If you have previously followed me on Twitter or Instagram, you will know that I have been translating and recreating recipes from a thirteenth-century Chinese text called the Shanjia qinggong, or “Pure Offerings of Rural Households.” This collection of rustic foods represents moments of hospitality in rural intellectual households during China’s Song dynasty. The poet Lin Hong, who travelled widely to connect with fellow intellectuals, took notes on the foods that his hosts served him and eventually compiled these notes into a collection of just over one hundred recipes. I have been fascinated by this collection for about the last decade. Lack of institutional affiliation (and scarcity of income) has slowed down my translation of the collection, but the Cottage Eco blog may provide some incentive for continuing this work. You can read more about the project on my personal website, robbantoleno.com, or find my posts on Instagram and Twitter. Here, I want to highlight aesthetic aspects of my photographs of the recreated recipes.
When recreating and photographing Lin Hong’s recipes, I aim to have the food be as historically accurate as possible. These old Chinese recipes are hard to understand, because Lin Hong was brief in his explanations. For example, in at least one case he does not mention water as an ingredient for a dish that cannot be made without it. Some points of confusion could be the result of scribal errors or editorial changes, since the extant editions are copies of copies. Deciphering the recipes is not just a matter of translation, but also one of testing hypotheses by trying out different methods. I have recently written a paper about this for the Oxford Food Symposium.
The photograph above is an early example of one of my recipe recreations, taken in July of 2015, in Vancouver, BC, Canada. These are songhuangbing, pine pollen cakes, made with pollen that my daughter and I had just gathered from pine trees on the campus of my university. Honey binds the pollen together, adding some sweetness to the faintly resinous scent of the pollen.
Lacking a budget for real Song-period ceramics, I have had to make do with inexpensive props. Here, the pollen cakes sit on an industrial slip-ware plate from Japan that nonetheless looks handmade and rustic. The chopsticks are made of bamboo. The ceramic rice-wine jar from China with the woven grass carrying basket evokes the right social context for the eating of these pollen cakes. The tablecloth of naturally dyed fibers is from the town of Weishan in Yunnan Province, China. Aiming to achieve strict historical authenticity would be unrealistic, so instead I aim for aesthetic plausibility, using props of ceramic, wood, bamboo, and natural fibers that could have existed in rural China a thousand years ago. True, the cloth and ribbon are cheap synthetic imitations of what would in the past have been elegant silk material. This was the best I could do at the time.
More recently, when I recreate one of Lin Hong’s recipes, I draw upon a set of props that includes East Asian baskets of unknown origins and a set of handmade ceramic pieces that I have acquired from Vermont artisan potters. Some, like the bowl here filled with steaming peach rice, were sold anonymously by the Empty Bowls annual charity event in my town. The wooden spoon is from Taiwan.
For this meal of lotus rice and wild amaranth greens, I used a bowl by Carol Ross, a small sauce dish by Maya Zelkin, and an imitation-antique (fanggu) plate from China. The bamboo mat also came from China. As I explore my options for creating an aesthetic mood for each dish, I am coming to feel that the provenance of the pieces is less important than the integrity of their make. Things that are made with care by hand have an elegant, rustic quality that is not easily matched in machine-made goods. The bamboo mat, while historically plausible, feels too fancy for this simple meal, because such a mat, made by hand, would have been too precious to be used as a table setting.
This cup by Sally Geldard Hewes of Bondville, Vermont, is one of my treasures. I won this, and a few other pieces by ceramic artists, at a raffle event held by my stepmother’s pottery studio. The white interior of the cup is perfect for showing off the cheerful purity of a fancy chrysanthemum tea sent from China by a Chinese friend of mine.
Ceramic pieces by Vermont potters integrate beautifully with the natural aesthetics of the old Chinese recipes. These potters are drawing upon ceramic techniques and styles that emerged in East Asia. Cultural traditions, however, are not dictating the styles chosen by Vermont artisans, only guiding them toward elegant solutions to problems that are intrinsic to the natural materials and methods. Clay, minerals, and ash afford certain outcomes, just as they place constraints on the methods available to ceramic artists. Culture is not the all-powerful creative force that some people seem to think it is. In other words, aesthetic expression is so much more than cultural expression. Given the same materials and tools, the creativity of artists shows confluence toward universal values, revealing our common humanity.
I will be returning to the role of aesthetics in our lives in future posts. Beauty is essential.