Historian Amy Henderson: Food, Glorious Food

At the Portrait Gallery, Historian Amy Henderson Awaits the Presentation of a New Portrait of Chef Alice Waters

The newly commissioned Alice Waters portrait
The newly commissioned Alice Waters portrait Photo courtesy of the Portrait Gallery

This post is part of our on-going series in which ATM invites the occasional post from a number of Smithsonian Institution guest bloggers: the historians, researchers and scientists who curate the collections and archives at the museums and research facilities. Today, Amy Henderson from the National Portrait Gallery weighs in on the influences of food in the American culture. She last wrote for us on the inimitable historical sites that you must see when visiting Washington, D.C.

As the words ring out in the musical Oliver, “Food, glorious food,” the pleasures of cooking, serving and dining are something to be celebrated. What we eat reflects our lives and times, whether it’s hot sausage and mustard, or Waldorf salad. Do we watch “Top Chef,” “Cooking with Julia,” and “The Essential Pepin?” Does our pulse beat faster when we spot a fabulous new gadget at our favorite kitchen store? Do we have a cat that likes baby arugula? These are telltale signs that some of us consider “food” something more than ”fuel.”

There are several images of iconic food personalities held within the collections of the National Portrait Gallery. Two of my favorites are Julia Child and food writer M.F.K.Fisher. I have labored through the nearly 20 pages of Julia’s recipe for French bread and produced a baguette that was almost worth the effort, and I have been snared by several of Fisher’s books because of their wonderful titles—Consider the Oyster and How to Cook a Wolf come instantly to mind. One of my fondest Smithsonian memories was meeting Julia Child when the National Museum of American History first began to acquire her collection, which now includes her entire kitchen. She was very tall, superbly gracious and approachable, and looked you squarely in the eye during conversation: this was not a woman who suffered fools.

Nurturing our recognition of the national dialogue about food, on January 20, the Portrait Gallery will host a very special event to showcase food pioneer Alice Waters, founder of the Berkeley, California-based Chez Panisse Restaurant and Café, the Edible Schoolyard and a leader of the slow food movement. In more than 40 years as chef, author, and proprietor of Chez Panisse, Ms. Waters has dedicated herself to a culinary philosophy based on using only the freshest local organic products, served only in season. Education is a key to this commitment, and her Edible Schoolyard—a one acre garden with an adjacent kitchen—is a model public school curriculum program for nearly 1,000 students.

Happily, Ms. Waters will attend the unveiling of her portrait at this event. Created by photographer Dave Woody, the image depicts the chef standing beneath the branches of an enormous mulberry tree in her Edible Schoolyard—a perfect setting for this champion of local, organic food. As the winner of the 2009 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, Woody was commissioned to portray Alice Waters. The photograph is large-scale, and Waters points out that the giant mulberry tree behind her symbolizes the importance of the sustainable environment, one of her priorities: “It’s a set of values,” she said of the portrait’s message. “This represents hope for me in the future and for the kids.”

The liveliest part of the Alice Waters event promises to be Chef José Andrés’ onstage interview with her. The winner of the 2011 James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Chef Award, Andrés is host of the PBS series “Made in Spain” and founder of state-of-the-art restaurants across the country. He has a special relationship with the Portrait Gallery, first because his restaurants brought an essential ingredient to the museum’s Penn Quarter neighborhood as it morphed from a place of desolation to one of the most vibrant parts of the nation’s capital. And while he helped to make it possible for the Portrait Gallery to be in the heart of Washington’s food, sports, and entertainment district, Andrés personally feels deep affection and respect for the museum in return. He told me that he likes to walk through our galleries and the Kogod Courtyard “to be inspired.” The American Dream is very real to Chef José, and he says that he “finds energy” among the portraits of the historical figures that line our walls.

The Alice Waters portrait will be on view at the Portrait Gallery beginning January 20. Director Martin E. Sullivan believes that this image marks both a recognition of “the changing way the nation thinks about how people are connected to food and the environment,” and “a lively celebration of this relatively new conversation in American culture.”
Bon appetite!

A cultural historian at the National Portrait Gallery, Amy Henderson specializes in “the lively arts,” particularly media-generated celebrity culture. Her books and exhibitions run the gamut from the pioneers in early broadcasting to Elvis Presley to Katharine Hepburn and Katharine Graham. She is currently at work on a new dance exhibition entitled “One! Singular Sensations in American Dance,” scheduled to open in September 2013.

UPDATE 1/19/2012: This post was updated to clarify that the National Portrait Gallery Commission reviewed a number of worthy candidates and voted to ask Dave Woody to create a portrait of Alice Waters.

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