Two years ago, the Pertwee, Anderson & Gold gallery in London explored the idea of life, death and time through a Memento Mori exhibition. It’s a long-standing art reference that death is inevitable and various artists were invited to give their interpretation.
Inside, a small skull sat nestled into a glass case, surrounded by random objects—a snail shell, coral, some flowers and a ball of twigs. Small notches had been drawn in ink to delineate different areas of the brain to study as the lower jaw was nowhere in sight.
It was a typical still life for a renaissance artist. Except at the shows closing, the skull and display had been smashed into pieces while the artists found delight in nibbling away at its contents.
As it turned out, the shockingly lifelike display was actually edible. Food historian Tasha Marks, who has been whipping up desserts inspired by art and history since she founded her company AVM Curiosities in 2011, handcrafted the creation in collaboartion with Annabel de Vetten & David Bradley.
For her, the act of destroying it was even more satisfying.
“The nice thing about working with food is that it is transient,” Marks told The Daily Beast. “I want people to destroy it and I want the fact that it is edible to really tell a story.”
She’s concocted everything from spiced cocktails and edible art prints to appetizing teeth and multi-sensory tasting menus.
Marks’s passion stems from her days at Sussex University, where she was earned a degree in Art History. The self-taught chef had taken a course on the history of food, taught by the silverware curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum, when she realized the medium could actually be a great way to help visitors connect with art.
“The history of food really fascinates me,” she said, assuring me the field isn’t just about preserving very old recipes. “Lots of people are obsessed with food and obsessed with art. So if you can mix those two together, I think there can be a lot of passion for it.”
Clients range from institutions like the Royal Academy of Arts and V&A Museum to corporations and retail spaces like Grey Goose and Selfridges as well as private commissions including birthday parties and restaurant tasting menus.
“From my experience in the art world, I realized that a sensory approach would work really well in a place people may find exclusive,” she stated.
Audiences are typically hesitant to approach her stylized works, confined by the usual notion that artworks should not be touched or viewed too closely.
“People will just look at it,” Marks said of the ways in which viewers interact. “They’ll take some pictures and investigate it a little bit further,” waiting for the first person to make a move. “Then everyone dives in and devours it.”
It’s also proven to shake up the institution’s own insiders.
For a project at the Fashion Space Gallery, titled The Edible Archive, Marks crafted edible lace and cameos ,as well as a recreation of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, for nine archivists where were selected to debate the protective nature of the archive.
As they continued with their lecture, they were forced to destroy the works, creating a tension between the nature of preserving art and the carnal aspect of eating.
“Some of them just couldn’t destroy the display,” Marks said. “It was so against what they were used to. They were just breaking bits of chocolate off and lining the pieces up in front of them. So the tension between eating it and keeping it is something I use in a lot of my works.”
Each project takes around two days to craft, though the research and prep time could last up to months depending on the scale of the treats.
For Toxic Treats: A Dark History of Britain’s Sweets, Marks, who also gives hands-on lectures, researched the many different ways in which candy makers and chefs have taken shortcuts while cooking. Some Brits apparently added some pretty harmful ingredients to their dishes.
From desserts dyed with copper to wine sweetened with lead, Marks created the uniquely tailored dishes (without the harmful ingredients) for the audience and discussed the history of counterfeit foods, which dates back further than the 1800s.
But you won’t find any of those dangerous ingredients in Marks’s desserts, even though she likes to stick to some old school additives.
Her personal favorites are rosewater, which dates back to the 15th century but has been replaced by vanilla as “the essence of choice” in baking, and marchpane, a very early form of marzipan that is more almond than sugar and gives it a cake-like texture.
She used these ingredients in her “Marchpane to Mutton: A Taste of Shakespeare’s Time” lecture at the V&A Museum last year, celebrating the 450th birthday of the literary legend and sampling popular sweets and spices from Elizabethan time.
For it, she created busts of Shakespeare’s head out of the marchpane, which gave the treat a consistency between a macaroon and an almond cake.
“Confectionaries are just so different from other foodstuff,” she said. “It's not essential, but a lovely extra so you can be a bit more playful. Food is about sharing but sweets are more personal and nostalgic. Everyone has their own way of eating them.”
For her clients and audiences, this ritual may be a little hesitant. But with a recipe book with historical-inspired confectionary on the horizon, we will all be able to create and destroy the works ourselves.