Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 31, 2022
Shana Klein The Fruits of Empire: Art, Food, and the Politics of Race in the Age of American Expansion California Studies in Food and Culture. Oakland: University of California Press, 2020. 264 pp.; 45 color ills.; 17 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780520296398)

The title of Shana Klein’s book, The Fruits of Empire: Art, Food and the Politics of Race in the Age of American Expansion, promises a great deal. Each part of the title could be a book in and of itself, and as the author writes “traverses many different disciplines and subject areas” In some ways, this volume succeeds and in other ways falls short. As American painted depictions of fruit ostensibly serve as the primary focus, there are too few illustrations and little in-depth discussion of these pictures. Selecting paintings of five different fruits to illustrate American expansion and its attendant racism seems a tall order, but they are carefully selected to dovetail with the author’s thesis. The grape, orange, watermelon, banana, and pineapple represent, in order, westward expansion to California; the growth of the citrus industry in the post-Civil War south; the connection between watermelon and depictions of African Americans; expansion into lands of banana republics; and the annexation of Hawai’i as a result of Dole’s business practices there.

The book covers the post-Civil War years, when still life painting was ubiquitous and American industrial capitalism was reaching its height. Consequently there is no discussion of earlier American still life painters such as the Peale family and the symbolism contained within their pictures. Nor is there a discussion of the scientific interests of the founding fathers such as Jefferson or Madison who envisioned a spreading agricultural empire and championed new methods of land use. By beginning in the post-Civil War period, the author leaves out early attempts at horticulture, such as the German American grape industry that flourished along the banks of the Ohio River during the 1850s, and the impact of temperance and war. There is little discussion of the thousands of apple trees that traveled the inland rivers to what today is the Midwest. The omission of the apple seems odd considering its importance in the making of cider, a prominent drink of the early nineteenth century, and the ubiquitous apple pie on holiday tables. One could argue that it is the most prominent American fruit, pre- and post-Civil War.

What Klein does well is discuss the rise of the various fruit industries, such as the competition around grapes at the Philadelphia Centennial. She tells a fascinating and romantic story of the association of grapes with the old California missions and Spanish colonization while at the same time Americans proclaimed the superiority of American farmers over “lazy” and “incompetent” Mexican farmers, thus justifying the annexation of California after the Mexican War (31). As visual proof, she illustrates Edwin Deakin’s painting of grapes against a mission-like wall and includes Samuel Marsden Brookes’s paintings of grapes. Klein describes racism during the 1890s within the grape-pressing companies that hired Chinese workers. Chinese grape workers in California were treated badly and paid worse, and yet so were the hundreds of Chinese working and dying on the transatlantic railroad before the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This begs the question of the place of fruit within larger issues of industrialization and mass marketing. New inventions such as Swift’s refrigerated railroad car for transporting fresh meat (instead of a whole cow) helped move fruit around the country too.

When discussing the orange, Klein posits that the orange industry was central to the reconstruction of the South, particularly Florida, after the Civil War. There, reformers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe wanted to better the region’s newly freed slaves and hired them to work in her orange grove. She sold some of her paintings to support the promotion of Florida. Many northerners, and carpetbaggers too, wound up in the South and in Florida hoping to make money by promoting building lots and groves for sale. Klein uses the example of Martin Johnson Heade’s orange pictures to support her story of Florida’s growing enterprise in citrus fruit. Heade’s orange still lifes of the 1880s and 1890s were exotic, but he painted them to support himself—selling them mainly to northern tourists as souvenirs of a trip to sunny climes and keeping a studio in a prominent hotel. Tourism, made possible by railroads and new wealth, grew by leaps and bounds during the 1880s. Near the end of the orange chapter, Klein includes photographs by William Henry Jackson of African American orange pickers, and opines that freed Blacks were treated much better in the Florida citrus industry than Chinese grape workers were in California. And yet Jim Crow came to Florida as it did to the rest of the South. 

The painting of watermelons and their association with parodies of African Americans informs the third chapter. Here the sophisticated still lifes of the glossy texture of the rind, velvety interior meat, and oozing juice, contrast starkly with the cruel stereotypes of African Americans voraciously eating, or stealing, this traditional southern fruit. The author’s discussion of the ways in which watermelon was served and eaten by the white middle class effectively includes material culture such as special spoons, whereas renditions of African Americans show them eating with their hands, enjoying the sensual experience of flesh and juice. Klein’s discussion of violent renditions of slashed, gashed, and mutilated watermelons by Robert Spear Dunning, asks the reader to consider sexual and racial violence.

The final chapters deal with the expansion of the American fruit industry abroad. Bananas were new to Americans before the Civil War and are depicted in St. Louisan Hannah Brown Skeele’s Fruit Piece (1860). Klein interprets this tropical bounty of oranges, lemons, apples, strawberries, and pineapple accompanied by sugar cubes as foods produced in the Caribbean by slaves, as an anti-abolitionist statement. But here fruit can also be interpreted by its new availability coming up the Mississippi from New Orleans, and as a statement of class. Included in Skeele’s picture are the newest silver and ceramic accouterments and sugar cubes. Sugar cubes were a relatively new invention that replaced the cumbersome sugar loaf and the success of the cubing machine made Henry Havemeyer’s fortune. There is no mention of the types of hanging fruit and dead game carved into furniture so popular in masculine dining rooms and afforded by the wealthy providers. In contrast to John George Brown’s pictures of working boys with fruit, class, not race, is the subtext.

Bananas and pineapples were not native to the United States and so needed to be introduced and marketed. Klein does not mention that pineapples were rented in colonial times as table centerpieces to impress company. Seldom eaten, they were returned intact after use! The pineapple was a symbol of hospitality and appeared carved atop fence posts and finials. They contained an aristocratic association. By the 1920s and 1930s pineapples were imported by the Dole Company from Hawai’i and bananas by the United Fruit Company from the Caribbean and South America. In both cases Klein writes that these companies had tentacles extending into Latin American and Hawaiian economics and politics and were often resented by the local populations even while they provided jobs. Klein aptly illustrates advertising literature from both companies and their use of modernist aesthetics to reach American markets. Far from erasing native association with their produce, Dole incorporated pictures of Indigenous families enjoying the fruit and lobbied for the annexation of Hawai’i as a state. But long before, in the 1890s, the US overthrew the government of Hawai’i and installed a military government friendly to white farmers—repeating a story of American imperialist domination that ruled American foreign policy after the Spanish-American War. White immigration failed and by 1920 the great majority of pineapple workers were Asian, forcing the company to lobby for the lifting of the 1924 Asian Exclusion Act in order to maintain its labor force. To me, this final chapter was the most compelling regarding the politics of industry and racism.

Klein has written a book that tells a story about racism and the growth of the industrialized fruit industry. This is surely a method that could be applied to many foods—peanuts, tomatoes, or potatoes, for example. Renditions of these foods were rampant during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. More recently, where do Pop art renditions of food, such as Andy Warhol’s soup cans or Claes Oldenburg’s eggs, fit into the connections between art, politics, racism, and empire? Gender and class issues regarding food require further study. Many scholars are today mining cookbooks for trends that help explain imagery. Klein does, in fact, comment on Kara Walker’s work and makes thought-provoking suggestions about the types of research needed to further the field of studies of food and visual culture.

Klein’s approach is far different from that of another volume in the California Studies in Food and Culture series: historian Katharina Vester’s A Taste of Power: Food and American Identities (2015). Both volumes cover a range of American cultural and social history. Vester’s book analyzes American culinary texts and their impact on American patriotism, gender, and sexuality. Klein, by confining her thoughts about racism and expansionism to five fruits, focuses and contains the subject matter too tightly. But in so doing she has provided a well-researched book that contributes to our understanding of the new field of food history and its interdisciplinary partners.

Judith Barter
Field-McCormick Chair and Curator of American Art, Emerita, The Art Institute of Chicago