Food Matters – Gunnar’s Pastries

It’s often said food is art you can eat. The only problem with that is then it’s gone. A chef or baker could spend hours creating one small piece of edible art, only to have it devoured in minutes. Today on my Food Matters column on CBC Radio Victoria, I told the  story of a granddaughter who wanted to pay tribute to her grandfather’s creations.

Sophia Burke, formerly of Vancouver and Salt Spring Island, (and a former student of my Food and Travel Writing course) is now making her living as a multimedia artist in Montreal. But she did come back for a visit recently, to launch her gallery called Gunnar’s Pastries at the Pod Contemporary Gallery in Ganges. (previously seen as Sweet Mementos in Montreal) I saw the exhibit when I was on Salt Spring a couple of weeks ago, and it is still running for two more weeks, and while you can look at some of the exhibit online, it is really worth it to see them in person.

Gunnar's Princess Cake

Gunnar’s Princess Cake

Sophia has printed very large format photos of the pastries her grandfather, Gunnar Gustafson used to make over the years in two bakeries in Vancouver, Elsie’s and Liberty. He finally retired at age 88 earlier this year. But the pastries are the only thing in the photo, small in size, compared with a large, plain white background. I missed Sophia while she was there, but caught up with her  after she had returned to Montreal, and asked her about the decision to showcase just the pastries. She told me she didn’t want to do the photos like traditional food photography: “I wanted somehow there to be some emotion in the photographs, and by putting them with this large white background I think that it both focuses on the pastry itself and its craftmanship, and because it is all by itself it feels kind of lonely.”

Sophia spent a lot of time with her grandparents in the bakeries as a youngster, and you can only imagine what that must be like as a child:  ”I would gladly hang out there all day, and just keep eating pastries. There’s one that he called a potato. I could maybe eat a quarter of one now. It’s covered in marzipan and cocoa powder and there’s cake and butter cream and brandy. I used to sneak one while I was in the bakery, thinking that he wouldn’t notice one missing out of the maybe 12 or 15 he was working on. And then I could probably eat another whole one, I can’t do that now!” 

It’s got me hungry just listening to the description. Sophia had been thinking for the past few years about how to capture the essence of the memories she has from the bakery, she took a lot of photos and video of the bakery and her grandparents, but it wasn’t until last year that she finally hit upon this way of stripping everything else away and getting to the essence of her grandfather’s craft.  I have to say that this exhibit, which also includes a short video of her grandfather icing a beautiful cake, to the music of Artie Shaw, which he always liked to have playing in the bakery, is not in the same vein as Sophia’s other work, which tends to be more abstract. Even in the video you only see his hands working on the cake. She likes to evoke emotion and narrative in her abstract work, so it was quite different for her to work in this format which started out as being very archival in nature: “In this work I use a much more representational type of photography, and video, but I still think it generates that type of emotion that I wanted it to. And even though it’s personal history, my personal story, I think it is accessible to other people as well, not only because it’s food, because food is cultural and exciting, and emotional to everybody, but the story is also very accessible, it’s not only my grandfather, but it could be somebody else’s grandfather who immigrated to Canada as well.”

And there’s really something in that, because I think of some of the old photos we have of my uncle, the only sibling of my father who was born in Italy, and there’s a photo of showing just him, trimming a big head of cauliflower in his garden, and it made me think of how he used his hands as a gardener all his life.  If you are on Salt Spring within the next two weeks you really should go and see them at the Pod Contemporary Gallery in Ganges, they are there until May 16th.

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