What did our food look like hundreds of years ago? Art history may have the answers

Author: Kristen Rogers / CNN
MADRID, SPAIN – MAY 27: A man looks at of ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights Triptych’ by the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch during a press preview of the ‘El Bosco’ 5th Centenary Anniversary Exhibition at El Prado Museum on May 27, 2016 in Madrid, Spain. The Prado Museum will host the exhibition celebrating the work of Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch to mark 500 years since his death in 1516. It consists of sixty-five works of art loaned by collections based all over the world, and will be open to the public by May 31 until Septembr 11, 2016. (Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)

What happens when a plant geneticist and an art historian walk into a museum together? They come up with a new idea for tracing the visual evolution of our plant-based foods.

The fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds we cook with all originate from wild ancestors that were once domesticated, cultivated and improved over the millennia. Growers honed in on different textures, flavors, appearances and varieties that were more appealing for human consumption and agriculturally efficient.

But what did our food look like hundreds of years ago? For a few decades, plant geneticists have studied the historical genetic composition of modern foods in several ways, highlighting certain genetic mutations that were responsible for transformations in appearance.

These approaches haven’t offered many answers for what some plant-based foods actually looked like, according to an article published Tuesday in the journal Trends in Plant Science.

So worldwide art collections, the old-time equivalents of the modern-day photograph, might serve as a massive historical database of how modern plant foods have fluctuated in their looks. And they’re asking the public to send in what they find.

“Images, and in this case artistic depictions, are a good way to provide that missing information,” said study coauthor Ive De Smet, the head of the Functional Phosphoproteomics Group at the VIB-UGent Plant Systems Biology Centre in Belgium.

“We are mainly interested in the story that, say, the modern orange carrot made from its humble beginnings as a weed, to its current popular form,” he said.

“Genomes of ancient plant-based foods can help us understand what this plant could have looked like — for example, color based on the active pathways that produce different colors — and which characteristics it might have possessed — for example, sweetness,” he continued. “This helps us pinpoint the appearance of certain characteristics on a timeline, the same way paintings can.”

De Smet and co-author David Vergauwen, who is a lecturer on cultural history at Amarant, a Belgian cultural institution — have been friends since high school more than 30 years ago.

Attending the same university they studied disciplines that, until now, seemed worlds apart. But every now and then the friends “take a trip together to visit a region or city we cannot convince our wives to go to,” De Smet said.

A few years ago, the duo stood in the Hermitage Museum in Russia, in front of a painting of fruits by the late Flemish painter Frans Snyders. Neither of them recognized the fruits, so the following question was whether the fruit had looked the same in the 17th century, or whether Snyders was merely a bad painter.

On a train to Tsarkoe Selo, another museum in Russia, that query sparked further discussion about whether other foods had similar stories. A multidisciplinary investigation was born.

With art as an aid, they’ve since made similar discoveries regarding the domestication of carrots and their color, the making of modern wheat, the cultivation of strawberries and the origins of watermelon.

Searching for ’20 weird-looking carrots’

While museum-going has been a long-term pastime of the duo, they can’t do all the traveling and sightseeing themselves for this project. They also run the risk of missing out any potential findings from private or more esoteric galleries. And online catalogs offer only brief titles and descriptions and small photos of certain artworks, so finding the food within them isn’t always feasible.

“Catalogues are not always very helpful since a painting might have 20 weird-looking carrots on them, [and] the moment there is a frog on there as well, the painting will be labeled as a ‘still life with frog,’ ” De Smet said in an email.

So they’re extending the call for boots on the ground in Belgium and the Netherlands to include lovers of history, art or gardening globally. They’re asking that art fanatics keep an eye open when visiting museums, so they can take part in increasing our understanding of what produce looked like in the past.

As of July 14, participating requires emailing photos to the authors, but they’re developing an app to streamline the process and make visible the public database in which the images will be kept. As a representation of the convergence of the genetics and art history disciplines, the authors titled their crowdsourcing campaign “#ArtGenetics.”

“This is the beauty of doing this kind of research today,” De Smet said. “Crowdsourcing tools will allow you to access a lot more data faster than we ever could by just visiting museums.”

Paintings might detail more than a vegetable’s look

The authors think findings about the evolution of plant foods might also illuminate where those foods emerged, how common they were and what associations existed between food consumption habits, trade routes and newly conquered lands.

Environmental factors create the relationships between people and their foods — some foods are indigenous to different regions — but there are also cultural agents, De Smet said.

For example, he explained, the tomato was known in Europe in the 1530s, but it wasn’t until the 17th century that the fruit was cultivated as a crop. Much later, the 19th century saw the tomato rise to prominence in Italian kitchens.

“These delays are only explained through cultural practices,” De Smet said. “Both the tomato and the potato were considered dangerous and even poisonous.

“I guess that our line of inquiry does not limit itself to genetics and art history, but also includes the field of cultural anthropology and social history as well.”

Assessing abstract versus realistic art

The study comes with one main hurdle: Art is arbitrary, so how will the authors interpret whether a painting is reliable?

“If you look at a cubist work by Picasso to figure out what a pear looked like in the early 20th century, you will be disappointed,” De Smet said.

Works by late Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch might show the correct biological structure of a strawberry, but the fruit is taller than the people painted alongside it.

“Searching through paintings and other art forms is certainly an avenue of pursuit,” said Esther van der Knaap, a professor in the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, who wasn’t involved in the study. “While imperfect, historical art offers additional insights into the traits that were important centuries ago.”

Addressing such discrepancies is a matter of checking the reliability of the source then trusting the evidence, De Smet said. If the authors can verify that a painter depicted clothes or musical instruments correctly, then they might be able to assume the artist would have been just as accurate when painting fruits and vegetables.

Answering the question could also be a matter of numbers, he added. If a food is depicted once, it might be an oddity or the result of poor quality artwork. But if the item is more common, it might indeed be what it looked like.

In this fringe study, roses are the control since they have both a long history of breeding and centuries-old depictions of what roses should have looked like. If the artist also painted roses, that could help determine whether her paintings of produce are dependable.

“Both artists and scientists endeavor to understand and explain their environment, so to me science-art collaborations are natural yet all too rare,” said Michael Gore, an associate professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University in New York state, who wasn’t involved with the study.

“I hope that this effort inspires new avenues of creativity to be unlocked in other scientific disciplines.”

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