Marni Reva Kessler


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

Cover Interview of June 30, 2021


I hope that Discomfort Food will convince readers that representations of food—those created in late nineteenth-century France and otherwise—should not be relegated to the category still life. While I recognize the works’ connections to seventeenth-century Dutch and eighteenth-century French still life precedents, with this project I seek to amplify and deepen our understanding of images of things that we consume by demonstrating that they should instead be appreciated in more generous historical, archival, theoretical, material, and visceral ways. We might savor their many and multifaceted resonances as we would a fine meal, relished for the complexity and richness inherent in them.

If the theories of academic practice establish the armature of this study, my own history lies at its beating heart. I didn’t know this when I started out, but during the years in which I worked on the book, I came to understand more about why the pictures upon which I focus matter so much to me. Why, for example, the mullet in Manet’s painting seemed to be so melancholy; why his eel disturbed me enough to think that I couldn’t write about the image; and why that unbearably beautiful lemon and those clattery oysters lured me back to the painting, unfurling memories of my mother making stuffed clams in our kitchen in Brooklyn. And something of the wedge of raw meat on the ground beside the sorrowful man in Degas’s painting led me, however circuitously, to my family’s holiday dinner table, to the brisket that we have eaten for generations, simmered for hours in that particular heady fusion of onions and garlic and cranberries and raspberry preserves. Such memories drove me, whether I always realized it or not, to search for these images’ most expansive resonances and material depths. Braiding the strands of personal experience and scholarly analysis, melding them as one would the ingredients in a recipe, I hope my book demonstrates, enriches and makes more complex the quality of the proverbial final dish. For, images of food, like their analogues in our world, touch us deeply. They are decidedly evocative and always personal—for the artist then as for the viewer now—and their sensory and conceptual dimensions seemingly endless in ways both concrete and ineffable.

Finally, I hope that this book will appeal to a broad range of readers. Blending academic writing and research with evocative and suggestive prose, I took certain risks that I couldn’t have taken as a young assistant professor. It’s quite liberating to be able to do the kind of writing and research that gives me the most pleasure and that also makes the book accessible to a wide readership. We all eat, no matter who we are or where or when we live(d). I sincerely hope that Discomfort Food will contribute to the many and varied conversations about food and its instability, historically and today, and that in so doing, it might expand our understanding of representations of one of the most fundamental things that unites as human beings.