December • 20 • 2020
Gastronaut: Exploring Retrofuturism & American Domesticity through Culinary Art History
Illustration 1. Jackie Andrews, Gastronaut, 2019, approx. 8" x 11", sequins & beaded embroidery on vintage magazine image. Image courtesy of the artist.
Gastronaut: Exploring Retrofuturism & American Domesticity through Culinary Art History is a hybrid research-and-studio project that explores the intersection among science fiction, art history, and culinary history. Utilizing an anthropological study of American culture through historical, aesthetic, and cultural materials including advertising, this project will culminate in an exhibition that will incorporate innovative sculptures in addition to my research findings in the form of a “menu.” Building on the culinary theme, this “menu” format provides a creative framework and organizational structure through which to present and synthesize my investigation of myriad relevant research inquiries while exploring a diverse range of topics within culinary history as it relates to both art and art history. Such inquiries include, but are not limited to: domesticity and feminism, and the cultural impact of technological innovation on the food industry from the mid-twentieth century forward. The written analysis of this research is
supplemented with artworks of my own creation inspired by my findings. These artworks serve to reveal the xenophobic underpinnings of mid-century America that are a common thread between art and design, food and advertising, and domestic trends of the time.
An Overview of the Studio Process
Throughout my studio practice, I explore themes of kitsch, nostalgia, collection, and gender roles in the pieces I create. My works are meant to evoke memories and subtly engage the art historical canon with a touch of wit. The body of work I created for Gastronaut consists of a series of material interventions on vintage ephemera, adorned with beading, found objects, textile embellishments, and collage. These interventions serve to re-contextualize the found images and create dialogue and narrative with the research I conducted, with the other images in the series, and with the viewer as well.
The paper ephemera I use in my work is primarily mined from vintage recipe books and magazines, and paper ephemera such as vintage menus, matchbooks, and other materials associated with culinary and domestic advertising. The majority of these materials, purchased with the grant-provided material stipend, were sourced from eBay, directly from collectors and estates of people who lived and entertained during the mid-twentieth-century. Thus, the paper materials acted as a primary source of sorts, and these historied artifacts created an additional layer of personal narrative that is significant to the perception of the work.
Illustration 3. Jackie Andrews, Eggstraterrestrial, 2020, approx. 8" x 11", sequins, embroidery, and holographic paper on vintage book cover. Image courtesy of the artist.
Illustration 4. Jackie Andrews, Unidentified Flying Jello, 2020, approx. 8" x 11", sequins, embroidery, and holographic paper on vintage book cover. Image courtesy of the artist.
An ultimately small, but important, cultural element of the mid-twentieth century was the rise of science fiction. Born from the political climate of mid-century America, science fiction was subliminally propagandistic: the cookie-cutter domestic American life was the quintessential setting, perpetually being threatened by an alien (read: foreign) invader (Illustration 1). While conducting research on this phenomenon proved difficult (as research materials on this topic are not currently in existence), the subsequent artworks I created with the ephemera I acquired served as a way to explore this idea through imagery, featuring themes of decadence, superfluity, the paranormal, and the unknown. Playful use of food imagery like the egg-and-sausage flying saucers (Illustration 3) and quintessential Jell-O concoctions of the 1950s (Illustration 4) combined with imagery of scientific and technological advancements of the period—along with fantastic science fiction imagery of the American daydreams of futuristic forms like flying cars—help to elucidate the connections between food and domestic trends of the mid-twentieth century with the messages of science fiction for the viewer. More down-to-earth inspirations like the development of TV dinners and industrially canned food, as an example of mid century efficiency and technology making its way into the kitchen, manifest in the studio as leather replicas of their edible counterparts embellished toy canned food items (Illustrations 6 & 7).
Illustration 6. Jackie Andrews, TV Dinner: Mashed Potatoes, 2020, gem embellishments on hand-sewn pearlescent leather. Image courtesy of the artist
Illustration 7. Jackie Andrews, TV Dinner: Spaghetti & Meatballs, 2020, hand-sewn embossed snakeskin leather and glitter suede chord on felt. Image courtesy of the artist
As my research progressed, I began to explore the connections between the American propagandistic ideals of homogenization and conformity and contemporary food science issues, such as genetic modification, seed control issues like the Monsanto lawsuits, and food insecurity. Just as the research progressed, so did my artworks—with repetitions of forms and orderly compositions acting as stand-ins for ideas of homogenized food production, with materials like glitter, sequin and gem embellishments, and holographic and metallic materials continue to reference industrial and space-travel components alike, all super-imposed on vintage imagery like cookbook images, toy canned food, diner die-cut signage (Illustration 5), domestic surfaces like dishes (Illustration 2), and fake fruits and vegetables.
Illustration 2. Jackie Andrews, Foreign Substance, 2020, approx. 9" x 19", Cabochon embellishments and glitter on vintage magazine image, mounted on melamine plate. Image courtesy of the artist.
My original goal was to split my time equally between research inquiry and studio work in my home studio, completing roughly 10–12 hours of each per week. I aimed to complete a series of between 20 and 30 artworks, varying in size and taking the form of both paper collage and sculpture. The final resultant series totaled about 23 artworks (although only a selection of these works are referenced here). Overall, I maintained the approximation of studio hours I aimed for during the grant period. Over the course of the grant period progressed, my formal research took precedence, as I expanded the scope of my research inquiries.
One complication throughout the grant project period that consistently posed a challenge was the differentiation between the formality of my research and the informality of my studio work. Historically, cross-disciplinary art historical research and studio projects are uncommon and unprecedented; because of this, it was difficult to
navigate how to integrate the two components of the project. Art historical research journals and publications have strict regulations on the formality of language and structure, while many studio art publications prefer a less academic approach. For this reason in particular, in finalizing the display of the research and artwork, it was difficult to conceive of a place that may be open to publishing the project in its entirety. Although frustrating, for the time being, it has become necessary to consider the two components of the project to be separate, although intrinsically connected.
A Formal Summary of Research Findings: Retrofuturism in Mid-Century America
The final findings of the twelve-week research process revealed the systematically propagandistic methodology that American Retro-Futurism presented in mid-twentieth-century American advertising and cultural materials, in addition to domestic trends. This methodology is responsible for the implementation and perpetuation of oppressive social “norms” in promotion of optical uniformity in mid-twentieth-century America, with reverberating effects still entangled in contemporary American culture. Retro-Futurism, as a concept, is independent of a defined cultural context (specifically in regard to time period); the principal concept attempts to evaluate the perceptions and representations of “the future” from the past, typically with regard to visual culture. (1) For the purposes of this thesis, Retro-Futurism from the mid-twentieth century is the focus.
Illustration 5. Jackie Andrews, Double Vision, Double Scoop, 2020, approx. 12" x 18"each, sequins, vintage diner diecuts, threaded spoon, and acrylic and latex paint on canvas board. Image courtesy of the artist.
American Retro-Futurism in the mid-twentieth century promoted ideals of and provided mechanisms for the homogenization and optimization of domestic processes, food production and preparation, and technological innovation, including but not limited to: advancements like pre-packaged, high-efficiency meal preparation technologies like industrially canned corporate food products like SPAM, Jell-O, and Campbell’s soup, domestic technologies like vacuum cleaners and electric kitchen equipment, and, on an international scale, technologies like rockets and space travel materials. (2) These innovations centered around creating uniformity and efficiency in households across America; the thoroughly American value of “progress” is an evident motivator in this modernization. While these domestic innovations may be fairly innocuous, their social counterparts are significantly more sinister; the indoctrination, systematic oppression, and coercive conformity impacting several major demographics of Americans, including women, the LGBTQ+ community, and the BIPOC community—with particular emphasis on foreign immigrants and naturalized citizens.
When considering the aforementioned ideals and mechanisms of homogenization and optimization of American Retro-Futurism in a social context, the societal pressures this system constructed parallel the domestic––and cultural––trends of the mid-twentieth century directly. These parallels illuminate the depths of xenophobia, homophobia, patriarchal sexism, and gender inequity entrenched in American culture, and support the assertion that the American advertising and cultural materials of the period acted as cultural propaganda against “otherness” (read: any identity other than that of a white, cisgendered, heterosexual American man; “otherness” as a direct threat to purity and uniformity of culture, belief system, or diversity of thought). Bearing this in mind, such “cultural propaganda” can be further dissected and evaluated by demographic and respective enforcement of homogenization.
Homogenization: Gender Roles & Conformity
In evaluating the promotion of homogenization in American culture, gender inequity in domestic roles and patriarchal sexism are abundantly clear. There are countless examples; the quintessential trope of the ideal American nuclear family immediately comes to mind: a husband as the primary “breadwinner,” going off to work each day while his wife, the invincible yet delicate housewife, cares for the children, cooks every meal, and generally “rules” the domestic sphere with grace and delight. These gender roles were concretized into an idealized model, a glossy facade of perfection that graced the pages of every household magazine and the screens of every television program. In short: the production of such streamlined gender roles promoted rigid conformity and unattainable standards with inescapable societal pressures and little room for error. With regard to specific examples of domestic structures enforcing such societal pressure, the most notable findings include everything from the promotion of “fashionable” (and often corporate-sponsored) foodstuffs like Jell-O through both pre-packaged food products and corporate cookbooks, which (self-servingly) set the trend for many culinary trends, to the gendering of food, differentiating feminine from masculine foods. (3) The perfect housewife was a chef and a hostess, a decorator, caregiver, and a maid—with a flawless complexion to boot—American advertising made sure all of these expectations were clear and provided an almost assembly-line style indoctrination into this idyllic American lifestyle through propaganda. Rather than breeding multi-faceted women, these expectations smothered individuality and forced women to reach for a truly unattainable, manufactured-for-perfection goal.
A prime example of such facades in culinary advertising was the Betty Crocker brand and persona: a maternal figure, the perfect mix of comforting food and hosting skills, Betty Crocker was—and still is—considered baked good extraordinaire, one of many manufactured domestic goddesses for women to model themselves after. However, baked into her singular perfection was a rather ironic misconception: the Betty Crocker was an entirely fictional figure, a composite of so many women, with cherry-picked characteristics blended into one optically seamless and “universal” role model: in reality, an American myth for a modern age. (4)
Idealism did not stop at domestic role models; maintaining the aforementioned “invincible yet dainty” image was a full-time job, and came with a diet. It’s no surprise that the 20th century’s description of “women’s food” used “dainty” explicitly, with the meaning of “fanciful but not filling.” (5) Foods fitting this description included salads, both vegetable and fruit—the latter decorated with “marshmallows, shredded coconut and maraschino cherries.” (6) Additional menu items for women notably included “colorful and shimmering Jell-O mold creations.” (7) Delicate foods (alternatively, foods lacking substance) such as these, however, were not acceptable offerings for the men of the house; they should be served “the hearty food they crave: goulash, chili, or corned beef hash with poached eggs.” (8) Such stark culinary contrasts between women and men largely parallel the significance attributed to their respective household roles: despite the crucial part women played in the efficiency and overall pleasantness of their households, men were viewed as of primary importance and responsibility, women as secondary, superficial, and rather frivolous. These examples highlight the inequity in gender roles supplied by American idealism and propagandistic mid-twentieth century domestic advertising.
Homogenization: Xenophobia, Exoticism, Stereotyping, & Gentrification
Shifting the subject of homogenization and optimization in mid-twentieth-century America from gender to ethnicity and race, idealized uniformity, xenophobia, exoticism, and stereotyping are all-pervasive in American culinary approaches to foreign cuisine. As America is often colloquially referred to as a “melting pot” of diverse cultures, “Americanization” of foreign cuisine in the mid-twentieth century often destroyed the integrity of foreign cuisines as a form of living anthropology, butchering the existing cuisine and replacing it with a facsimile that tailored the cuisine to an American palate. Elements of the existing cuisine were retained, for the illusion of authenticity, and in service of the American goal of exoticizing the cultures it appropriated. These mechanisms, operating on a micro-level from the culinary perspective, bear a resemblance to the mechanisms of colonization and co-option that riddles Euro-centric, Western empires throughout history and plagues colonized cultures: the calculated selection of “palatable” aspects of an indigenous or foreign culture to co-opt, only to discard the rest, and tokenize and subjugate those native to the culture in the process.
Tokenism and exoticism played a direct role in the development of marketing of Americanized foreign cuisine for the American public. These Americanized facsimiles were often considered to be more accessible to the white American household, and did not shy away from acknowledging their Americanization: examples include recipes for “all-American chop suey,” “tuna foo yung,” and even canned “chicken chow mein,” many of which were marketed with slogans like “You can perform Oriental Magic!” and similarly offensive and tokenizing branding. (9) Additionally, paralleling the aforementioned gender homogenization and composite construction of Betty Crocker, corporate brands like LaChoy invented white spokespersons like “Beatrice Cooke” in order to more effectively market these “foreign cuisines” and display them as “acceptable” for the middle-class American family’s dinner table. (10) Examples like this do not exist in a vacuum; the connection between tokenism and derogatory exoticism like this branding and the rampant stereotyping of American people of non-white ethnic backgrounds (particularly, first-generation immigrants) in the mid-twentieth century is undeniable.
These issues transcend the mid-twentieth century and stretch well into the contemporary present, both in the culinary industry and beyond. Additional contemporary examples of these micro-colonialist processes include the tokenism of (at “best”) or even overt racism (at worst) toward BIPOC immigrant-run businesses like bodegas, and, the other side of this coin, the co-option of “diversity” optics in processes of gentrification. (11) In the case of the bodega (although there are numerous other examples), unassuming community hub spaces “in gentrifying neighborhoods...act as thresholds where different socioeconomic classes, cultures, and ideas converge.” (12) In the process of gentrification, businesses like these (in addition to many other, often BIPOC and immigrant-run small businesses) are often the first to be forced out, often replaced by “hip” spaces that often attempt to replicate the diversity and authenticity of the preexisting spaces, but inevitably fall short. In restaurant spaces especially, tokenism is omnipresent, impacting hiring decisions and often imposing restrictions on chefs and food professionals of non-white backgrounds. Diversity quotas are central to hiring, and in many cases, chefs of non-white backgrounds are exclusively seen, disrespectfully, as representatives of their “native” culture, regardless of their background or expertise. (13) The reckoning at Bon Appetit Magazine is a prime example of the relevance of this issue today. (14)
Illustration 8. Jackie Andrews, Carrot, 2020, gem embellishments on vintage plastic & wired paper faux vegetable. Image courtesy of the artist.
Re-evaluating Retrofuturism in America:
The Actual Future of Food
A final topic investigated during the research grant period was the re-evaluation of mid-twentieth-century Retro-Futurism in the context of contemporary America, and assessing the impacts of the oppressive forced conformity that was a hallmark of mid-twentieth-century American Retro-Futurism. The hierarchical prioritization of uniformity, homogenization, and optimization was pervasive in everything from American technology, domestic trends, and food products to the social norms and systems that govern the idyllic American lifestyle, and the reverberations of these systems remain a significant issue and influence today. The exaltation of optical uniformity of food in the mid-twentieth century put the American food industry on a direct trajectory toward the ultimate convergence of experimental technology, scientific advancement, and mass production of food: genetic modification.
A perfect storm of homogeneity and optimization of biological processes, genetic modification of food applied a “better, faster, stronger” concept to the farming industry, resulting in predictable perfection that fit the American ideals seamlessly—with disastrous biological side effects and waning nutritional value and taste. (15) On this subject, in her 2015 article entitled "Grocery Gizmo," author Chelsea Spencer asserts “the aesthetics of mass produce is calibrated to satisfy the eyes and fingers of the shopper rather than the palate of the eater.” (16) Additionally, anthropological impacts such as the destruction of familial heritage in the farming industry, with scandals like the Monsanto seed lawsuits impacting the future of heirloom vegetables and American family farming are another significant side effect. (17)
Technological advancement is, fascinatingly, far from the only response to the perpetuation of ideal uniformity: recent years have brought shock waves and fracturing, not only in social arenas of gender inequity and binarism, homophobia and transphobia, xenophobia, and racism, but in the food industry as well. While technological advancement is still very much a component of the future of food in America, a return to more down-to-earth (both literally and figuratively) processes in farming, food production, the cultivation of taste, and culinary trends is gathering steam.
Chef, restaurateur, and author Dan Barber is a leading voice in this counter-movement, calling for a return to standard agricultural techniques like crop rotation, breeding food for better taste over optical perfection, and even promotion of a more sustainable and ethical food industry through less meat-centric diets and low-waste farming and food production. (18) Barber outlined many of these ideas in his 2014 book, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food. (19) Even more recently, Barber has announced sweeping changes to his Michelin-starred restaurants, previously known as Blue Hill Farms, in support of the growing social justice initiatives in America: a culinary residency program, operating with the central goal to “support a rotating, diverse set of chefs’ voices that interpret the farm and the region through their own cuisines and experiences,” according to Barber. (20) Barber’s philosophy on food, farming, and the future of the culinary industry draws direct correlation between the detrimental effects of a lack of racial, ethnic, and gender representation in the food industry, and the waning flavor and nutrition of food produced by a system obsessed with homogeneity and optical uniformity over quality and substance.
As mass rebellion against these harmful American systems and ideals continues in the coming months, years, and decades, considerations of these correlations and the slow divorce from and disentanglement of future American generations from these ideals and the cultural propaganda that supports them will define the future of the food industry and American society in its entirety. The opportunity to employ Retro-Futurism to these current sociopolitical and agricultural reckonings allows us a unique opportunity to envision genuinely diverse futures and begin constructing new foundations for these futures.
• • •
Jackie Andrews (she/her) is an interdisciplinary artist, writer, and art history & culinary history scholar based in rural Maryland. She graduated with her BFA from Towson University in December 2020. Jackie has exhibited her work throughout the United States, and received an Undergraduate Research & Creative Inquiry Grant at Towson University in May 2020. She co-founded Power Clash Art, a digital publication for emerging arts professionals, in July 2020.
Gastronaut: Exploring Retrofuturism & American Domesticity through Culinary Art History was an Undergraduate Research & Creative Inquiry Grant Project funded by the Towson University Office of Undergraduate Research in May–August 2020.
I would like to extend my sincere thanks to the following faculty members, programs, and departments for their generous financial and academic support:
To the Towson University Office of Undergraduate Research, and their director, Dr. Alexei Kolesnikov, for selecting and generously funding Gastronaut through the Summer Undergraduate Research & Creative Inquiry Grant: this research would not have been possible without the opportunity and guidance I’ve received. It has been a privilege.
To my incredible faculty mentors, Dr. Nancy Siegel and Jon Lundak: for their enthusiastic support of all of my academic and creative endeavors, and unwavering guidance and kindness through every step of the process and my college career as a whole. Thank you both for all you have done, and continue to do, for me.
Finally, additional thanks to the College of Fine Arts and Communication, and the Art + Design Department faculty, for their ongoing enthusiasm and support.
“Retrofuturism: Definition of Retrofuturism” by Oxford Dictionary. Lexico Dictionaries, Online.
Christina Ward, American Advertising Cookbooks: How Corporations Taught Us to Love Bananas, Spam, and Jell-o (Port Townsend, WA: Process Media, 2019).
Ibid; Paul Freedman, “How Steak Became Manly and Salads Became Feminine,” October 24, 2019, Online.
Susan Marks. Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America's First Lady of Food (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).
Freedman, “How Steak Became Manly,” October 24, 2019, Online.
Ward, American Advertising Cookbooks, 70–71.
Juan Ramirez and Stephanie Kuo, “I Know A Bodega When I See One (w/ Quizayra Gonzalez),” Racist Sandwich Podcast, Episode. 75, January 30, 2020, Online.
Quizayra Gonzalez, “Connecting at the Counter.” Urban Omnibus, October 4, 2019, Online.
Dan Pashman, “The Sporkful: A Reckoning At Bon Appétit,” The Sporkful Podcast, June 13, 2020. Online.
Chelsea Spencer, "Grocery Gizmo." Log, no. 34 (2015): 69–71. Online.
Jennifer A. Jordan, Edible Memory.
Dan Barber, "Field Notes on The Future of Food." Log, no. 34 (2015): 59–68. Online.
Dan Barber, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food (London, UK: Abacus, 2016).
Ryan Sutton, “Dan Barber Announces Major Shake Up at Michelin-Starred Stone Barns,” Eater NY, August 17, 2020, Online.