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“To eat is a necessity, to eat intelligently is an art.” — Francois de la Rochefoucauld (1618-1680), French essayist.

The restoration of a 450-year-old painting, after decades of neglect, becomes a reminder not to take for granted the importance of the food we eat. As the layers of grime were peeled away, the brightened colors of fruits and vegetables began to appear, the face of a woman seated next to the pile became expressionless as the over painted smile was removed. Unsigned and untitled, the conservators who restored the painting have concluded it to be the work of Joachim Beuckelaer, a Flemish painter of the 16th century, and given it a title, “Vegetable Seller.”

Beuckelaer focused his art on markets and kitchens, the relationship of people to food, a necessity for all, a luxury for the few. His work celebrated daily living in the 16th century, an historical period in the twilight of the Middle Ages and the dawning of the Renaissances in which the world began to change. Politically, the power of the church diminished, and economically, there was increasing wealth of a merchant class fueled by the trade of colonialism.

Vegetables are the subject of the painting, supplemented by fruit and nuts — onions, cauliflower, kale, artichoke, apples, pears, plums, hazelnuts and walnuts, flowers, and herbs add a delicate touch. Prominently featured is a large cabbage, a staple in the diet of the working class. Peasants ate vegetables prepared in the manner of pottage, a stew that would simmer in a common pot as in the rhyme, “some like it hot, some like it cold, some like it in the pot nine days old.” Wooden serving ware was used sparingly; more often a chunk of stale was fashioned into a bowl.

The selection of foods and manner of service were important markers of social position; at the highest level was the monarch of the country. King Henry VIII of England (1491-1597) was the poster boy of excess, with meals of 14 courses served on plates of gold. Meat was on the menu — boar’s head, beaver tail, peacock, organ meats, to name a few, with rich puddings for dessert.

A phrase commonly used for a sensible diet is, “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.” Queen Elizabeth II is 96 years old and has reigned 11 years longer than Henry VIII lived. Her diet contributes to her longevity — grained cereal in the morning, sandwich and fruit at noon, grilled protein, and vegetables at dinner, with portion control being the foundation. She also benefits from having control of most everything she eats, how it is grown, processed, and prepared.

An educated eye will notice the displayed fruits and vegetables in Beuckelaer’s painting are from different growing seasons. Like the grocer can stock the produce counter from around the world, the painter has gathered sketches from throughout the year. It is our good fortune to have the Alpena farmers make fruits and vegetables available when in season. You can be assured the smile on the vendor’s face is not painted on.

“Yes, yes, they all fawn over the newcomer of the week, or two, but soon the novelty of organic jams will melt away, and everyone will come crawling back to fresh produce.” — Bruce Spelman, Cleveland Area Farmers’ Market vendor.

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