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American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915—Cooking with Lilly Martin Spencer

October 12, 2009–January 24, 2010
Cookbook author and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman savors the food depicted in two paintings by Lilly Martin Spencer—Kiss Me and You'll Kiss the 'Lasses and Young Husband: First Marketing—on view in the exhibition American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915.


Carrie Rebora Barratt: Hello. I'm Carrie Rebora Barratt. My colleague Barbara Weinberg and I are co-curators of the exhibition American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The exhibition includes more than one hundred iconic works by many of America's most acclaimed artists, who tell stories about their own times by depicting ordinary people engaged in the tasks and pleasures of everyday life. The paintings range in date from the Revolutionary era to the eve of World War I.

The most accomplished—and only successful—woman painter in mid-nineteenth-century America was Lilly Martin Spencer. She brought a spark of romantic wit to her work, showing women in charge of their kitchens, their children, and their men. In Kiss Me and You'll Kiss the 'Lasses, of 1856, a sassy young woman wards off romantic attention with the flirtatious threat of a sticky spoonful of molasses. We asked New York Times columnist and cookbook author Mark Bittman to comment on the painting.

Mark Bittman: We're seeing what look to me like currants, but they're covered with cabbage leaves, probably to keep them cool, and pears or apples—those are the mottled brown things next to the pineapples—some kind of berries and maybe some cherries as well, green grapes . . . I mean, a whole variety of fruit, or what we take to be fruit, because we think she's making compote or jam or jelly or something like that.

And the dipping of the spoon in that liquid is the giveaway, because she's probably checking for jelling—for thickness of the finished product. To do this, to make jam, you cook fruits, usually for a pretty long time, and usually with a lot of sugar, like maybe fifty percent sugar. And that is an equal weight of sugar and fruit. Doesn't have to be that much, but for preserving power, you need a lot of sugar. And, in the old days, since there were no freezers or even refrigerators, when you made jam, you were making it to can it and keep it for, you know, up to a year or even longer. So you had to cook it for a long time with a lot of sugar and then seal it in jars.

I wouldn't call this woman a chef. I don't know what I'd call her. Clearly a cook. And she certainly has a kind of devil-may-care attitude about her. It's not like this process is intimidating her at all, and probably she's done it a thousand times. And she seems in quite good spirits. What the come-hither look is all about, I really have no idea. I'm not sure it has anything to do with the cooking. You know, I mean, clearly, it's a painting about a time of bounty, a time of joy, a time of lusciousness. And if you read all of that into the woman as well, then obviously you change what everything is about. But, as an innocent, I just see a young woman who's happy making jam.

Normally when you're cooking, you're not posing at the same time. You're looking at the food. You're working with the food. And you're not looking up and giving whoever you're greeting a huge grin. You can read whatever you want into this, but, it's hard to know for sure what's going on.

I'm really, really into the currants that are on the floor covered by the cabbage leaves. Those are absolutely beautiful. And then the berries and whatever else is on the table above them, which, you know, I take to be a kind of golden-red cherry, but I'm not sure. But those also look really, really delicious to me.

There's no question that this is mid- to late summer, because that's when you're going to have all these things. That's jam-making time. That's harvest time. And of course the pineapples are imported, unless this was painted in Jamaica, which it wasn't. The pineapples are coming from elsewhere. But everything else is summer bounty here.

Carrie Rebora Barratt: Spencer took a comic approach to real social anxieties of her time, especially in portraying her favorite subject: the roles of men and women. The young man in Spencer's painting Young Husband: First Marketing is inept at his attempts to do the food shopping for his new household. In the background, a leering gentleman and a sheepish young servant girl compound the shopper's embarrassment as a chicken tumbles from his basket.

Although men often did the grocery shopping in Ohio, where Spencer spent her early married life, this task would have been unheard of in the East. While viewers may have been amused and perplexed, the press deemed Young Husband to be offensive because it ridiculed publicly the man's gentility and competence.

Mark Bittman: There are a couple of things I really love about this painting. One is how contemporary it is. I mean, I think all of us who love food have had the experience of going to a good market and then finding ourselves in the position of going home with way too much. And, I mean, I do it all the time. I just love that here's this guy who bit off more than he could chew, no pun intended. And, to me, that just makes it a very cool painting.

It looks like we have a brace that is two chickens or pheasants or whatever birds they are. But on the ground, we have broken eggs. We have some kind of vegetable. We have a tomato. It looks like in the basket are small potatoes, although they could be mushrooms. But I think they're potatoes. We have asparagus or something like it, more tomatoes, some bread or something else that's hard to see up in the upper right of the basket, and then another green, maybe cabbage or—you know, these days it would be bok choy. Who knows? It may have been bok choy. This could either be one massive stew or a few meals' worth of foods here.

Another thing I love about this is that it's a guy. This is a young guy. We know he's married, from the title of the painting. And he's bringing this basket home, where presumably his wife is going to cook. Whether he's been sent out to do the shopping and doesn't know what he's doing or he's overly enthusiastic and experienced but still bought too much or whether he knows what he bought, that's all hard to tell. But clearly, he's the person doing the shopping for this meal or this week. And I love that also.

It's a bit of a comic painting, because you've got this sort of sneering-looking—not exactly mean, but not exactly friendly—guy walking past him to the rear who's clearly having a bit of a giggle at this poor dude's misfortune. And it gives the whole painting this kind of great levity, to me.

Carrie Rebora Barratt: These works, along with the rest of the paintings in the exhibition, can be viewed online at metmuseum.org in the special feature for American Stories. There, as on the Audio Guide program in the exhibition galleries, you can also hear a range of perspectives by Barbara Weinberg and me, as well as artists, historians, and other experts from a variety of fields.

The exhibition is made possible by Alamo Rent A Car, The Marguerite and Frank A. Cosgrove Jr. Fund, The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, and the Oceanic Heritage Foundation.

It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

The Audio Guide is sponsored by Bloomberg.

American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915 is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from October 12, 2009, through January 24, 2010.

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