The Benton Museum in Snow

Domestic Cuisine & Sweet Remembrance!: Student Guest Blog

Cookies, Snow, and Materiality

This is a personal and academic tale in two parts. It weaves reflections on struggles and opportunities in the daily life of a college student with a snapshot of The Benton Museum‘s recent UConn Read’s guest lecture by Dorie Greenspan. Thank you to the Benton for offering this event to our community, even in the face of winter weather challenges.

Published with permission.

By Quinton Carmichall

“It was a slow day, and indeed I was needing some motivation to escape an increasingly steeper incline. First the clouds suck the blue out of the sky, then the snow covers the last semblances of green, until all that is left is white, grey, and the uninviting pillars of buildings and shaven trees. It was all testament to a terrible discovery I made that day: my friend lost her father recently, and I am too far away to offer genuine consolation. Clearly a slippery slope for me to climb, it is nevertheless implied a distraction is all we, the youthful, need to retain our footing. The Sweet Sensations event should happen later that day, I noted and realized I should very well still attend if not for the sake of my grade then for the sake of my sanity.

Much less a story of adventure and novelty my tale became as I strolled casually in a barren setting to a scene of anticipated happening. It turns out we will walk good distances through turmoil when we assume anguish is our pause and excitement our resume. When I arrive at the Benton, the workers are already leaving – keys in hand – a foreboding sign that I may be seeking somewhere else for shelter throughout hour. The sign on the door suggested we return tomorrow, yet we the audience are left today craving these “sweet sensations” accompanied by warmth in the advent of a frigid and dehydrated wind.

Given the irrational nature of emotion, one may too quickly resolve that it is an ultimately arbitrary human asset. Rather, I look at the climate surrounding my prophesied “sweet sensations” and think similarly of reality – indulgence in the situation, dependence on circumstance – all a meaningless measure of human capacity. Physicality on which we rely contingently for motivation fails us far too often. Easily, we forget that eventually all that matters leaves in its wake a memory meant to suffice in its place.

It strikes all too bluntly that these resources will not always be available to distract us, even for the short while that it matters. This reliance hurts more than adaptation to the problem; with the allure of materiality do we confuse authenticity. When will we stop worshiping Sweet Sensations and start embracing Sweet Perceptions?”

The next day…

“At the Benton was hosted a sister event to the Omnivore’s Dilemma display of an identical name: “Sweet Sensations.” Weather-related circumstances led to a postponed date (inadvertently almost leading to my absence had it been held any earlier or later than 5 pm), and still its timing was frightfully close to other plans and responsibilities I had previously made on the day. However, an upbeat, soft-spoken woman expressed her gratitude for being able to attend the event even after having made two trips consecutively. What stress I harbored seemed to disappear in light of the delightful interactions between speaker Dorie Greenspan and her audience.

Undoubtedly, she was there to promote her book, Baking Chez Moi, but the back story of its production was fascinating, nonetheless. She told of how she always wished she had been born in Paris, but stressed that one crucial skill she never would have learned had she lived in France would have been how to bake; the French tend to buy everything they serve to guests. On a campaign to collect recipes from families, Dorie discovered that they were reluctant to give their home recipes because they were “too simple.” Dorie intends to persuade us the opposite; no dish should be left to the “professionals,” and her cookbook gives homeowners sufficient instructions as to how to craft their own “sweet sensations” that do not come pre-made and prepackaged.

Dorie was especially fixated on the Parisian “macarons,” or macaroons in English (although macaroons are typically marketed as different, smaller, easier-to-bake versions of the original product). Her producer insisted that her consumers would prefer she included the recipe for macarons even though they require quite an extensive knowledge of baking to prepare. Expressing discontent for its inclusion in the book, she implies that macarons are one example of a treat indeed best left to those professionals after all, but goes on to say that we should feel free to cook whatever we want without feeling pressured to buy from those who market more appealing products and services than us.

On the side were some recipes present in the book crafted by the UConn Bakery, and to the right of that a table at which the author enthusiastically signed books, all which aggregated into a meaningful, pleasant experience regarding the necessity of cuisine. I definitely noticed no criticisms; I had never seen in person a crowd so intimately engaged with their speaker, chocking up their own “mmm’s” and “ahhh’s” at the appetizing pictures of desserts Dorie would flash them from the podium. All of this contributed to a successfully enthralling atmosphere – as well as hunger pangs in my stomach from being a little too late to fetch any food without disrupting the speaker – that constituted sadly a fraction of the allotted time, presumably in lieu of the weather conditions.  Still, the event lives up to its reputation of endorsing sweet sensations, inspiring the little cuisinier in all of us!”

“Heavenly Doughnuts,” “Lollipops,” and Undergraduates Excited to Discuss Art

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) Michael Pollan characterizes United States residents as “a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of living healthily” (3). The Sweet Sensation exhibition showing January 22 – March 29, 2015 at the University of Connecticut’s William Benton Museum of Art challenges patrons to recognize how this experience can be a product of their personal daily dietary choices. Upon entering the central gallery, contemporary regional artwork tempts guests to confront and interrogate their desires for the sweet, salty, fatty, processed, and often corn-derived treats that inspired the pieces.

“‘Lollipops’ by Margaret Morrison really pulled me in. It’s full of these hypnotizing swirls and enticing colors, and was accompanied by an excerpt about how everything we eat is made of corn. I think this piece speaks to both the fact that processing food really makes us have no idea what we’re eating and also that the packaging, the colorful “hypnotism” … makes us not really care that we don’t know.” FYE Student reproduced with permission

Other class favorites from this exhibit included Margaret Morrison’s “Chocolate Cheesecake,” that one student admired for “the attention to detail and technique,” which they thought were “extraordinary” (FYE Student reproduced with permission). Giant, partially eaten, boxes of chocolates and doughnuts, chicken with waffles (that some students are now excited to try), and rows of cereal boxes covered in glittering, sugary glass powder also drew a lot of interest, speculation, and debate.

As a teacher, the most exciting part of this museum tour for me was that first-year students from a wide variety of majors and backgrounds looked truly engaged by this opportunity to explore the artwork, ask questions, and talk about their interpretations with their peers. At one point our endlessly patient, knowledgeable guide, the museum’s Registrar and Assistant Curator, had to pause her description of a work until she could be heard over multiple excited exclamations of “ooh, look at this over here!”

Although the current exhibits, Sweet Sensation and In The Paint: Basketball In Contemporary Art, stirred the most undeniable enthusiasm, paintings from the Benton’s historical collections were frequently the topics of meaningful reflection and questions. For some students these works were the most inspiring part of the day.

“I really liked ‘Venus Admonishing Cupid” by Benjamin West. It caught my attention immediately because it was beautifully painted. The tears and her body looked extremely real. The mythological story behind it, Jupiter carrying Venus off as a beautiful white bull is quite fascinating” – FYE Student reproduced with permission

On a less academic note, others were incredibly excited for the free toothbrushes in the lobby. The front desk liaison explained that these were provided by Health and Dental Services to remind patrons that sugary sweets can also harm your teeth. But even if there hadn’t been a logical connection I think they would have been just as popular. College students do tend to love free stuff, after all. So leaving with a freebee was their icing on top of a wonderful day.

Thank you to the fabulous Benton Museum professional and student staff who were so kind to provide this personalized experience for our class. It was a great way to kick off our reading of the text and to connect with each other as intellectuals. I know that many of us will return to enjoy future exhibits and to read in your gorgeous, newly opened weekend study lounge. We appreciate your insights, kindness, and yes, the toothbrushes.