Wednesday night (Feb. 27) in the Great Hall at Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville art came alive with authentic food and drinks centered on the country’s founding fathers.
Every month, the museum holds a culinary event with an art influence called Wednesday Over Water. This month celebrated President’s Day with the event titled “WOW: Politics Under the Influence.”
As the name infers, the informal lecture centered on the significance of taverns and how liquor played a part when the country was formed.
Approximately 150 people braved the cold weather as the original date for the event was postponed due to the inclement weather last week. They were greeted with a slim glass of Madeira. It’s a fortified Portuguese wine which dates back to the 1700s in this country. According to Crystal Bridges Culinary Director Case Dighero, it was popular because there was no tax on the wine because it came from Portugal and not England. It was fortified with Brandy and with that enhancement made it popular and women liked the way it tasted.
“Our forefather’s were sloshed all the time,” Dighero said, “Per capita, it was common for folks to drink from the age of 15 until death. We talk about how the tavern was the center of town.”
Rye whiskey was also popular. One indication of why people drank was because water and milk could be deadly.
At the time of his death, George Washington was the nation’s largest distiller of rye whiskey. During a drink demonstration, Dighero made a drink called a Maple Whiskey Smash. It contains maple syrup, orange juice, bitters, cherries, club soda and rye whiskey.
In 1796, Dighero said Washington’s plantation manager went to the former president with a proposal on how to make more money. That idea was to make rye whiskey. That year, they distilled 600 gallons of the liquor. The next year, 2,500 gallons and the year Washington died 1799, more than 11,000 gallons of rye whiskey was distilled.
Director of Exhibition and Education Niki Ciccotelli Stewart said the tavern was the center of town. It was a meeting place, hotel and post office. An example displayed in art is from a work called, “War News from Mexico,” by Richard Caton Woodville. In an informal and talk-show style, Ciccotelli Stewart displays the work on a huge projection screen and walks the crowd through what she sees.
The painting by Richard Caton Woodville (1825-1855) shows a boy displaying a newspaper to a crowd outside a building called “The American Hotel.” What you don’t see on the first glance is that painted under the word “hotel” is the faint outline of the word “tavern.” Above the door, faintly one can see the words “bar room.” This all leads to the importance of taverns during the 1800s.
“This painting is a complete story waiting to happen,” Ciccotelli Stewart said.
Also in the painting is a woman looking out of a window in the far corner of the painting and a pair of slaves, wearing red, white and blue at the bottom of the painting. Ciccotelli Stewart said this shows how these two sections of people were on the outskirts of society.
“This is a moment we can’t forget,” she said, “It ain’t pretty but it’s where we started.”
She said looking at the collection at Crystal Bridges is like looking at a moment of time.
“Whether the artwork is made from a kindergartner to an artist commissioned to make a silver tree for a museum.”
To accompany the tavern theme, old school hoecakes were served. They were said to be Washington’s favorite, “he ate them like it was his job,” said Dighero.
It’s similar to a silver-dollar pancake and was so-named because one held them over an open fire to cook with a garden hoe. They traveled well and were hearty. Washington smothered his with butter and honey. They were also served with savory items like candied bacon, mushrooms and cherries.
“My favorite part of the evening is a sense of community and exposing people to art that’s very informal,” said Dighero, “It’s a discussion of food, art, drinks and it’s a good time.”
The inspiration for March’s WOW event will center on waterworks with April sporting Norman Rockwell-inspired food. The public is welcome with tickets costing $30 and members receive a 20% discount.