Over spring break, my husband planned a couple of fun family activities for the family. We had a lot of fun going to a nearby arcade, eating at a local burger joint that serves grass-fed hamburgers, trying some rice balls at a Japanese teashop, and then visiting the Portland Art Museum. (Hint for locals: Our library had passes allowing us to get a steep discount!).

We can’t claim to be very knowledgeable about art, but we enjoy it nevertheless. As we strolled through the museum, admiring the beautiful artwork, I mused at the role of food in many of the paintings. Sometimes food was celebrated in a painting for its beauty. Grapes and fruit were pictured spilling from fruit bowls, and through the eyes of the painter, you were awakened once more to how beautiful certain foods are. Some paintings explored in bright and realistic colors our recent past of having hunted bird in a kitchen, ready to be dressed for the table. I realized what a foreign sight that was to us now when our poultry comes to us neatly packaged and far removed from the feathered chicken it once was.

What the art museum taught me about food

And then there were beautiful paintings of the past working class who provided others with food. They were painted to show the dirt and the poverty, yes, but also the calm nobility of their courage – a courage that faced their poverty with the willingness to work hard to survive and overcome. Sketches showed women bending low to harvest vegetables, the homey scene of a mother testing a spoonful of food before feeding to a baby in her lap, and the work of making butter.

What the art museum taught me about food

And then there was the art in food posters, promoting a variety of food priorities. There were posters drawn in pencil showing the strained faces of the malnourished after World War II, asking for help with the urgent needs of those worldwide. These images impressed you with the horror of not having adequate food. Some of the posters used religious undertones to appeal to the religious conscience of others as well. Others used vibrant colors to promote home gardens and keeping chickens. These gave the impression of optimism and hope, that we can make a difference for ourselves and be successful in cultivating our own food. (I should hang one of these on my own walls, as my garden efforts need all of the encouragement they can get!)

What the art museum taught me about food

And as I left, I realized how we can never go far without bumping into food. We need our “daily bread” for daily survival. It’s wrapped up in our daily lives and in the little things of life, but it plays a huge role of the big picture too. How many wars were related to food, such as when many fought over salt mines, access to the sea for fishing and commerce, or for the best farming land? Starvation was used as a war tool, and was a consequence of war. And food is never far from us even in our art – whether it’s exploring the beauty of it, showing the sorrow of the lack of it, or celebrating the human ability to cultivate it.

My visit to the art museum reminded me of our human need of food — not just in the physical sense, but also in our ability and need to celebrate and enjoy it. I was inspired to remember the needs of others, and to enjoy the daily beauty to be found in the humble plate of food before me. 

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