• Jocette Lee

Food and Art in the Time of COVID-19

Updated: Apr 17


Deep into week three of the #COVID19quarantine and food appears to be playing the role of entertainment, comfort, joy, and creative self-expression. The recent increase in food podcasts, cooking YouTubers and instructive chefs showing how to make pantry staples shine is no surprise to me. Food, not only serves as a fundamental need for physical survival, but it is also a tool for discovery, experimentation, and community. In times of panic or scarcity, food has the unusual ability to serve as both nourishment for the body and the soul. The use of food in self-expression and art dates back to the Stone Age, where, "cave painters used vegetable juice and animal fats as binding ingredients in their paints" (Smithsonian Magazine). Instead of paintings on the walls of caves, we have now turned to #sourdoughstarters and #dalgonacoffee posted on Instagram to be our artistic outlet.


Fruit and vegetables have been the subject of many still-life paintings especially during the Dutch Golden Age, (below) where paintings of large feasts were depicted to represent abundance. The Renaissance is ample with paintings of people near bowls of draping grapes to convey themes of lust, faith, resentment, etc. And even Van Gogh created The Potato Eaters in 1885 as an attempt to capture the unifying and reverent power of a humble meal.

Willem Claeszoon Heda, Breakfast Table with Blackberry Pie (1631)

But how do we currently see the use of food in art today? We all know about Warhol and his can of Campbell's soup or Caravaggio's Medusa (Medusa Marinara) made with spaghetti and tomato sauce, but in what other artwork do we see food as the subject matter or medium? Below is a shortlist of artists using food in ways that cause us to question our global, political, cultural environments.



Food Art Photography

An artist based in Brooklyn named Henry Hargreaves uses food, photography, and history to set the stage for his work. He researches, recreates and captures the concert tour food requests made by famous people like Frank Sinatra and Beyoncé in his collection called "Band Riders." His most acclaimed work is called "No Seconds," which is a compilation of photographs of death-row meals requested by prisoners before execution. I highly recommend exploring his website to see how he swallows pop-culture and politics to produce food art so relevant to our time.



Food Writing

A mix of muckraking journalism and emotionally-driven optimism, Mark Arax writes in his short essay "A Kingdom from Dust," about the woes of the agriculture system in California where he exposes the abuse of water rights by large, well-connected, deep-pocketed billionaires. To read more pieces about food in our social economy, I highly recommend the book, The Best American Food Writing 2019 or food journals like Gastronomica, Bon Appétit, GRLSQUASH, Gather Journal, or Taste Magazine. These publications provide both delicious recipes but also a cultural, artistic, and anthropological perspective on various aspects of food.



Food Art Installations

Staple Cheese (A Race) (1970) by Dieter Roth

One of the most renowned food art installations was created by an artist named Dieter Roth, referred to as "Dieter Rot." Famously known for his exhibit called Staple Cheese (A Race), "Rot" filled suitcases with cheese and opened a new suitcase each day to expose the rot and infection of maggots throughout the venue. Eventually, this piece was shut down and discarded in the desert due to its rank odor.


There are many other ways to incorporate food into an art installation without violating health codes, like the Museum of Food and Art (see video below) in Brooklyn, NY. This is a museum dedicated to "educate the public and encourage an appreciation of culinary history and anthropology." This example of food art installation serves as an educational venue to learn about the social significance of food.


British artist Lucy Sparrow created a food art installation where she replicated an entire NYC bodega with products you would typically find in a convenience store such as chips, soda, nuts, gum, candy, cigarettes and more. However, none of the items were edible because they were all made out of felted material (see video below). This is just beginning to scratch the surface of artists using food to interact with their audiences.



Food in Film

Next to watching food preparation in person, recording videos of food is ideal because it allows the process to be archived and referenced for both educational and cultural purposes. Telling stories through food is achieved beautifully through the use of film with many well-known examples: Julie and Julia, Chef, Chocolat, The Hundred-Foot Journey, Ratatouille, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Like Water for Chocolate or even Fried Green Tomatoes. However, I want to spotlight a movie probably not in your food film arsenal: The Lunchbox. An accidental relationship forms through the Dabbawalas system (lunchbox service) of Mumbai. Restaurants or families often prepare lunch for their working loved-ones, which is picked up in the late morning, delivered using bicycles and railway trains, and then returned later in the day. Through the exchange of notes in the lunchbox, two strangers form an unusual relationship. To see the trailer, click the video below.



Food Art Illustration

The comeback of food illustration is at its peak! From deconstructed recipes to whimsical kitchen props, bright and colorful depictions of food items are scattered all over social media. They catch the eye and bring another element of adoration to the food preparation process. My favorite place to see the illustrations of new food artists is on an Instagram account called @theydrawandcook (pictured to the left). I particularly love this medium to convey warmth, joy, and whimsy to specific food concepts. In fact, with @HasatGunu, a large part of our vision is to produce and commission pieces of Turkish food illustrations. I hope these images will be displayed in kitchens or used to send cards to loved ones. To see our Turkish food illustrations, visit here! Also, there is a new project currently in process that will continue to carry out this Hasat Günü vision.




This is certainly not an exhaustive list but it is a collection of movies, essays, photographs, illustrations and experiences that support the fact that food has, and always will be, intricately connected to the production and consumption of art. Food is a physical extension of a culture's morals, values, weaknesses, and injustice. As we navigate this pandemic of COVID-19 together, let's remember to look to food as an indicator of our cultural priorities.



What does your personal production and consumption of food say about you?



As stated before, food nourishes the body and soul. But at this time a lot of people do not have stable access to healthful food. Organizations like the World Central Kitchen, Feeding America, Unto, The United Nations, or your local foodbank are working overtime to provide meals to those in need. As someone who has worked at food banks, I know how important monetary and food donations are in a time like this - just $5 can make a huge impact!



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©2020 by Jocette Lee.

All photos are the property of Jocette Lee unless otherwise noted.