Monday, March 16, 2009

Intellectual Nourishment

The latest issue of Ovations, a publication of the College of Liberal and Fine Arts, The University of Texas at San Antonio has an article, "Intellectual Nourishment", commenting the Conference on Food Representation in Literature, Film and the Other Arts, held every two years at the The University of Texas San Anton io Downtown Campus. You can see the article following the link, , or read it here:

As a boy in Chile, Santiago Daydi-Tolson often passed time on the coast searching for clams in the sandy shore. Or he was inside, enjoying conversation and coffee at the dining table. While these may seem like disparate activities, there is one common denominator: food.
The use of food in that childhood memory gives the story more detail and poignancy, Daydi-Tolson says. “What seems everyday and kind of mundane can and does have a lot more meaning.”
Daydi-Tolson, a professor of Spanish in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature, has researched and written about the prevalence and meaning of food in art and literature for more than 10 years. The representation of food in the art world is fundamentally the celebration of people and their place in the world, he says. “It just shows how art is involved in so many subtle ways with human nature. It is something that weighs strongly in the way people live, think, feel and react.”
To more deeply explore the function of food in art, Daydi-Tolson has organized five food conferences since 2000, composed of people who, like him, believe that it reveals an abundance of information about the way people live.
Called the Interdisciplinary and Multicultural Conference on Food Representation in Literature, Film and the Other Arts, the event draws scholars who specialize in food studies and other fields from as far away as the University of Tokyo and as nearby as Texas Lutheran University in Seguin, Texas. The conference expands the study of human thought in references to food in written, spoken and visual communication. They explore the philosophical, psychological, political and religious messages imbedded in each work. Even the field of marketing in popular culture is on the menu: think of the apple in Macintosh computer promotions.
After the first conference eight years ago, participants requested Daydi-Tolson and his colleagues repeat the gathering every two years. The most recent conference—funded in part through a gift from H-E-B—was in February. The next one is scheduled for 2010.
Participants also have created an electronic journal, Convivium Artium, which means “Banquet of the Arts” in Latin, to further explore the subject. In the magazine, participants can electronically publish studies on food and the humanities.
Daydi-Tolson says people don’t have to be food connoisseurs or scholars to understand the interest. Even a cursory look shows how artists apply food to convey religious, ideological, cultural, political and economic perspectives.
Consider Vincent Van Gogh’s dark depiction of the poor eating a scant meal of potatoes during a time of famine in “The Potato Eaters.” Subtle details in the painting, such as an oil lamp as the sole lighting source, the thin and rough hands of those that are gathered around the table and the use of potatoes as the lone food in the meal, are used to illustrate the depth of the people’s poverty. Leonardo da Vinci’s use of leavened bread in his depiction of the momentous “Last Supper” has been used by researchers to determine whether the historic event took place during Passover.
Daydi-Tolson stresses that food is not used by artists as an afterthought; it is a deliberate theme. “It is there for some particular reason,” he says. In essence, he says, food becomes another character in their works.
Daydi-Tolson has focused on famous writers. For example, he noted that the classic novel, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, “talks about food and eating in practically every chapter.” Charles Dickens took a similar tack, particularly in A Christmas Carol. Then there is Ernest Hemingway, who often used food in his writings. He is credited with using big-game hunts in life and literature as a way to establish a masculine identity for both his characters and himself.
Have an appetite for more information about Daydi-Tolson’s work? E-mail

A Philosophical Buffet
As in recipes, opening remarks are required for a conference about the depiction of food in literature and the arts.
When Christopher Wickham, associate dean of UTSA’s College of Liberal and Fine Arts, began thinking about the topic, he decided to use equal parts humor and humanity.
“Perhaps it was someone calling me sweetie pie or cutie pie; pie is generally held to [mean] ‘nice’ in English: nice as pie is a favored expression,” Wickham told the audience. “Someone might be considered to be the crème de la crème, which is really only the gourmet way of saying cream of the crop,” he said. “People might be full of the milk of human kindness, as Shakespeare had it.”
Look at your companion, Wickham advised, as they might have an attractive peach-like complexion or less so—pasty-faced or whey-faced.
More mature people might have salt-and-pepper hair, and kindred spirits might be as alike as two peas in a pod with wit as keen as mustard or more salt of the earth, he said.
Even people’s emotional states are prone to food analogies, typically fruits and vegetables, he said. People “go bananas from time to time, just as we all know someone who is nutty, nuts or even nutty as a fruit cake.” The proverbial couch potato simply requires a sofa to veg out.
The working world has its own food ties, such as a plum job paying big dough or the antithesis: getting paid peanuts when bean counters have their way. At the end of the day, it’s important to bring home the bacon while not working so hard that you have too much on your plate.
The human body is rife with edible similes, or as Wickham described them, “the alimentation of anatomy.” A head is sometimes called a noodle, and cauliflower ear might merit a visit to a plastic surgeon.
Wickham adopted the cadence of the late comedian George Carlin for the remainder of his food-based philosophical observations:
If life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. If you are in the soup, you try not to get in a stew. If you want to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs. It might not be your cup of tea, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. Sometimes you have to wake up and smell the coffee, but if you don’t bite off more than you can chew, it’s not such a tough nut to crack. As long as you don’t end up hitting the sauce, life is a piece of cake. And don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. That’s baloney. We may try not to compare apples and oranges, but sometimes you can’t have your cake and eat it.
I’ll stop and let you get to the meat of this conference. Suffice it to say that food is a two-way street, it crosses our tongues in both directions: inbound, we ingest the signified, the food, to stay alive and, outbound, we express the signifier, the words as communication and literature, to make life worth living.

WEB EXTRA: Listen to the NPR podcast of “The Splendid Table,” featuring the UTSA food conference, at

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