In Peter Blume's Vegetable Dinner, 1927, two women, one peeling potatoes, one smoking a cigarette, whisper at the crossroads between domestic and bohemian life, says Sarah Kelly Oehler of the Art Institute of Chicago. (Smithsonian American Art Museum, Art © The Educational Alliance, Inc./Estate of Peter Blume/Licensed by VAGA New York, NY)

Doris Lee's Thanksgiving, circa 1935, was, even then, a nostalgic look back at the quintessential American food holiday. "At a time of economic struggle, Thanksgiving offered a creation story for the nation that could unify the population around a familiar meal of turkey, stuffing, and all the trimmings," says Oehler. (Mr. and Mrs. Frank G. Logan Purchase Prize Fund)

Francis W. Edmonds' The Epicure, 1838, is one of the earliest depictions of a tavern meal in American history, says Judith A. Barter, curator of American art at the Art Institute of Chicago. She says it represents America at a political crossroads between urban and rural ways of life and styles of government. (The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund)

Raphaelle Peale is considered the first American professional still-life painter. His Still Life - Strawberries, Nuts, &c., 1822, exemplifies early American efforts to showcase the bounty of North America. (Gift of Jamee J. and Marshall Field)

Roy Lichtenstein's comical, impersonal Turkey, 1961, is an example of how he "did not simply mirror the ubiquitous presence of food imagery in American society but questioned its power to shape visual understanding of the world," says Oehler. (Private collection. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein)

Edward Hopper's iconic Nighthawks, 1942, embodies the increasing isolation of young professionals in the cities, and stands in sharp contrast to Norman Rockwell's Freedom From Want, depicting a loving couple bringing a giant turkey to the family table, painted the same year. (Friends of American Art Collection)

Wayne Thiebaud's Salad, Sandwiches and Dessert, 1960. Pop artists like Thiebaud and Andy Warhol "referenced commercial food culture to underscore questions of art making, originality, and the value of the handmade in their work," says Barter. (Lent by Sheldon Museum of Art © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

In the age of celebrity chef fetishism and competitive ingredient sourcing, it can be hard to remember that there was a time when restaurants didn't exist in America.

Before the Civil War, most people ate at home, consuming mostly what they could forage, barter, butcher or grow in the backyard. But just because food choices were simpler back then doesn't mean our relationship to what we ate was any less complicated.

Food as a symbol of politics, diet, gender roles, technology, isolation, gluttony and blatant commercialism has, in fact, been with us for ages and in many forms.

A massive exhibit that opened last month at the Art Institute of Chicago gathers iconic (Norman Rockwell's Freedom From Want) and not-so-well-known (Francis W. Edmonds' The Epicure) American paintings of food from the Pilgrims right on through to Andy Warhol. And it throws in some elegant (Art Deco martini set) and creepy (cabbage-shaped teapot) tableware, menus and memorabilia for good measure.

The curators of the show, called Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture and Cuisine, "offer a new approach to still-life and food-related genre paintings, revealing their importance in American culture, the history of American cuisine, and the ways that these have shaped and reflected our national identity," says Douglas Druick, president of the Art Institute of Chicago, in the preface to the 125-page exhibit guidebook.

For example, The Epicure, painted in 1838, is one of the earliest-known depictions of a tavern meal in America, according to Judith A. Barter, curator of American Art at the institute.

At first glance, it may just look like a portrait of a well-fed rich guy inspecting the humble daily supper offerings. But Barter points out that the well-marbled side of beef on the table was standard Northern fare, while the pig being offered by the innkeeper was a Southern dish.

"The work may be illustrating as well the political divide that separated North and South," she writes. "During the presidency of Andrew Jackson, the debate over the future of the nation — the Jeffersonian dream of a nation of small farmers and limited national government versus the Hamiltonian vision of centralization and an economy built on international trade, banking, and speculation — came to a head."

All that from just one piece.

Check out the slideshow above for some more Art and Appetite morsels. The exhibit closes Jan. 27.

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