Recent Posts by Elatia Harris

Adriaen Coorte, Baroque Dutch Master of Asparagus

Published by Saturday, July 5, 2014 Permalink 1

Of the Dutch painter Adriaen Coorte, very little is known, not even the year of his birth or death. He was active for about three decades, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Only one contemporary matter of record truly stands out: in the provincial city of Middelburg, where he lived and worked, he was taxed for selling a painting without being a member of the local painters’ guild, after which he joined up. His simple compositions, their dark backdrops, their few and plain props, put him out of fashion, for he painted during the Dutch Golden Age, when nimiety ruled the still-life genre. He was forgotten until the 1950s. Since then, however, his 55 known works, a significant number of them depictions of asparagus, have gained a luster not bestowed on them during the artist’s life. In 2011, a newly discovered painting by Coorte went at auction for more than $4,000,000.

When an artist sticks with a subject over time, it’s natural to wonder why. In the 1600s, asparagus was a luxury food, as it is now. One might make the case that, in any era, an expensive food is a love food on those grounds alone, but asparagus was in the 17th century considered a love food for its special properties. The English physician and botanist Nicholas Culpeper, in his Complete Herbal (1652), wrote of asparagus that “being taken fasting several mornings together, [it] stirreth up bodily lust in man or woman (whate’er some have written to the contrary.)”

Did the reach of the Complete Herbal, a runaway bestseller for its time, extend to Middelburg, then a slave-trading hub whose first university came as late as 2004? How I wish I knew. But Coorte’s images — fruit, butterflies, shells, asparagus — are rich in the symbolic language used by painters of his time, and lit with a radiant specificity that suggests the deeper meaning will be revealed with contemplation.

Still Life with Asparagus, Adriaen Coorte, 1697. Oil paint on paper mounted on a panel, h. 25cm × w. 20.5cm. The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
 
Elatia Harris is a writer and consulting editor in Cambridge, Mass. She is most often at work on books and articles about food, wine and travel. Contact her at elatiaharrisATgmailDOTcom or via text at 617-599-7159.
 
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The Story of Edouard Manet and the Bunch of Asparagus

Published by Sunday, June 1, 2014 Permalink 1

The art patron Charles Ephrussi (1849 –1905), one of the Parisians on whom Proust based the character Swann, was deeply appreciative of contemporary painting, and agreed to buy from Edouard Manet the delightful still-life, topmost above, for 800 francs. So great was his pleasure in ownership, however, that he paid the artist 1000 francs for it.

Not one to miss the chance for a witty flourish, Manet swiftly sent Ephrussi a smaller painting, of a single asparagus, with a note to say that one had slipped from the bunch.

 

 

Both paintings may be viewed by the public, but not together. The mother painting is in the Walraff Museum in Cologne, the solitary asparagus in the Musee D’Orsay in Paris.

Top: Édouard Manet (French, 1832-1883). Bunch of Asparagus, 1880. Oil on canvas. Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud, Cologne, Germany
Bottom: Edouard Manet (French, 1832-1905) One Asparagus, 1880. Oil on canvas, the Musee D’Orsay, Paris, France
 
Elatia Harris is a writer and consulting editor in Cambridge, Mass. She is most often at work on books and articles about food, wine and travel. Contact her at elatiaharrisATgmailDOTcom or via text at 617-599-7159.
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Saffron Culture: A Pictorial Cycle on Santorini, Part II

Published by Thursday, January 23, 2014 Permalink 1

Saffron Culture: A Pictorial Cycle on Santorini, Part II

Mistress of the Animals – Did She Make Powerful Medicine with Saffron?

by Elatia Harris

Mistress of the Animals from Xeste 3 on Thera

Mistress of the Animals from Xeste 3 on Thera.

Part Two in a series of articles on aspects of saffron. Photos of wall paintings from the excavated areas of Thera (also called Santorini), are taken from a magnificent site that has expired off the Internet, www.therafoundation.org. Other photos credited where possible. Part One examines the origins of saffron culture in Western Asia, with an overview of the saffron-dominated fresco cycle on Santorini, dating to the 17th century B.C.E. The present article looks at saffron in cultic rituals.

Mistress of the Animals

It is hard not to look at the goddess on the saffron cushion. Though her state of preservation is less than optimal, she is the focal point of the cycle.  In 1996, the archaeologist Paul Rehak undertook a gendered reading of the Xeste 3 fresco cycle – one that pointed up many subtleties in both the organization of society on Thera and the medicinal use of saffron, by and for women. In his monograph, “Myth, Medicine and Matriarchy: Reconstructing a Female Homosocial Environment in the Thera Frescoes,” he raises as well the issue whether the Xeste 3 frescoes were painted by women, for women – a possibility worth considering.

Necklaces with a duck and a dragonfly motif hang in an arc from the throat of the main image. Her blue and white costume is richly embroidered with a saffron crocus motif, the easily recognizable silhouette of the wild-growing C. cartwrightianus that is everywhere represented in Xeste 3 – clinging to rocks, garlanding its gatherers, piled into baskets, and patterning the creamy white field on which all the images are painted.

To us, perhaps the most compelling aspect of the goddess is not her regalia, but her expression.

akrotiri1

Drawing from Nanno Marinatos -- Wall of Xeste 3, with Mistress of the Animals

Drawing from Nanno Marinatos — Wall of Xeste 3, with Mistress of the Animals.

Head turned in profile, her eye is starry with interest, her lips parted as if in speech with the blue monkey to her right offering a handful of saffron. A gryphon flanks her left, present only in paw and wing. She may command girls to gather saffron and bring her tribute, but her companions are animals, on the same platform as herself. We do not know her name on Thera, but she is known to us anyhow. This is the Mistress of the Animals — potnia theron — one of the oldest goddesses of ancient times. And this is not her first or last iteration. As we enter historical times, she often takes the form of Aphrodite.

minetelbeidagoddess

 

Elatia Harris is a writer and consulting editor in Cambridge, Mass. She is most often at work on books and articles about food, wine and travel. Contact her at elatiaharrisATgmailDOTcom or via text at 617-599-7159.

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Saffron Culture: A Pictorial Cycle on Santorini, Part I

Published by Wednesday, September 25, 2013 Permalink 0

by Elatia Harris

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Saffron Gatherer — one of many girls climbing hills to gather saffron, in Xeste 3, ca. 1750 B.C.E., a large public building in Akrotiri, on Thera (or Santorini). Restoration by painter Thomas Baker.

Part One in a series of articles on aspects of saffron. Photos under the title and below, of wall paintings from the excavated areas of Thera (also called Santorini), are taken from a magnificent site that has expired off the Internet, www.therafoundation.org.

How Far Back Does Saffron Use Go?

images

50,000 years ago in Western Asia, wild-gathered saffron was rubbed onto sacred stones on hilltop shrines. The sun picked them out, and they shone. Millennia later, saffron gave color, radiant in torchlight, to cave paintings in Iraq. Only relatively recently has the saffron crocus been cultivated, the spice valued as a flavoring for food. Before that, it was a ritual substance, a powerful medicine to relieve melancholy and other ills, and a dye for the clothing of high-born women. The association of saffron with female sexuality is long and intimate, referenced in the Song of Songs, in Homer and in Ovid.

The First Pictorial Record of Saffron and Saffron Culture

Where did the wild saffron crocus first appear? There are competing theories, but it’s down to Central Asia and Greece. Where was it first cultivated? In Greece. Saffron is the dark red thread linking many ancient peoples, and the first pictorial record of it was made in the Cyclades, on the island of Thera – more usually called Santorini – in the Late Bronze Age.

Until 1967, when the excavations of Prof. Spyridon Marinatos began bringing it to light, the clock had been stopped on the settlement of Akrotiri, on the Aegean island of Thera, for about 3,600 years. Volcanic ash from the Thera Eruption, the largest geological event of ancient times, had both destroyed and preserved the town, setting it apart from history for a very long time.

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A riverscape, from Akroitiri on the Island of Thera — 1800-1700 BCE

Akrotiri_minoan_town

A townscape on the harbor, Akrotiri. 1800-1700 BCE

In the centuries leading up to the eruption, dated around 1650 BCE, Thera was a dolphin-girt paradise, the southernmost island in the Cycladic arc, 70 miles north of Crete. Though Cycladic culture is not quite Minoan, material culture on Thera was rich in Minoan influence, and, through trade, in the influence of Dynastic Egypt. When the language of the Minoans, the tormenting Linear A, is at last understood, more will be revealed. For now, research must be conducted without history’s most ardent kiss — language that we can read.

A German map of the Cyclades and Crete, with Thera (here called Santorini) dead center. Wikimedia Commons

A German map of the Cyclades and Crete, with Thera (here called Santorini) dead center. Wikimedia Commons

phaistos-disc_pieces

The Phaistos Disc, key to the language used by Minoans and Therans

Thanks to the same geothermal activity that would one day disastrously increase, hot water ran in pipes through the multi-storied houses of Akrotiri, Thera’s big town. Ventilation was understood, with light wells sunk in blocks of dwellings. Then as now in the Mediterranean, staples were stored in gigantic ceramic jars – olive oil, grain, dried figs. There was intricate and characteristic jewelry and there was perfume — of coriander, almonds, bergamot and pine. Weaving was so fine that garments could be woven sheer and then embroidered. In the harbor, resinated linen covered the hulls of ships long enough for 30 oarsmen. There were blue-toned vervet monkeys from Egypt, tall stone vases for lilies, and sufficient paint for many radiantly colored and figured walls — had there not been paint, we would know very little of the rest.

And there was saffron. The wild-growing crocus species that produces saffron, C. cartwrightianus, has for purposes of cultivation mostly given over to a selection, C. sativus. Numerous crocus species, some with deep mythological associations, bloom in the late winter, the spring and the fall. C. cartwrightianus and C. sativus, with their petals of violet-blue, bloom in the late fall, a time of tremendous fecundity in both plant and animal life in the Mediterranean. It takes about 70,000 deep orange-red stigma to make a pound of dried saffron.

blue_monkey_detail_thera_4

Minoan Fresco wall painting of " Spring " from Minoan Bronze Age settlement of Akrotiri on the Greek island of Thira, Santorini, Greece. Athens Archaeological Museum.

Minoan_Miniature_Frieze_Admirals_Flotilla_Fresco_Art_Ship_Closeup_650px

In the building known as Xeste 3, larger and more decorated than any yet excavated at Akrotiri, a two-storied chamber of frescoes – true frescoes, painted on wet plaster for a time-defying bond – depicts women and girls gathering saffron crocus blooms, bringing them in baskets to a saffron-cushioned goddess seated on a three-tiered platform. It is by far the most splendid and evocative cycle of paintings from the ancient world to be discovered in our time, and a match for almost any painting from pre-classical antiquity. Xeste 3 was probably a public building – on an ashlar wall there is an altar surmounted by a painted pair of horns tipped and dripping in red and, below, a lustral basin, both too large for domestic use.

If public or semi-public rituals were performed here, then to what end? And in whose propitiation? And how was saffron involved? The cycle of frescoes in Xeste 3 poses many questions, and answers not a few of them most provocatively.

saff1

The Goddess on the Saffron Cushion To be continued.

_______________________________________

SOURCES CONSULTED in the WRITING of THIS ARTICLE

Books

The White Goddess, by Robert Graves

The Masks of God, Vol. 3: Occidental Mythology, by Joseph Campbell

Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religion, by Walter Burkert

Art and Religion in Thera: Reconstructing a Bronze Age Society, by Nanno Marinatos

Thera: Pompeii of the Ancient Aegean, by Christos G. Doumas

Web Resources

Botanical Saffron

Excellent articles for determining this aspect of saffron — never make a botany-based mistake about saffron again!

//gernot-katzers-spice-pages.com/engl/Croc_sat.html

//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crocus_cartwrightianus

//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crocus_sativus

//www.botanicalgarden.ubc.ca/potd/2005/07/crocus_sativus.php

//www.thealpinehouse.fsnet.co.uk/crocus%20pages/Crocus%204.htm

//www.le.ac.uk/ebulletin-archive/ebulletin/news/press-releases/2010-2019/2010/03/nparticle.2010-03-04.html?searchterm=crocus

Wall Paintings of Thera

The best and most complete site left on the Internet — unfortunately the photos are tiny.

//www.idryma-theras.org.gr/wall_paintings_exhibition.htm

 

Elatia Harris is a writer and consulting editor in Cambridge, Mass. She is most often at work on books and articles about food, wine and travel. Contact her at elatiaharrisATgmailDOTcom or via text at 617-599-7159.

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The Kitchen at the Center of History: An Interview with Rachel Laudan

Published by Tuesday, July 23, 2013 Permalink 0

 


Rachel Lauden, author of Cusine & Empire

Rachel Laudan, author of Cuisine & Empire

by Elatia Harris

All photos courtesy of Rachel Laudan

Rachel Laudan is the prize-winning author of The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage and a co-editor of the Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science. In this wide-ranging interview, Rachel and I talk about her long-awaited book, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History. Paul Freedman remarks that  the book is a riveting and unique combination of culinary ideas and exposition on the materiality of eating.” Other delighted early readers include Anne Willan, Naomi Duguid and Dan Headrick. As a food lover, a cook, a world traveler or a student of cultural history, you might have asked yourself: What is this thing called food? If so, this is the book for you. 

Laudan_Cuisine-001

ELATIA HARRIS: To begin, I would love to know what was involved in the transition from historian of science to historian of food. I can remember when there was no such academic discipline as food history, and I’ll warrant so can many readers.

RACHEL LAUDAN: I can remember when there was no such discipline as science history! I think history is the thread through my life. Growing up in history-heavy Wiltshire, I felt I had to escape the weight of the past. I studied the key historical science, geology, at university, although this was almost unheard of for a woman. I then changed to history and philosophy of science and technology. Then to history of food. History is my way of understanding things.

A lot of food writing is about how we feel about food, particularly about the good feelings that food induces. I’m more interested in how we think about food. In fact, I put culinary philosophy at the center of my book. Our culinary philosophy is the bridge between food and culture, between what we eat and how we relate to the natural world, including our bodies, to the social world, and to the gods or morality.

EH: Your earlier book, The Food of Paradise, necessarily dealt with food politics and food history. So many cultures were blended into local food in Hawaii. I treasure that book — almost a miniature of what you’re doing in Cuisine and Empire.

RL: Well, thank you. It came as a surprise to me that I had a subject for a book-length treatment of something to do with food or cooking — as interested in the subject as I certainly was. The only genre I knew was the cookbook, and I am not cut out to write recipes.  

It was prompted by a move to teach at the University of Hawaii in the mid-1980s. I went reluctantly, convinced by the tourist propaganda that the resources of the islands consisted of little more than sandy beaches and grass-skirted dancers doing the hula.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. These tiny islands, the most remote inhabited land on earth, have extraordinarily various peoples and environments. And as to the food, I was humiliatingly lost. The first morning in the office, Barbara Hoshida, the department secretary, held out a plate of golf-ball sized fried, well, fried whats? “These are Okinawan andagi,” she explained, “They’re just like Portuguese malasadas.”  I didn’t dare ask what Portuguese malasadas were. 

Before I knew it I had a stack of essays on the foods of the three diasporas that had ended up in the islands: the taro-based cuisine of the peoples from the South Pacific (the Hawaiians); the rice-based cuisine of the Asians (Koreans, Han and Hakka Chinese, Japanese, Okinawans, and Ilocanos and Tagalogs from the Philippines); and the bread-based cuisine of the Anglos (British and Americans).

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Paris to the Pyrenees: David Downie Eats His Way Down the Way of St. James, Interview by Elatia Harris

Published by Monday, April 22, 2013 Permalink 0

 

Left: Cross with Rocks, copyright Alison Harris.
Right: Forest Cathedral, copyright Alison Harris

 

Interview by Elatia Harris

Their 50th birthdays in sight, the acclaimed travel and food writer David Downie, and his wife, the photographer Alison Harris, decided that trekking from Paris to Spain, would be just the thing. They are based in Paris, so the Way of St. James, for a millennium one of the world’s most celebrated pilgrimage routes, was right at their back door. Neither Alison nor David is religious — the classical pilgrimage experience was not what they were seeking. What were they seeking? Renewal, changed perspectives. Perhaps to test themselves, over 72 days and 1100 km of — at times — very rough terrain. And thereby hangs a tale.

Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of St. Jameslaunches this week. Scroll to the end to see book tour information. Permission to post on TRE the superb photos from the book was granted by Alison Harris.

  

ELATIA HARRIS: There has been a lot in the news lately on pilgrimage, however one understands the phenomenon. People who do it talk about needing to lose their routine and find themselves. Most set out alone, meeting others en route. You and Alison started together.

DAVID DOWNIE: Our choice to walk together happened organically. I had planned to do this on my own. Alison came along to keep me out of trouble. If you ask her, she’s likely to say it was her idea about 25 years ago, when she suggested we do something similar.

EH: Readers cannot but wonder how they would hold up, in these circumstances. I pictured a long leisurely walk through a French countryside movie. Cows, chateaux…oh, perhaps a few mildly strenuous stints.  I was so wrong. This was a test of all your combined resources. It would be for any couple. 72 days of togetherness and real physical hardship. And you had already spent years collaborating on your books.

DD: Like some old couples, we have merged in mind and spirit — if such a thing exists — while remaining very different people, and very pig-headedly independent. So, while we were together on the pilgrimage, we were often apart both in our mental spheres and physically. Alison stopped constantly, ran ahead, took detours, disappeared, got lost—often, though not always, in pursuit of a photograph. She probably walked twice as many miles as I did. By the end of the pilgrimage, my regard for her had only deepened. I can’t speak for her, of course.

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