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  • Writer's pictureSharon Michalove

Let's Celebrate Autumn with Food—and Art

Autumn fruits, seventeenth century painting
Roman School, Autumn Fruits on a Stone Ledge, c. 1605-1610, private collection, on loan to Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO, USA. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Still lives are a great way to view the past, especially food. Not just what people ate, but what the food looked like. What's recognizable? What had changed? The peaches, apples, tomatoes, pears, and melons look familiar, but more like heirloom crops than a reflection of modern hybrids. Everything would have been from home gardens and orchards or from markets.

pumpkins and cucumbers, eighteenth century painting
Autumn foods: Štefan Michal-Vörös Izbighy, Still Life with Pumpkins and Cucumbers, 1734, Slovak National Gallery, Bratislava, Slovakia.

These are pumpkins and cucumbers. The middle pumpkin looks just like one we might buy in the store, but the ones flanking it are bumpy., as if they've broken out with the pox. Not cut, so we cannot be sure what the interior flesh is like. Would you pass them by if they were at your local market, or let your curiosity impel you to try them, at least once?

seventeenth century painting, chestnuts, cheese, mushrooms, grapes, and almonds
Paolo Barbieri, Basket of Chestnuts, Cheese, Mushroom and Fruit, c. 1640, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA.

This one, from the Art Institute of Chicago, makes me want to run down to the Chicago Loop and explore their collection of early modern food still lifes. Too bad they don't have any exhibition of them right now. Except for the mushrooms, unless they end up pickled, the rest just needs some bread and meat to be a delicious charcuterie platter.

seventeenth century painting, peacock pie, apples, lemons , bread
Still life with a peacock pie, 1627, by Dutch artist Pieter Claesz, showing various dishes from the 17th century including roast meat, breads, nuts, wine, apples, dried fruits, along with an elaborate meat pie decorated like a peacock. While common in the warmer climates of Southern Europe, lemons would have been a relatively new introduction to the Netherlands, requiring growing in a orangery.. Painting; oil on panel; overall: 77.5 × 128.9 cm (30 1/2 × 50 3/4 in.)

Finally, the shows the table with all of the good things. Peacock pie! Probably the most unusual dish on the table. Would you admire it? Eat it? At the time, this dish would be expressly to impress guests. Perhaps the feathers would be distributed to the guests after the meal.

Hope you enjoyed this celebration of autumnal foods. You can find more about my food interests in my books. My story, "Colonel Fitzwilliam Meets His Match" in Austen Tea Party features food from Jane Austen's tine.

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