I knew where the queso fresco was stored. The glow of the fridge backlit the bowl, which felt cool in my hands. I carefully snuck it out and peeked into the plastic package, with one perfect slit to access the cheese. Liquid pooled at the bottom of the bowl. Mine was the type of household that respected symmetry. The type where you sliced into the cheese with the right knife and left a perfect line to signify the most recent cut.
No jagged edges or uneven sides.
When I snuck into the fridge to swipe a slice, the queso was salty and savory in my mouth. Sometimes, my mom heated tortillas on the stove and we nestled a piece inside, or crumbled it over beans next to steaming plantains and eggs. Eating the queso by itself, though, was heaven. I never felt the need to dress it up, instead letting its flavors dissolve on my tongue.
On the surface, it was the cheese that drew me to the painting. I was visiting the European art galleries at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art the first time I saw it: “Still Life with Cheeses, Artichoke, and Cherries” by Clara Peeters.
When I worked at the museum, I liked gliding through the galleries on the days it was closed to the public. The stillness always affected me. I would slow down and walk as if in a house made of glass. I could feel the history there. There were religious paintings that long-gone people had once worshipped near, luxurious portraits commissioned by the wealthy of another era. I could read the wall notes to get a sense of context, but what I thought about were the ghosts of those who had made these pieces, and the ghosts of their intended audience. In certain hallways, I didn’t like walking alone because they felt haunted.
I imagine that the European painters and their subjects, staring out from these large, opulently framed portraits, would never have suspected that a Brown girl might, centuries later, gaze at them. Yet Peeters’s piece stood out because it was the only still life in that gallery created by a woman. An anomaly. That wasn’t the only thing, however; it also had so many things to entice the eyes—gleaming dishes, rounds of cheese, a slice of bread.
I dreamt of visiting Europe one day and sinking my teeth into warm bread and feeling soft cheese hit my tongue. I wanted to know the world through food and art. I would swish it all down with wine.
Peeters painted fancy tablescapes desired by upper classes—the likes of which wouldn’t extend an invitation to me. Yet the more I learned about her, the more she captivated me. Born in 1594, she showed talent for painting at an early age, by some accounts as young as fourteen. By eighteen, she was already prolific, creating sophisticated tablescapes, usually set against a dark backdrop.
In 2016, an exhibition of her work became the first ever at the Museo del Prado to be dedicated to a female artist. The institution had been open for 197 years.
The catalogue marks the uniqueness of this exhibition, and of Peeters herself. She is, it tells us, an “artist practically unknown to the general public,” with a name “familiar only to the experts.” Art history is all about experts, but who gets to be described like that?
“Still Life with Cheeses, Artichoke, and Cherries” is a painting that an upper-class Dutch family might have in its home. It portrays foods from Holland but also ingredients grown outside the country—a sign that one could pay for these delicacies. Salt was expensive at the time; it makes sense for it to be kept in a fancy, silver piece near shiny trays.
Today, salt is cheap. My mom kept ours in the upper cabinets, and often asked me to hand it and other seasonings to her while she cooked. My dad liked putting salt on orange slices. Eating fruit as a kid was always an event. First, the careful process of peeling and slicing; then, the artful placement on a dish. I remember orange slices arranged on a plate, set against the tablecloth for me to share with my dad. The sprinkle from a small bottle; savory mixing with sweet. A way of showing love.
Every time I buy fruit on the corner, I ask for a little Tajin and lime juice. I watch as the Latinx vendor deftly slices the fruit and stacks it in a plastic cup. The juice drips to the bottom as I stick my fork into piece after piece.
Peeters’s works were “early manifestations of naturalism,” according to the exhibition catalogue. Her “paintings of fish are the first that were dedicated to this subject.” Naturalism focuses on details as we see them in life, without stylization. Many scenes were natural ones, often landscapes, captured in the most faithful way. A fish portrayed as if it has just been caught. It reminds me of fried mojarra on a plate. When I was little, my mom cleaned our fish. Sometimes she would stick her hand inside and make it say hello to me. I laughed every time. When it arrived at the table sizzling, she would tell me to use a fork to pick out the bones, but I just dug in with my hands. The crisp skin crunched between my teeth and the soft meat dissolved in my mouth. Lime juice ran down my hands. I took napkin after napkin, smiling at the pile of bones and seasonings left on the plate.
Although the food draws me to Peeters’s painting, I also pay attention to the other elements of the composition—and her other works. One painting in the catalogue includes a knife, likely from her wedding.
In the cabinet that sits in the background of many of our family photos, my parents kept my older sister’s quinceañera knife. I always carried it as if it were precious, bringing it out when there was cake to slice. The tip of the handle was clear, making it more mysterious. There was a matching pie knife, wide enough to hold a full slice on its surface. Both featured the date of her celebration, a memento. They made me fantasize about my own coming-of-age party.
I am a first-generation kid, the youngest of three, so I know how lucky I was to grow up in a house and buy snacks at the corner store. My brother jokes that I was the spoiled one, because I got braces and drank goat’s milk from Whole Foods as a toddler because of stomach issues.
When I was growing up, my mom carefully placed exact change in my hand for each bus ride; she didn’t have a driver’s license, and we took the bus everywhere. This was before shiny TAP cards. Sometimes she told me to ask for a transfer, and the driver would punch a thin piece of paper and hand it to me, the slip fragile between my fingers. Other times I used a token, which I loved for its distinct appearance and the way it clinked to the bottom of the fare box.
I know what money can buy.
When I was accepted by one of the most prestigious universities on the West Coast, I wondered if I truly earned my place. Affirmative action is a hot topic and people wonder whether you were admitted because of your skills or the color of your skin. In 2019, a celebrity couple spent $500,000 to get their daughters into the same school. When the case went to court, more than fifty people were charged.
I know what money can buy.
Yet that shiny degree doesn’t change who I am—a daughter yearning to be home again.
Peeters “transformed the material culture of her period into art,” but she was still only a painter. And she had to fight to be that, as a woman. Many female artists of that time were daughters of painters. You weren’t allowed to paint nude male models, a major drawback in creating traditional portraits and masterpieces equivalent to those men got to make. Peeters, though, might have had a workshop or assistant to help her produce her works of grandeur.
Her pieces are a “collection of elite items that proclaim distinction.” A record of the status that her patrons had achieved. A reminder that they had plenty.
I never wanted for anything as a kid.
Whenever we ate ceviche—my family’s recipe featured cooked shrimp, tomato, onion, cilantro, Clamato, and a bit of ketchup—it made me feel grown-up, especially when my mom served it in a deep glass. After I moved out, she did this for me whenever I visited. We’d sit outside as the palm trees swooshed and swayed around us.
I want to see these moments memorialized. I learned to set the table, occasionally trying to fold the paper napkins into fancy shapes. We always ate together, no phones in sight. Joy was feeding other people. Joy was seeing them eat. No empty plates.
Even the smallest bites were luxury.
My mom used plantain skins to cradle slices of the fried fruit, like little boats into which she was carefully placing passengers. She moved from pan to kitchen counter with her spatula. I would sneak in and steal a piece or two.
“I think there’s a mouse around here,” my mom would say.
I want to see the food I know exalted. Seen by some other generation, some generation I don’t know.
I think of our Guatemalan tamales, banana leaves drooping to reveal the glistening insides. As a kid, I took the ingredients for granted: raisins, prunes, pickled bell peppers, green olives, chicken or pork, and the recado, a sauce that requires a blender to come out smooth. As an adult, I marvel at how such disparate ingredients come together: the sour, the sweet, the salty elements that make it a meal.
I realize Peeters and I are doing the same thing. I am also offering a recreation, a replica. Peeters likely kept the objects she painted in her studio to portray them as realistically as possible. I, too, am trying to get as close to the original as I can.
Peeters often incorporated small self-portraits into her paintings. On the surface of one gilt cup, you can catch a few renditions of her face. Artists of her time liked to do this—but for her, the images have added significance because she was a woman working in a field dominated by men.
Those of us who write personal narrative do something similar. We tug at memories and say: Here I was. And: This is what I think it means. Or even: Here’s what you should know about this moment. We write ourselves into the space between the lines.
I’ve been taught humility, first through the Catholic Church, as I sat still in the pews and learned about the stories in the Bible that I should apply to my life. I learned to bow my head. Then, I learned about being grateful for opportunity. My family made new roots in the United States. I learned to feel lucky to be born here. In certain parts of Guatemala, I knew, the basics were seen as luxury.
How could I ask for more?
But all I see in the galleries is desire. A desire to be immortalized. To be seen, or praised, or to appear accomplished. A desire that spans centuries.
Still, there are new interpretations to be found.
Take Nicaraguan-Guatemalan illustrator and designer Susana Sanchez-Young, who creates images featuring foods I know. (My brother was a chambelan at her quinceañera.) One piece shows bright flowers in a can of Ducal, the brand of refried beans I ate for breakfast throughout childhood. There’s a plate with beans flanked on either side by bread and tortillas, some nestled into a container with patterned textiles. This is a still life I recognize from home, each element of breakfast set up carefully on the table.
Long before I learned about the European galleries.
And so I search for others: artists with shared identities, although our roots are different. I grew up going to American museums and haven’t been to Guate in more than ten years. I text my artist friends and ask what they know of Guatemalan still life painters. It’s a question that requires us to dig deeper. One friend posts on social media, a way of widening the search.
I wonder about other foods tinged with meaning and nostalgia. Artists look for subjects with layers of meaning, and food is one such element.
I think of Mayan painter Juan Henry Mendez, whose still life features slices of watermelon, an apple, and a bright blue vase with flowers. The work is inspired, he has said, by how his grandmothers set their tables; the flowers are ones they’ve grown themselves. Or Lucia Hierro, whose digital print on nylon “Breakfast Still-Life With Greca” depicts a Café Bustelo packet, a Yale mug, a cafetera, Quaker oatmeal, a YouTube screenshot, and more. It’s a contemporary spread that captures Hierro’s Dominican American identity. The artist makes references to a variety of antecedents throughout her oeuvre; one piece is titled “Breakfast Still Life with Peter Claesz and Peter Cruz.”
When I started thinking about all this, a mentor told me about Troy Chew, who also makes work that converses with Dutch and Flemish “masters.” I am drawn to one image in particular that feels chaotic: a tableau of two pigs, a dog on a leash, and a cat flying through the air, near a table spilling over with chocolate cake, cookies, chips, a bag of Cheetos, and a live chicken in a pot. There’s cheese on the ground and two mice about to feast—or maybe scurry from the cat.
I am hungry after looking at these works. I am buoyed by the form of the still life as it mutates, changes, re-forms. It doesn’t feel so strange anymore to yearn for art that evokes my childhood and my nostalgia.
The still life, made anew.