Feasting at the MFA’s Spanish Table

By Cathy Huyghe

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Kudos to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts for this: trying hard to link its fine arts collections to real-life. A case in point, beginning this week, is a slide lecture and cooking demonstration series called Feasting at the Spanish Table. The series is inspired by its current exhibition, Luis Melendez: Master of the Spanish Still Life.

What’s special about Melendez’ work, and the cultural climate of 18th-Century Spain in which he practiced, was how he embraced everyday experience as a viable mode of expression. As curator Ronni Baer said in her slide lecture yesterday morning, Melendez painted everyday things (like still lives of edible items on a table)  at a time when human figure painting was the ultimate icon within the academic Spanish painting academy.

What that means on the canvas, and what visitors to the exhibit can pleasurably see, is the stuff of daily meals from the Spanish kitchen.

Like cauliflower, tomatoes, garlic, and melons.

Like raw, unplucked game birds with lemons (crucial to enhancing the flavor) and the copper pot in which it was meant to be cooked.

Like paper cones of chickpeas and other paper packets holding rare spices.

Like beef chops on the bone, pigeons, stuffed bread, pepper pots, and a mortar and pestle.

And, my personal favorite, the 18th-Century version of hot chocolate: pieces of fine chocolate broken up, put into chocolate pot, heated with water or milk, then cooked to the right consistency (namely, until a biscuit stands upright in the chocolate) and served in a porcelain cup.

Whether you’re able to attend the lectures and cooking demonstrations, or you simply stop in to view the exhibition, it makes for a fine contemplation of the pleasures of the table.

“Luis Melendez: Master of the Spanish Still Life” is on display at the MFA from now until May 9, 2010. The Feasting of the Spanish Table series features a slide lecture on Thursday, March 4 at 7 p.m. and two cooking demonstrations, the first on Tuesday, March 9 at 11 a.m. and the second on Thursday, March 11 at 6:30 p.m.

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