Food In Art (Book Review)

by Sam Bilton on September 18, 2015 No comments


We live in an society which craves visual stimulus, none more so than in the world of food. When it comes to recipes most people expect an obligatory photograph showing the dish in all its seductive glory. We eat with our eyes first. Social media networks like Instagram and Pinterest provide an onslaught of gluttonous imagery. After a while this deluge can dull the senses. The images blur into one of bland, delicious beauty.

It’s not that I am against food photography. I just believe there can be a greater significance to food than its appearance and taste alone. For centuries food has carried more meaning than mere nourishment from funereal offerings in Egyptian tombs to the hidden symbolism in art. It is the latter that Gilian Riley has explored in her latest book. How refreshing it is to see someone look beyond the pretty picture and delve into it’s true meaning.

What is the essence of the book?

Riley walks the reader through how food has been represented in art from the Paleolithic era through to the late Renaissance. It touches on symbolism, ritual, religion and myth making it a truly enlightening read.

About the author

Gillian is a long standing member of the Guild of Food Writers and an authority of the history of Italian cuisine. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing this lady speak and can vouch that she certainly knows her stuff. She also has a sense of humour which I think comes through in her prose.

Who will like it?

An inquisitive reader who likes exploring subjects from new angles will like this book particularly if you have an interest in either art, food or history (or all three).

Who won’t like it?

If you don’t tick any of the boxes above then you’re unlikely to pick this book up. The imagery is naturally stunning but if you don’t bother to read the text it is somewhat meaningless.

What do I like about the book?

I love food and history but I like art in manageable chunks. Each chapter covers a period of history but then the text is sub divided into different headings. This is the sort of book you can dip in and out of which is great for me. You can read a small section which takes your fancy without any fear of losing track of the thread of the chapter or the book. Food In Art would probably be classed as an academic publication. However, the text lacks the dryness you usually find in this type of book and is a pleasure to read and easy to digest. Ultimately it’s Riley’s decoding of the symbolism in the paintings that made this book appealing. So when she discusses the mixed symbolism of Beer and Patriotism in the chapter on Realism and Symbolism in the Renaissance Kitchen she says of Georg Hainz’ picture Still-life with Beer-glass and Nuts (1660)

“…though wholesome has symbols of corruption, the fly, and redemption, the nuts (whose shells symbolise the wood of the Cross, and the sweet nut within Christ’s love for mankind).”

She concludes that beer (in the Low Countries):

“was the lifeblood of a courageous nation battling against adversity from without and within, but also the fluid that could sap the moral fibre of family and state.”

I certainly wouldn’t have guessed this from just looking at a very good depiction of a half full, foaming beer glass surrounded by some hazelnuts.

What do I dislike about the book?

If I had to list my interests art would probably not be in my top 5. Whilst I found elements of this book fascinating I would be lying if I said it were a page turner (for me at any rate). That’s not to say it’s not well written or presented. I firmly believe if you love art and like food then you will adore this book.

Will I refer to it?

It’s a valuable addition to my food literature library so yes I will definitely go back to it from time to time. If nothing else, it has made me want to see the pictures in the flesh.

Where can you buy it?

Food In Art (Reaktion Books) £30

Sam BiltonFood In Art (Book Review)

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