CAMBRIDGE — Few things reveal more about who (and how) we are than what we eat. A very useful anthropology of daily life can begin at mealtime. Among the many virtues of “Resetting the Table: Food and Our Changing Tastes” is how it makes museumgoers see their own cooking and eating in a different light.
Strictly in viewing terms, “Resetting the Table” is anything but fast food. It runs at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology through Nov. 28, 2021. So there’s plenty of time to see the exhibition and, yes, savor it.
The show has two organizing principles. The way Harvard historian Joyce Chaplin, who curated “Resetting the Table,” has them relate to each other is inspired. The can’t-miss one is her use of portions of a quite-lavish place setting from a 1910 year-end dinner for members of the Harvard class of 1913. It’s the show’s visual centerpiece. In fact, the place setting is a literal centerpiece. It’s set in the middle of the main gallery. Other displays flank it.
The dinner consisted of eight courses. That’s not counting the two brands of cigarettes on offer and the champagne (Moët & Chandon, thank you very much).
In both extent and variety, the array of fine tableware is very “Downton Abbey” — and, remember, such fanciness was for the benefit of a bunch of college freshmen (and they were all men), not a bunch of English aristocrats. Class and privilege are food-related concerns, something that “Resetting the Table” never loses sight of.
The second organizing principle is as elegant as the place setting is elaborate. Chaplin uses the dinner’s menu as the show’s intellectual armature. She structures the individual sections around aspects of the meal. Some are directly related: protein courses (meat and fish), vegetable courses and bread, tea and coffee, dessert. Others are more conceptual but very much pertinent to what helped make that groaning board groan: the role of terroir, the processing and marketing of food, the concept of family dining versus restaurant dining.
The class dinner was held at the New American House, a restaurant in a prominent Boston hotel. Located on the site of what is now the John F. Kennedy Federal Building, in Government Center, it closed in 1935.
The hotel opened in 1835, so it had a long history. That history seems like a blink, though, compared to the 7000-year-span of the upwards of 200 items in the show. A slate harpoon (you can’t eat fish unless you can catch fish) dates to 5000 BCE. It’s from what’s now Maine. The most recent item is a 2017 cookbook, “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen,” by Sean Sherman with Beth Dooley. That both harpoon and cookbook have to do with Native Americans is indicative of the show’s range of cultural reference.
“Indigenous Kitchen” shares a shelf with copies of Yotam Ottolenghi’s 2012 “Jerusalem: A Cookbook," “The Joy of Cooking," Euell Gibbons’s “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” (does any book have a better title?), and, from 1952, Poppy Cannon’s “The Can Opener Cookbook” (does any book have a less-appetizing title?).
The diversity of “Resetting the Table” extends to format. Catty-corner to the selection of cookbooks is a mock-up of an early 20th-century kitchen. It’s been a good time lately for kitchens in museums. One of the few nice surprises of the recent renovation and expansion of New York’s Museum of Modern Art was Grete Lihotzky’s wonderfully compact Modernist kitchen, from 1920s Germany.
There are actual foodstuffs in the show, though not necessarily things you’d now want to eat. Century-old dried, partially smoked herring looks less like a comestible than a collectible. A set of cacao beans, even though unprocessed, look more toothsome by comparison. A jumbo vial contains potatoes from the late 19th century preserved by cooking, mashing, and drying them into cakes. They look a lot more like cornflakes than anything to do with spuds. The delicacy of four small sets of tea leaves preserved under glass makes them a delight to look at.
Those tea leaves are not the only items of marvelous appearance: an Aztec stone effigy of a pumpkin, from between the 10th and 16th centuries; an English teapot from 1760 modeled on a pineapple; a birch bark basket for maple sugar, by an Anishinaabe artist, from the early 20th century.
Seasoning/preservation/transportation/transplantation get their own section, as does the process and marketing of food. Customs surrounding eating can be every bit as involved as eating itself. Tobacco has its own section. It includes a cigar box owned by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
Intoxicants get their own section, too. Napoleon is supposed to have said that an army travels on its stomach. The Revolutionary War general Artemas Ward appears to have felt that an army’s leadership should travel on its liver. Among a dozen items in the show he once owned are a cordial glass, a monogrammed corkscrew, and a travel case for his liquor bottles. The case nicely combines handsomeness and utility. It also suggests one more reason why the British lost the war. They weren’t just up against the spirit of ’76 but the spirits of ’76, too.
RESETTING THE TABLE: Food and Our Changing Tastes
Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, Harvard University, 11 Divinity Ave., Cambridge, through Nov. 28, 2021. 617-496-1027, www.peabody.harvard.edu
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.