public. At first glance, his presentation would appear to contradict the mantra of this conference: that culinary ephemera reflects the culture of its period and thereby collectively constitutes primary historical evidence. However, upon further consideration, our principle still applies, even though we must take the extra step of contrasting the exaggerated realities depicted on the surface of the ephemera (primary evidence of Victorian marketing) with the reality of known social conditions. “Loren Theorem 2.0”
We are very pleased that on Sunday morning a few collectors have agreed to provide glimpses of their culinary collecting interest via a short “flash presentation.” Dr. Daniel Gifford, an adjunct professor of history at George Mason University, and the Program Manager at the Smithsonian Institution will show us stirring patriotic images on Thanksgiving postcards.
Gail McMillan, Director and Professor, University Libraries at Virginia Tech, and the co-author of a book about Nannie Figgat, will briefly explore life in mid-19th century Virginia by examining her diary and recipes.
Culinary ephemera encompasses a vast array of topics, from agricultural implements, to beverages, such as coffee, tea, and beer, each of which could be the subject of an entire conference. We hope that these outstanding presenters will whet your appetite for consuming some of the many other topics, which could not be covered in this conference. For example, although one would have thought that every aspect of Abraham Lincoln’s life has been exhausted, a book entitled, Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen A Culinary View of Lincoln’s Life and Times by Rae Katherine Eighmey has recently been published. The book draws on many forms of ephemera, including Lincoln’s grocery bills, newspapers, family documents, and recipes to show Lincoln’s diet and his cooking habits (yes, he cooked). We have also recently learned that Ernest Hemingway, was a voracious accumulator of ephemera, some culinary. His prose may have been lean and spare but he was a hoarder of the printed words of others. Some 2,500 pieces of paper from Hemingway’s farm in Finca Vigia, Cuba have now been digitized and are available at the Hemingway Collection in the John F. Kennedy Library. According to the New York Times, some of the most interesting papers were culinary, including an extensive correspondence with Maison Glass, an exporter of luxury foods on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, from which Mrs. Hemingway ordered fancy olives, turtle soup, and French snails. Susan Spanier, the general editor of the Hemingway Letters Project, beautifully characterizes the significance of this trove of ephemera: “the value is in the texture of the dailiness, the way it rounds out our picture of Hemingway.”