Art Could Have Saved Us From Ourselves

The Federal Art Project set out to create a more democratic and enlightened America
Federal Art Project poster asking "Shall the Artist Survive?"

Every Thursday for the past eight months or so I’ve been going to a local art center for drawing lessons. The center is in a California-style cedar house that could only be more bohemian had it a hot tub. The two rooms inside would remind most people born before 1985 of their elementary school art classes. The walls are paneled in wood and hung with pop-surrealist prints and old awareness-campaign posters warning of the dangers of everything from tobacco to abandoned fridges. Philodendra and spider plants hang from wooden beams that span the ceiling, and there are mugs filled with pencils and paintbrushes and boxes labelled “Slides” and “Carbon Copies” and old photographs stacked on shelves along the walls. The whole place smells like chalk and oil paint and the Maxwell House instant coffee our instructor sips throughout the evening sessions.

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On Snuff Spoons, Oedipal Forks, and My Latest Book

The history of cutlery is not as boring as you might think

Illustration of spoons and forks from the 19th Century
Illustrations from Mappin & Webb’s Catalogue of Their Celebrated Manufactures, Electro-silver Plate, Spoons and Forks, Table Cutlery & Plated Cutlery (1881)

About a month ago, I agreed to write book on the history of dining. (The subject is perhaps an odd one to follow my book on fasting that comes out later this year. But, hey, I’m a woman of contradictions.) And I am genuinely happy that I did. It’s a great privilege to publish a book. God knows I spent about five years suffering setbacks in that effort before my first book, Fermented Foods, became a reality. Yet another part of me feels somewhat queasy about it and asks, “Why have I done this to myself yet again?”

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A “Demitasse” History of Britain’s Temperance Coffee Taverns

Exterior of temperance coffee house of Late-Victorian Britain 19th century
Illustrations from issues of The Coffee Public-House News (ca. 1878)

I have lived in southern New England for a while now, and it used to be that I could count on winter’s being, well, wintry. Snow fell and it stuck around. In recent years, however, the winter weather has tended to be at once monotonous and unsettled: alternately gloomy and blustery for days, wet, sometimes icy, and unseasonably warm. I’ve taken to calling it “Novembril,” this new super-season of six months’ duration that offers a tedious blend of winter and autumn. It will be followed by the yin to its yang, Maytober, which has its own dubious charms.

Anyway, I’ve been beguiling Novembril Sundays by visiting art museums. I do it to steady myself against the turn Mother Nature has taken — not to mention similar turns taken in world events and national affairs. I take great comfort in the simple fact that beautiful things were once made and people once delighted in them. And, if the crowds I’ve jostled with are any indication, I’m not the only one who does.

At some point, however, delight morphs into exhaustion. Hours of marveling at Grecian urns, admiring Dutch landscapes, and studying portraits by Sargent makes my head swim, my eyes smart, my legs ache. Art drunk, I jokingly call this enervated state. And the only thing that sobers me up is a trip to the museum coffee shop.

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