Drinking, Dining, and Developing Community: a Study of 10 Objects at NOMA

A dramatic installation in Café NOMA displays over 90 objects from the museum’s collection related to food and dining cultures around the world

By New Orleans Museum of Art

Laura Ochoa Rincon, Decorative Arts Trust Fellow

NOMA Cafe, Decorative Arts Cabinet by New Orleans Museum of ArtNew Orleans Museum of Art

From the intimate to the communal

All of these objects communicate how people gather to eat or drink. Whether they be used by an individual or a group, the objects explored here are all examples of the ways in which form and design lead to participation in various societal events.

Stein (Beer Mug) (c. 1600) by UnidentifiedNew Orleans Museum of Art

A stein made for one

To start off our journey, this German beer stein takes us back to the 17th century, but is part of a millennium-long tradition of individuals raising a toast of alcohol to celebrate socially. 

Stein (Beer Mug) (c. 1600) by UnidentifiedNew Orleans Museum of Art

This stein, like many at the time, featured a stoneware body with a metal (pewter) lid and metal foot.

 After the advent of germ theory during the Renaissance, many drinking vessels had the addition of a lid. 

This stein thus represents scientific progress through its form, but also shows how the individual stein functions as a part of a community ceremony.

Wedding Vase (c. 1950) by Nicolasa NaranjoNew Orleans Museum of Art

An intimate vase

This double spouted vase continues our journey through time, taking us to the Pueblo people of Santa Clara in what is now New Mexico. 

Wedding Vase (c. 1950) by Nicolasa NaranjoNew Orleans Museum of Art

The intimate object is only meant to ever be used by two people: a husband and wife on their wedding day. 

With the tradition dating back centuries, double vases such as this are essential to the wedding ceremony. 

With each spout representing a member of the couple, the vase is filled with a special liquid and consumed by the newly-united pair.

Pair of Teacups and Saucers (c. 1800) by Josiah Wedgwood & SonsNew Orleans Museum of Art

Mourning tea for two

This pair of teacups, produced by England’s popular Wedgwood & Sons company, in the stylish Neoclassical designs of the era, is strikingly in all black. 

Pair of Teacups and Saucers (c. 1800) by Josiah Wedgwood & SonsNew Orleans Museum of Art

A pair of cups such as this one could have been used to share a cup of tea while someone is in mourning.

During the Victorian era in England, much emphasis was made on the way people mourned the loss of a loved one, including wearing black dress and jewelry. 

The custom of "funeral tea" extended the communal aspect of mourning into dining rituals. Thus, these cups represent so much more than their form. They serve as an extension of long-held traditions surrounding death. 

Stacked Picnic Box (Jūbako) (c. 1850–1900) by UnidentifiedNew Orleans Museum of Art

Picnic celebration

Our next stop lands us in Japan, with the presentation of this exquisite 19th-century picnic box meant for two or three people. 

Stacked Picnic Box (Jūbako) (c. 1850–1900) by UnidentifiedNew Orleans Museum of Art

The decorative pattern of this porcelain picnic box, known as Imari, is recognizable for the use of cobalt blue and white designs with swirling red and gold Japanese patterns.

Picnic boxes have a long tradition in the island nation of Japan. Popularized in the 15th century, they became staples of food culture.

A picnic box would have stoked conversation and served as a centerpiece for small gatherings of two or three anywhere from parks to festivals. Picnic boxes were, and still are. essential components of Japanese dining culture.

"Patella" Cups (100 BCE – 100 CE) by Likely RomanNew Orleans Museum of Art

Celebrating the Gods with friends

These ancient Roman drinking vessels, known as Patella cups, have an intricate glass design. 

"Patella" Cups (100 BCE – 100 CE) by Likely RomanNew Orleans Museum of Art

The size allows the user to hold the vessel in the palm of their hand, with the cup serving as a close extension of their body. 

The glass technique for making these vessels, known as Millefiori, translates to “thousand flowers,” and that's precisely what they look like. Dating to 100 BCE, they represent the high level of craft in the Roman Empire.

A polytheistic society, the Romans worshiped various gods and goddesses. Part of that worship involved the serving and drinking of sacred wine in patella cups like these.

Stirrup Spout Vessel (c. 900–1470) by Maya or Chimu ArtistNew Orleans Museum of Art

Familial ties to vessels

Moving on from smaller gatherings and widening our scope, a spout vessel such as this one would be used by an entire family. 

Stirrup Spout Vessel (c. 900–1470) by Maya or Chimu ArtistNew Orleans Museum of Art

Ceramic vessels of this form were common among pre-15th century cultures in South America. This vessel, dating to as early as 900 CE, has two containers in one.

Integral to the design of these vessels were the conversations that it could create. The carved face on one side of the container is indicative of similar forms in artwork of the region. 

It could introduce questions and discourse about one’s own culture, with the designs evolving each generation. Pieces such as this one, used by an entire family, became symbolic of indigenous histories.

Covered Dish (c. 1940) by Hall China Co. and Joseph Palin ThorleyNew Orleans Museum of Art

From Ohio to the stomachs of millions of Americans

Continuing our journey and entering into larger dining spaces, we are thrust into the mid 20th century, a time of economic boom for many Americans.

Covered Dish (c. 1940) by Hall China Co. and Joseph Palin ThorleyNew Orleans Museum of Art

One common way for families to spend time together in the 20th century was eating a newly popularized dish called the casserole for dinner, thus reinforcing the nuclear family as the American norm.

Popularized in around the 1870s, the casserole has become a staple of American cuisine. Just as important as the food is the container it is served in. Earthenware was the most common for casseroles due to its low cost and high durability allowing more families to purchase.

This specific casserole dish was made by the Hall China Company in East Liverpool, Ohio. With new earthenware technology and the rise of canned convenience food, a perfect recipe for the casserole and American family dining was created. Bright colors accentuated that spirit.

"Fiesta" Pitcher (Designed 1936) by Frederick Hurten Rhead, designer and Homer Laughlin China CompanyNew Orleans Museum of Art

"Fiesta" ware and the American family

Created in the 1930s, "Fiesta" ware, known for its bright colorful glaze, became a must-have dining addition for American families.

"Fiesta" Pitcher (Designed 1936) by Frederick Hurten Rhead, designer and Homer Laughlin China CompanyNew Orleans Museum of Art

 With its relatively low cost and chic Art Deco design, many American families would use it to spice up their dining situation, whether it be family dinner or a party.

Produced by the Homer Laughlin Pottery Company, Fiesta ware became something of a status symbol for the late 1930s and pre-war 1940s middle class.

Now seen as a design commentary on American identity, its ostentatious colors and vibrancy depict American families optimistically. Having a bright piece such as this one in an otherwise muted dining setup would have brought joy to diners. 

Goblets (c. 1910) by Louis Comfort Tiffany, designer and Tiffany StudiosNew Orleans Museum of Art

Conspicuous consumption in small groups

Another pair of items that would have been used by a group of people is this set of Tiffany glass goblets. 

Goblets (c. 1910) by Louis Comfort Tiffany, designer and Tiffany StudiosNew Orleans Museum of Art

These are examples of luxurious favrile glass, Louis Comfort Tiffany’s innovative rainbow metallic technique that mimicked the degradation of uncovered Ancient glass.

Existing as a piece of fine art and being a show piece of the Art Nouveau style, these goblets represented gentility and power. 

The forms of these goblets exemplify how expensive pieces can both be in conversation with the past while showing new styles and innovative techniques.

Palm Wine Container (sugi) (c. 1870–1900) by Degha PeopleNew Orleans Museum of Art

Two spouts for an entire community

Created from the western region of Ghana, our final stop on this journey centers a wine container that was intended to be used by the entire community.

Palm Wine Container (sugi) (c. 1870–1900) by Degha PeopleNew Orleans Museum of Art

This double-spouted earthenware container in bright sienna clay was used to collect palm sap that would be mixed with natural yeast and bacteria to produce palm wine.

This container stored palm wine, with both the vessel and the liquid a cornerstone of ritual. It was specifically designed for this communal purpose, emphasizing the role of community and wine within this region. 

The wine would then be shared in the same container to community members, fulfilling a crucial role in hospitality and connecting people to their past, present, and future. 

NOMA Cafe, Decorative Arts Cabinet (view 2) (2022) by New Orleans Museum of ArtNew Orleans Museum of Art

Notions about community and dining

After exploring these ten widely varying vessels, a grander picture about community, family, and gathering emerges. Central to these themes is the necessity of objects to fulfill specific functions varying from weddings to family dinners to communal drinking.

NOMA Cafe, Decorative Arts Cabinet by New Orleans Museum of ArtNew Orleans Museum of Art

These food rituals discussed, whether they be communal or intimate, embed themselves in our memories through the objects discussed. In addition to the value of their craft, these objects are filled with personal memories and meanings.

Credits: Story

Laura Ochoa Rincon, Decorative Arts Trust Curatorial Fellow, NOMA

Object Photography: Sesthasak Boonchai, NOMA

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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