What is the food that Luis Melendez paints? Is it food? More than food? Less than perfect food? Food stand-ins for something else? What is this stuff called “every species of food produced by the Spanish climate”? Is it about the food or something beyond, beyond the canvas?
by Sally Levitt Steinberg
What fruits! What vegetables! The pears have pocks and gouges. What pears are supposed to look like has nothing to do with it, as it would in our supermarkets. These are the pears that are, in all their imperfection. They are magnificent pears, with the authenticity of arbor and larder, and without standardizing or sanitizing procedures to make them look perfect and taste like chalk.
Figs and peaches do not escape scrutiny either, their bruises and nicks for all to see. Luis Melendez paints what might seem ugly or worm-eaten, because that is how things are. And he paints them into splendor.
(The exhibition “Luis Melendez: Master of the Spanish Still Life” is at the Museum of Fine Arts through May 9, 2010.)
The melons also have dents and blemishes, but what melons! The cantaloupes are dazzling in their striations, skins textured with a netting pattern, as it is called. Melendez’s eye was so acute that he reproduced the cantaloupe skin as accurately as a detailed road map.
The black seeds and watery drips in a cut-up watermelon are rendered with slurpy exactitude. Melon reverie. Melons were introduced to Spain by the Moors and mentioned in the 13th century by a writer who first distinguished watermelons from cantaloupes. Clearly they represented for Melendez not only an example of “all the food in Spain,” which he was commissioned to paint for the Natural History Cabinet of Wonders, but a noteworthy visual motif, repeated over and over in his paintings, as well as a suggestion of fleshly delights.
Melendez’s meats are red, royal, and blood-colored. His marbled, maroon ham stands as evidence that this porcine delicacy hails from the sands of time, the depths of gastronomic tradition leading to the ascendancy of the Spanish pig. Jamon, jamon. This food has heft and grain and muscle; it’s monumentally real and beyond real. It reigns on the sideboard or sometimes in a landscape.
In 1771, at 56 years old, Luis Melendez was commissioned by the Prince of Asturias to paint for the New Cabinet of Natural History of the Royal Palace the food of the four seasons in Spain, “with the aim of composing an amusing cabinet with every species of food produced by the Spanish climate.” He painted olives in a cask. Honey pots and apricots and cherries. Sea bream and bitter Seville oranges, oranges with nubbly, stippled skins. Packets of spices. Olive oil in tin cruets. No cooked meals, but the fixins. Pigeons with red feet and onions with green tops. Our alliums for the day. The daily bread, erupting with deep crevasses.
What is the food that Melendez paints? Is it food? More than food? Less than perfect food? Food stand-ins for something else? What is this stuff called “every species of food produced by the Spanish climate”? Is it about the food or something beyond, beyond the canvas?
The fruits and vegetables and their fellows in food on the canvases at the Melendez show are realer than real. They are on a higher plane, beyond the earthly one, veering toward an ideal of food even as they show off imperfections. What emerges in paint and in the consciousness of the beholder is food that vaults beyond physical manifestations. Food raised to an nth power.
Paradoxically, the microscopic detail registered by the brush displays the grandeur of imperfection and, at the same time, lends to the objects the quality of going beyond the tangible to become almost mystical. Melendez was painting all the food in Spain. So he did one better and painted beyond food.
He painted the beauties of humble domesticity. The textures of the vessels and implements for those exalted foodstuffs emerge in joyous specificity, each one itself and no other. Chipped crockery. Jugs and jars. Rustic cookware—ceramic pots, clay pitchers. Copper. Brass mortar and pestle. Earthenware. Earth and wares. Baskets and reflections in silver. These kitchen wares are deliciously textural so you can’t take your eyes off them, the commonplace lifted into art.
Wine bottles in Melendez gleam gorgeously in dark glass, reflecting, as Melendez plays with light and surfaces that camouflage their syrupy contents, deep black glass that you know is glass and not some opaque black thing. It is lustrous; it is the proper receptacle for ichor of grape; it steeps and decants and allows the aromas of the fermented grape out into the ether and toward olfactory receptors. Grapes themselves in Melendez, purple or green, are silvery and glassy, opalescent like marbles.
There is a mystery fruit, the azarole, tucked at the edge of the canvas. This is also known as medlar fruit, and it befuddles novice diners in the Mediterranean. It is a great looking piece of nature’s work, bursting its sac to emerge as reddish, berry-like fruit jewelry. You may have been served one in Europe—in its way it is comely, a visual grace note, a gastronomic novelty. In Melendez, this fruit does not get star billing—it stays in the wings as a side, a stage hand at the main show. Sweetly reddish, bigger than a grape, with skin more opaque and sometimes spotted, untutored museum goers are at pains to identify it without further study. And diners get to wonder what it is and can you eat it.
But there it is, and you can see that Melendez put it there as a varying motif, to complement grapes and pomegranates. Melendez tickles your peripheral vision, so it’s not neglected.
Gazpacho? We get eyefuls of paunchy tomatoes, pimpled cucumbers, and hoary onions. In our search for the round, red tomato, tomatoes like the ones painted here, exploding into sections and growing out of and into themselves, were thought of as ugly. We even branded them Ugli Tomatoes. But we are getting back to nature and venerating heirloom tomatoes that look like the ones in Melendez.
The last Melendez painting is a tumble of cucumbers and tomatoes, ready for gazpacho, ready for the salt shaker that appears crusted with granules of salt on its top. Warty cucumbers dimpled and ridged, one upright, saucy, the others limp, resting. Tomatoes innocent and ripe. Full, big-bosomed tomatoes. The ingredients jump from canvas to eye to brain to palate.
This is in-your-face food, exhibitionist. (Those melons . . . ) Hacked watermelons spill beads and drips of juice, seeds propelled out. They look almost pornographic. Demure, coquettish apples blush red. Obscenely open pomegranates show their parts, inner red seeds in gel tumbling out with abandon in wet plenitude, fruit skins akimbo, a fecund pod. Full tomatoes and melons, oblong zucchini sticking up vertically from a bowl next to magenta-fleshed ham ringed with white fat, cucumbers lying spent or standing up proudly. Horny produce, hairy leeks, bosomy tomatoes, cod cut and painted on its side to showcase the slit that divides the parallel fleshy ridges of its interior into two parts. Figs are split, their interiors gaping, moist, seedy, open for business.
Is all this coincidental? Maybe, but it’s suggestive. Judge for yourself.
Melendez painted with luxe and volupte, if not calm. These are still-life paintings, stilled in paint, but with barely concealed angst beneath. Melendez’s fevered brain.
Melendez and his father were Bad Boys of Spanish painting, couldn’t quite get their acts together. They specialized in provocation, hell-raising, disputatiousness unconquered. And then Melendez declared himself a pauper, got sick, and died. An expense of spirit in a waste of shame. But he left a monument to gourmandise, testament to the allure of all the food in Spain, an encyclopedia in paint that catalogues what the land yields.
All the food groups are here. Protein—meat, fish, eggs. Carbs—bread and chocolate. There’s fiber—fruits and vegetables, and vitamins and antioxidants. Grapes and melons, tomatoes and cauliflower, nuts and olives. The food is beauteous, effulgent, nutritious. Glorious food. Documenting in visual grandiloquence all the food in Spain for the Cabinet of Natural Wonders was the central event of Luis Melendez’s life.
Ah Spain! Mediterranean land of sensuous flights and savory indulgences. Creators of tapas. Then, as today, food was a big deal in Spain. The day is divided into parts with accompanying foods—breakfast, coffee with snacks, lunch and dinner, tapas, wine with snacks, street pastries with hot chocolate. The tapas bar and the bodega, the cafes and markets are gathering places—around food. One cannot, as Virginia Woolf said, think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.
We searched for Spanish food worthy of the heights and extremes of Melendez, and we found tapas extraordinaire at Toro in the South End that live up to the ultra-food in the Melendez paintings. These are tapas so sublime that they are beyond tapas. Mega-chef Ken Oringer and head Toro chef Jamie Bissonnette create these ultra-tapas at their all-wood, crowded, hungry temple of small-bite paradise. All the Spanish tapas basics are here as they are in Melendez—the olives and cheese and nuts, ham and fish and vegetables.
For restaurant week you could have had seven plates, amply adorned, for two people for $33.10. They might have included Spanish ham like the one Melendez painted, crispy sweetbreads with blood orange swipe, and dates wrapped and crisped with ham, stuffed with intensely blue Cabrales cheese and Marcona almonds. All these ingredients are traditional tapas fare but raised to a heavenly ideal of taste, as the Melendez food reaches a higher plane.
There are salt cod fritters juxtaposed with a fried ring—no, it’s not an onion ring, that common denominator and sidekick of burgers, that cliché, it’s a ring of lemon peel fried in a light, tempura-style batter. Surprise when you bite in and taste the soft, sour, citrusy ring that offsets any fishiness or surfeit of fried things. Cod is the signature Spanish fish, having provided the living of Spaniards for millennia. The bacalao has jumped out of Melendez’s basket and onto the plate.
Variations on cauliflower. Melendez has painted perhaps the most famous cauliflower in the history of painting, lauded with encomiums including “heart-stopping.” It’s part of his Lenten meal with eggs and leeks, no meat. The cauliflower head in the painting is florid, the frilly greenery surrounding the white florets, a pale green petticoat. It’s another meta-food tour de force. This cauliflower is not just an edible. It’s a flower, fully blooming. At Toro the cauliflower is similarly grand, deconstructed, slapped on la plancha, browned at the edges, cut and served in oil with pepper. No overly cabbagey taste and no need for penance.
Toro’s Escalivada Catalana utilizes the suggestively lewd eggplants so astonishing in Melendez, the shiny purplish skin of the firm, tumescent vegetable bursting its leafy, protective sheath. It’s a stew of tomatoes, eggplant, onions—also a usual suspect in Melendez and painted in multiples. You can see what fun Melendez was having with the textures of papery, white onion skin layers and the hairy filaments at their root ends. And the green shoots pushing out at the top.
Perhaps the apotheosis of tapas at Toro comes in the form of a sandwich. That’s right, two pieces of bread pressed until crisp, encasing an emulsion of uni (high-quality sea urchin roe), house-pickled mustard seeds, and miso butter. This makes an indescribable, creamy interior, sublime, an original. Is it tapas? Anything is. That’s the official definition, any small plate served with wine or drink. Even tuna tartare with citrus foam, again, perhaps, an international interloper, but a small dish to qualify as part of this venerable tradition of bites to keep you going when work in the fields has depleted your reserves.
The specialty of the house is also deserving of its own pedestal. It is grilled corn with aioli, aged cheese, lime, and espelette pepper. The browned, grilled corn luxuriates in its thick aioli bath, just sour enough with lime, just cheesy enough and peppery enough, with no one flavor predominating, giving forth its come-eat-me garlicky vapors. It lives up to its billing—a memorable street treat worthy of Melendez, although he wasn’t lucky enough to paint it. But it deserves inclusion in a cabinet of wonders.
Sausage by Melendez is a rumpled, gooey and heavily dented oblong casing of dense meat. At Toro the blood sausage looks a lot like the Melendez, as does ham from acorn-fed pigs, the kind that originated in the high valleys of the Andalusian mountains, developing the sweet, smoky flesh that is de rigueur for a tapas meal. With ham at Toro, you can have the eggs you see in Melendez, in the form of a tortilla with potato and onion and aioli, a fillip created by the chef to augment the dish and inspire the palate and bring on swooning.
You could order a main course of fish, or rib eye, like the one in Melendez, but this seems like overkill in the face of the tapas bites that turn into a bellyful.
What about those luscious fruits? No separate fruit course at Toro, but fruit is everywhere, along with fish and fowl, earth and sea, air and forest. Melendez sometimes included earth, fire, air, and water in his paintings—as in meat, bird, fish and pot for simmering over fire. The elements appear at Toro also in the palate teasers and appetite appeasers.
As for fruit, there’s blood orange with the sweetbreads, prunes with short rib, and apples with pork belly. There’s tomato for the pan con tomate, the ubiquitous Spanish snack of bread rubbed with oil and garlic and an open tomato, whose slushy interior gets smeared on the bread. There is a pear in chutney with foie gras, and there’s citrus everywhere, so the fruit is not left out. The whole Melendez gastronomic encyclopedia is well-represented.
For dessert? What more a propos than churros, the long, fried strips, donuts unfurled, with a dipping and dripping sauce of the finest liquid chocolate, thicker than hot chocolate, thinner than fudge sauce. Melendez’s chocolate service paintings show that hot chocolate has been imbibed in Spain for centuries in a precise ritual involving a copper pot and long stirring implement. Donuts in the Spanish elongated strip version are the real deal. Never mind the hot donuts promised by assembly line machines.
Churros are traditional snacks in Spain, handmade and fried by vendors right in front of your eyes—talk about hot donuts! They are served then and there, not allowed to cool into the leaden, fatty cakes that donuts can be. The mostly women vendors form a kind of guild of colorfully dressed churreras, and you can get this addictive waist expander on streets all over Spain. And in an ideal version at Toro.
Melendez paints the shine and hue of copper, and you can dream about the pleasures of a cup of Joe made in it, Spanish style, a thick, witchy brew to warm the tongue and spike it awake, to cap this meal of Natural History wonders. At Toro the coffee fits the high style of the Melendez paintings. Topped with an Alpine glob of steamed milk in foamy peaks, you get the cappuccino deserving of your desires and Melendez’s vision. Never mind sleep. After this you will want to stay awake and mull over this meal, and if you can’t go running back because of the spatial limitations of your gut, you will in time. For now you can thrill to it in memory and dreams.
Sally Levitt Steinberg is a writer, journalist, and oral/personal historian. She has written several books, including The Donut Book, the world’s definitive book of everything-you-need-to-know about donuts. It was chosen twice as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, it has been featured in all the media, including NPR, the Martha Stewart radio shows, and the film “Donut Crazy” for the Travel Channel, and its materials form The National Donut Collection at the Smithsonian Museum.
She has written a biography, The Book of Joy, as well as several personal histories and a book on interior design. Her essay, “Coffin Couture,” was cited as the best piece in the recent anthology of personal history, My Words Are Gonna Linger. She has written articles for many publications, including The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The New Yorker. She lives in Boston.
Order The Donut Book through the link below to Amazon and The Arts Fuse receives a (small) percentage of the sale.