Discomfort Food

The Culinary Imagination in Late Nineteenth-Century French Art

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Marni Reva Kessler

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At a time when chefs are celebrities and beautifully illustrated cookbooks, blogs, and Instagram posts make our mouths water, scholar Marni Reva Kessler trains her inquisitive eye on the depictions of food in nineteenth-century French art. Arguing that disjointed senses of anxiety, nostalgia, and melancholy underlie the superficial abundance in works by Manet, Degas, and others, Kessler shows how, in their images, food presented a spectrum of pleasure and unease associated with modern life.

Utilizing close analysis and deep archival research, Kessler discovers the complex narratives behind such beloved works as Manet’s Fish (Still Life) and Antoine Vollon’s Internet-famous Mound of Butter. Kessler brings to these works an expansive historical review, creating interpretations rich in nuance and theoretical implications. She also transforms the traditional paradigm for study of images of edible subjects, showing that simple categorization as still life is not sufficient.

Discomfort Food marks an important contribution to conversations about a fundamental theme that unites us as humans: food. Suggestive and accessible, it reveals the very personal, often uncomfortable feelings hiding within the relationship between ourselves and the representations of what we eat.

Background photo by William Krause on Unsplash


  • rights
    Publication of this book has been made possible in part by a Book Publication Award from the Friends of the Hall Center for the Humanities at the University of Kansas.

    The University of Minnesota Press gratefully acknowledges the financial assistance provided for the publication of this book by the University of Kansas College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Research Excellence Fund.

    Portions of chapter 2 are adapted from “Antoine Vollon: Rendering Butter,” Dix-Neuf: Journal of the Society of Dix-Neuviémistes 10, no. 1 (April 2008): 12–24. Portions of chapter 4 are adapted from “Édouard Manet’s Ham and Suzanne’s Lost Body in Edgar Degas’s Salon,” special issue, “Beyond Gastronomy: French Food Culture for the Twenty-First Century,” edited by Michael Garval and Philippe Dubois, Contemporary French Civilization 42, nos. 3–4 (Winter 2018): 279–300.

    Copyright 2021 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota
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    University of Minnesota Press
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    Minneapolis, MN
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    Regents of the University of Minnesota