The Art of Cuisine and the Culture of Dining
Culinary Documents from the Austrian National Library

Exhibition in the State Hall of the Austrian National Library
28 April to 31 October 2006

Benjamin Franklin’s (1706 – 1790) biting comment on cookery books was that “mankind, since the improvement of cookery, eats twice as much as nature requires”. That may be true, but they have also brought a remarkable diversity to the routine of cooking which finally elevates it to a form of art. Cookery books are the culinary score that has favoured the social rise of cooks and turned them into artists. Hence the Austrian National Library is going to present a selection of the oldest and most valuable examples of cookery books from its rich holdings.

For the first time these documents, which offer an insight into our cultural and social history, have been made the subject of scholarly research within the framework of a comprehensive exhibition. Light will also be shed upon the different facets of the culture of dining, which, besides Lucullian delights, formed an intrinsic part of the splendour of courtly banquets.

The exhibition starts with some of the country’s oldest medieval cookery books, including the hand-written cookery book of St. Dorothy’s Convent in Vienna. Many cookery books from that period are amazing because of their fantastic and partly incredible recipes, most of which also consider medicinal aspects. Some of the generously illuminated manuscripts also provide in-depth written and pictorial information as to how to obtain and prepare common as well as exotic ingredients.

The invention of book-printing eventually was to help cookery books to their lasting and triumphal success. The richly illustra-ted Renaissance cookery books by the Pope’s personal cook Bartolomeo Scappi or the princely chef Marx Rumpolt certainly rank among the most impressive exam-ples. Baroque cookery books also contain the most refined ideas of Baroque table settings.

This centuries-old collection of precious books will be juxtaposed by the enormous variety of 19th-century cookery books in which Austria is reflected as a melting pot of nations also from a culinary perspective. They reveal all the regional influences of past times, including the Bohemian and Hungarian cuisines.

The exhibition has been divided into different sections, such as Healthy or Tasty (dietetics versus culinary pleasures) and investigates into such themes as the emergence of new ingredients, the art of seasoning and preserving, as well as the beginnings of documenting recipes in writing or the preparation of food along religious and medical prescriptions (diet and fast), thus offering numerous approa-ches to this complex subject.

Other chapters deal with the kitchen as a working place, the evolution of cooking utensils, as well as with the kitchen as a scene of crimes (keyword ‘poisoning’). Another focus will be on the representative dimension of official banquets and the staging of rituals (the art of carving and folding napkins).

A brief introduction to “culinary civilisation” offers an encounter with culinary reminis-cences from the Habsburg Empire, Viennese and Austrian cuisine, and the establishment of the first restaurants in Austria. Attention has also been paid to the playful way of cooking, which began to manifest itself in the 19th century in the form of dolls’ kitchens and dolls’ cookery books, as well as to the (involuntary) inventiveness in cooking that developed in times of poverty, privation, and war.

The fact that globalisation has also had an impact on cooking and eating habits is dealt with in the final section on culinary pluralism, revealed in Chinese and Arabic cookery books, but also in examples devoted to survival training or in cookery books in the form of comics. The Swiss object artist Daniel Spoerri put it as follows: “When all of the arts perish, the noble art of cuisine will remain.”

Exhibition Curator:
Dr. Hannes Etzlstorfer (born 1959 in Lasberg in Upper Austria), art and cultural critic, exhibition curator, and cultural journalist. He conceived and collaborated in numerous exhibitions about Austrian art and civilisation (Wien Museum, Vienna Kunstforum, Oberösterreichisches Landes-museum, Stadtmuseum Linz, Stadtgalerie Klagenfurt, and Salzburger Barock-museum). His research concentrates on monastic art collections in Austria and has resulted in art-topographical works for the monasteries of Schlägl, Wilhering, Seitenstetten, and Schlierbach. He has edited numerous catalogues and books.

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About the Exhibition
    Österreichische Nationalbibliothek