Marni Reva Kessler


On her book Discomfort Food: The Culinary Imagination in Late Nineteenth-Century French Art

Cover Interview of June 30, 2021

A close-up

If a reader picked up Discomfort Food at a bookstore—enticed, I hope, by the suggestive cover—I would be so pleased if they looked through the introduction “Beginnings,” where I establish the contours of my argument, and the epilogue “‘Ending with the Beginning,’” in which I return to the more personal aspect of the book’s central premise, that representations of food have the ability to embody and express significance not only for the artist who imagined the work in the first place, but also for the viewer who may look at it however many years later. But even more, inherent in the titles of both the introduction and the epilogue is the notion that my own beginnings—in my family of origin, as a graduate student, as an academic—are profoundly braided with the analysis and archival research that form the basis of the study and are, to my mind, central to the project’s texture and ultimately, to its realization.

If a browser could indulge me further and read the short section in chapter one titled “The Lure of the Painting,” they could see even more concretely exactly how my beginnings are woven into the book’s core. Here, I describe the particular and very personal pull of Manet’s Fish (Still Life) and in so doing, I take a risk by both arguing and demonstrating that intermingling the scholarly and archival with the deeply personal yields rich interpretive possibility. Defying the (largely unspoken, but nevertheless entrenched) notion that academic work should remain distinct from the private, I pursue some of the reasons why this canvas “simultaneously beckons and repulses me” and find that it, quite unexpectedly, brings me to certain of my own memories. My delight in the painting’s intensely visceral materiality is tinged, I find, with measures of revulsion, sorrow, mournfulness, and longing, and I trace those visceral responses to fishing as a girl in the Catskill Mountains, to a photograph of my grandfather that sat on my grandmother’s dresser, and to wistful thoughts of my mother cooking in our kitchen in Brooklyn. “For even images of as-yet-unprepared raw ingredients [in Manet’s painting],” I discover, “can bear the ineffable traces of the effable past.” The sense of loss and sorrow that undergirds my interpretation of Fish (Still Life), also has the effect of greatly enhancing it. This willingness to allow my own thoughts to unspool, to reach back to long-forgotten memories even as I comb the archives and plumb the depths of the surface of the painting, I claim, is what leads me to see the deep poignance of this scattered array of piscine creatures and a lemon that is the color of the sun. My own memories, my losses and my sorrows, in other words, also “illuminate my path.”