Fancy Feast

Pull up a chair because today on Museum Bites we’re setting the table for a fancy feast. We’ll sample whimsical tableware that will dazzle and amuse. During our tour, we’ll melt over butter, pay homage to mustard, and get into a pickle. We begin by rolling back the clock to the late 18th century…

photo by terri cnudde, pixabay-1
Photo by Terri Cnudde, Pixabay

Antique Feast:  In the 18th and 19th century, meals among Europe’s elite were a fussy affair. Dinner, especially, was serious business and required a substantial crew of cooks, maids, and footmen. Tableware and food presentation took center stage at these multi-course events and provided an opportunity to show off one’s wealth and excellent staff.

mustard pot by henri auguste (1789-1790), detroit institute of arts, photo by cjverb (2017)
Mustard Pot by Henri Auguste (1789-1790), Detroit Institute of Arts, Photo by cjverb (2017)

Mustard Madness:  Our first piece of tableware, Silver Mustard Pot with Lid (1789-1790) was designed by French artist, Henri Auguste and is on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts. This elegant little vessel was crafted solely for mustard and allows diners to slather the zesty sauce with panache and relative ease.

Multi-tasking mustard has a long and rich history. First harvested by ancient Indians and Sumerians more than 5,000 years ago, mustard seeds were used as a spice. King Tutankhamen was a mustard enthusiast and had seeds packed inside his tomb for his trip through the afterlife. Hippocrates was also mad for mustard and used poultices of the heady brew, to treat a variety of ailments including chest colds. The mighty mustard seed is featured in the Bible as a symbol of the kingdom of God. And finally, mustard’s vivid color was the inspiration for a popular board game character (Colonel Mustard!). Whether you prefer brown or yellow, sauce or spice, with a pretzel or würst mustard is a delicious addition to any table.

Fun Mustard Fact:  Sales of Grey Poupon mustard soared in the 1980s as a result of a clever advertising campaign touting its superior taste over ho-hum yellow mustard. Click on this vintage Grey Poupon commercial to learn more.

pickle stand (c1755) by bow manufactory, detroit institute of arts, photo by cjverb (2017)
Pickle Stand (c1755) by Bow Manufactory, Detroit Institute of Arts, Photo by cjverb (2017)

Behold the Pickle:  Our next table item is a porcelain pickle stand crafted by the Bow Manufactory of England c1755. Decked out in fruit de mer, this epicurean tribute to the humble pickle would have Poseidon smacking his lips. Like mustard, the earliest accounts of the pickle hail from ancient India. Approximately 4,000 years ago, cucumbers were picked and preserved in brine and the result was a tasty, portable food. Pickling is an ancient form of food preservation still practiced today. A wide variety of fruits, vegetables, even fish (pickled herring!) are pickled (i.e., soaked and sealed inside a brine or acidic liquid). For example, in Korea we have kimchi, Russians favor pickled tomatoes, and in the Middle East, lemons and olives.

Fun Pickle Fact #1:  Rumor has it Cleopatra ate pickles to enhance her beauty and today, some athletes slurp pickle juice today to stave off dehydration.

Fun Pickle Fact #2:  William Shakespeare uses the phrase “in a pickle” (aka in a tricky situation) in his play the Tempest. A drunk jester named Trinculo exclaims, “I have been in such a pickle since I saw you last…” In addition, the phrase “getting pickled” means to drink too much alcohol. Click on this BBC Learning English In a Pickle video to learn more.

butter dish, neville public museum, photo by cjverb (2018)
Butter Dish, Neville Public Museum, Photo by cjverb (2018)

Butter Fingers:  Our final table item is on display at the Neville Public Museum. This silver plated butter dish dates back to the late 1800s and was crafted by the Meriden Britannia Company of Connecticut. Tricked out in delicate floral detailing, this weighty wonder looks more like a fancy heat lamp than a backdrop for butter. And no doubt takes up a lot of real estate on the dining room table.

Butter lore claims that in 8,000 BCE the delicious fat was first made by accident when the steady rocking of a traveler’s mount churned the sheep’s milk stored in his flask into butter. Ancient Sumerians of mustard fame revered butter, and made offerings of the fat to their fertility goddess, Inanna. Similarly, in Ireland, ancient Celts gave their gods wooden buckets of butter to appease the faeries.

photo by efraimstochter, pixabay
Photo by Efraimstochter, Pixabay

Romans however, turned their noses up at butter, in favor of their beloved olive oil. They believed eating butter was barbaric. It was the food of their enemies and only to be used as a salve or beauty cream. Whether you worship or shun it, butter and its imposters (I’m looking at you margarine!) today are served more simply.

That wraps up our look at fancy tableware. Next week, we’ll raise a glass to Dionysus and sample some of the more unique contraptions related to wine. Until then, have a wonderful week.

photo by artemtation, pixabay-100px Photo by Artemtation, courtesy of Pixabay.


BBC Learning English: In a Pickle

Britannica: Butter

Britannica: Mustard

Connecticut History

Detroit Institute of Arts

Merriam-Webster: In a Pickle

National Public Radio

Neville Public Museum

PBS: History of Pickles


Wikimedia Commons

Wikipedia: Henri Auguste

YouTube: Grey Poupon Commercial


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