Here at Kenmore, we spent much of this week putting away all of the Christmas and Twelfth Night decorations that adorned the house throughout the holiday season. As we were carefully wrapping it all in tissue and putting it in boxes until next year, it occurred to me that our readers might be interested in a little behind-the-scenes glimpse at a “trick of the curatorial trade”. Most historic house museums use props to show things realistically in their displays. One of the most fun is what we call “faux” food, and it is shown off best during the holiday season, as food was such a big part of 18th century Christmas celebrations. We always like to put as many historical details as possible in our rooms, and we often come across references in historical documents to what was served at a particular event, or the recipe for a family’s favorite meal. Obviously, we can’t put real food in restored rooms filled with period antiques and furnishings, so we use a variety of fakes to stand in for period-correct food. Some of it we make in-house, and some of it is produced by professionals who actually specialize in making faux food for museums.
There aren’t too many faux food-makers, and there is actually quite an art to it! Many of the dishes served in the 18th century are not common in the modern day, and even some of our fruits and vegetables look quite different than they did 200 years ago. The artists who produce faux food have to do the research to find out what a requested food was made out of, how it was prepared, and what it might have looked like in its final form. Then they have to make a fake version of it using materials that won’t harm historic objects that it might come in contact with.
For our holiday display this year, we decided to show our newly refurnished Dining Room as though a Twelfth Night feast had just concluded. It was the first time we would be showing an actual dinner on the dining table, and therefore we needed quite a bit of faux food. Our display included a boiled beef (with slices!), roasted beets, string beans, and broccoli (all professionally made, and loaned to us by our friends at Stratford Hall). We added our own roasted acorn squash, collard greens with bacon, and roasted game birds on spits from our small but growing collection of professionally made faux food. These items are all made from molded clay that is fired in a kiln and then hand painted. Resin is added on some of them to give the appearance of liquid sauces.
The collard greens, however, are what is called a “lid” in the faux food world. From the top, it looks like a mound of food, but it’s actually just a round disk, that sets into a bowl. A similar trick is used for what looks like liquid in our punch bowl on display in the Drawing Room. From the top, it looks like a bowl of punch, with an orange slice and some cloves floating in it. It’s actually a thin disk made of resin that sits near the surface of the punch bowl. It’s pretty convincing from a couple steps away!
As you might imagine, professionally made faux food can get a little expensive, especially when trying to show large quantities, as we do on our 18th century dessert table display in the Passage. In those cases, we have to rely on our ingenuity. For instance, we made our syllabub glasses appear to be filled with a frothy concoction by filling balloons with sand and adding cream tops made from modeling clay that we fired in an oven ourselves. Many years ago, past museum employees tried a similar trick, using resin “caps” that sat on top of the syllabub glass, while a cone made out of the same resin was inserted into the glass to make it look full.
Back in the Dining Room, you might notice that the salt cellars sitting next to each diner’s place are not filled with actual salt, but rather with tiny silicon beads. These beads actually came from a children’s bean bag. We also use red-colored Mylar from the craft store to make it look as though there is actually red wine in the wine glasses, and in some cases that the wine has spilled onto the tablecloth.
So there you have it, a few culinary secrets from the curatorial world!
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations