At first glance, Broken Eggs, a 1756 oil painting by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, seems to depict a fairly innocuous domestic scene of a young woman on the floor next to a basket of broken eggs while a young man is being scolded by the family matriarch. The subtext, however, is a little different, because the broken eggs symbolize the loss of the young woman’s virginity.
“Eighteenth-century people would’ve found this painting very funny,” says culinary tour guide Angelis Nannos. “Food can symbolize many things in art.”
Nannos leads tours across New York City where participants can indulge in tasty treats such as Turkish bagels, Cuban bocadillos and classic black-and-white cookies, all while hearing historical and cultural tidbits as they sample each morsel. But on one tour, the feast is only for the eyes: Nannos’ food-centric tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
From the ecological implications of an oyster plate to the politics of apple cider, it turns out that the museum’s collection is full of artwork that tells stories through food in myriad ways. As curator Jennifer Meagher points out in an essay on the Met’s website, even the broken eggs that signaled a “ruined” woman in one painting could symbolize male impotence in another.
For Nannos, they were stories that he thought needed to be told.
Born and raised in Greece, Nannos was working as a civil engineer and living in an apartment with a view of the Acropolis when it hit him: “I was bored to death every day that I was going to the office,” he says. “I was really living from Friday afternoon to Sunday night, when I could get in my car and go off and explore.” He ended up trading in a desk in Athens for walking shoes in Istanbul, where he worked for five years as a culinary tour guide before heading to the Big Apple for new adventures. And that’s when his love affair with the Met — and its images of food — began.
“When I came to New York,” Nannos recalls, “I was a food guy, but this wasn’t my city yet, I was still learning my way around. So I started going to museums, where I just had to learn how to get around the building instead of an entire city. It was at the Met where I started noticing all the food-related art and I thought, ‘This would be a great tour.'”
Using the museum’s online database, Nannos searched through the collection by keyword to find out more about individual pieces of art and begin building a story. “I’d find an amazing painting of lobstermen in Maine,” he says, “and then start learning more about how lobster went from being a poor man’s food to luxury food. That’s when I’d find that story, one that starts with food but goes on to be about the economy and marketing and branding. That’s when the painting becomes more than an art object — it tells a story that is very relatable to the contemporary viewer.”
Of course, Nannos’ effervescence helps sell the story, too. Weaving through the crowds at the museum, Nannos enthuses over a Brooklyn-made 19th century porcelain oyster plate displayed in a glass case. He tells tour goers of the two oyster plates he now proudly has in his own collection — one of them given to him by a previous tour goer — while simultaneously using an iPad to show period engravings of oyster stands that once stood on street corners across the city in the 1800s, when oysters were an abundant food eaten by residents of every income level.
“Oysters were the currency of New York, an indigenous food that had been eaten here for thousands of years,” Nannos tells his rapt audience. “In fact, I think the city could’ve been called The Big Oyster instead of The Big Apple. People were eating them like crazy from 1810 to the 1890s. But, by 1905, from pollution and overfishing, the oysters were gone.” Nannos then goes on to explain the work of the Billion Oyster Project, which, in tandem with the Clean Water Act, is working to restore the once-thriving oyster beds in New York Harbor.
It’s the kind of story that you wouldn’t normally think of when browsing through a display of porcelain. In fact, you might walk right by without even giving that oyster plate a second glance.
“It’s the engineer in me,” says Nannos. “I dig and dig to find the stories. I’m genuinely excited to talk about all of this.”
Cider Making, a seemingly bucolic farm scene by William Sidney Mount, turns out to be a politically charged image that is one of Nannos’ favorites. It was originally commissioned by a prominent New York businessman and Whig leader to support the 1840 presidential campaign of William Henry Harrison, who was billed as a “common man” with a supposed preference for log cabins and hard cider — as opposed to President Martin Van Buren, his champagne-swilling opponent. The painting is populated by a variety of symbolic figures, from napping pigs representing lazy Democrats to an undecided voter in the distance — said to be the artist — literally sitting on the fence.
An ancient Greek letter from Heraclides to his brother Petechois contains a shopping list for chick peas, kidney beans, bread, lupines and fenugreek; the note delights Nannos with its fun and familiar tone. “First, it’s written in a modern way, like a text message,” he says. He playfully translates it: “‘Hey bro, how’s it going, can you do me a favor?’ And, second, all this food is something that you might have bought this week. I can close my eyes and imagine the brother out shopping at the market, just like we would today.”
While that tattered piece of papyrus serves up a surprising sense of modernity, the opposite effect is encountered in Edward Hopper’s Tables For Ladies. The 1930 painting highlights the separate dining rooms made available in some restaurants and hotels where respectable women could dine alone, or even with their husbands, during a time when solo female diners were typically assumed to be prostitutes. Again, the image got Nannos curious, spurring him to seek out newspaper advertisements of the time to learn more about the cultural references behind Hopper’s image.
“The Metropolitan Museum is a playground for me,” Nannos says. “There’s any kind of food for any occasion, and a story to go with it.”
Kristen Hartke is a food writer based in Washington, D.C.