The 'Garden to Table' exhibit at Cincinnati's Lloyd Library & Museum reveals how food production changes with society via beautiful objects and illustrations

"Garden to Table" is not just the buzz phrase of home cooks and trendy restaurants

Berries from the book "La Belgique Horticole" - PHOTO: Provided
PHOTO: Provided
Berries from the book "La Belgique Horticole"

What could a modern-day apartment dweller craving fresh-picked produce possibly have in common with a 17th-century Dutchman? How about container gardening?

Garden to Table is not just the buzz phrase of home cooks and trendy restaurants — it’s also the name of the current exhibit at the Lloyd Library and Museum. Though known for its collection of botanical books dating to the 1400s, the downtown Cincinnati institution is taking a fresh approach to celebrating a summertime tradition. Historical illustrations of edible plants and vintage seed catalogs are being presented along with programming that includes timely discussions about food deserts, a walking tour of community plots in Walnut Hills and a photo project recognizing gardeners who inspire.

The two stooped figures that are depicted transporting a potted citrus tree deserve some admiration as they labor under the watch of a well-dressed gentleman, as shown in a 1676 book by Johannes Commelin. The volume is the oldest work in the exhibition. The library’s collection of 250,000 books and manuscripts grew out of the work of John, Nelson and Curtis Lloyd, three brothers from Northern Kentucky. They established Lloyd Brothers Pharmacists Inc. in 1885 with an interest in providing plant-based drugs. Curtis, in particular, amassed an assortment of books about medicinal plants while traveling the world for specimens.

Up until the 20th century, most published material about plants treated gardening as strictly a scientific pursuit, Lloyd executive director Patricia Van Skaik says. Reference librarian and exhibit curator Erin Campbell adds that botany was a hobby mainly practiced by wealthy physicians.

“It was a (sign of) status to be able to publish these books, collect certain plants and collect images from certain artists,” she says.

The realistic illustrations of fruits and vegetables from this period are the botanical equivalent of John James Audubon’s bird paintings. The text in an 1830 book from the Horticultural Society of London might be dry, yet the fruit is depicted in juicy detail and luscious color. Campbell regularly turns the pages of the books in the display cases to “rotate the crops.” 

The “democratization” of food production and publications would arrive with the victory gardens of World War I and World War II. “By 1919, it is your patriotic duty to grow a garden,” Van Skaik says. Government publications used cartoon humor to mobilize backyard farmers, even portraying cabbageworms and potato bugs as sneaky enemies. When GIs returned from overseas, bought homes and started families in the mid-1940s, seed catalogs turned to featuring smiling, shapely women on their covers.

Now a new generation is making gardening sexy, even on tiny city balconies. The Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation and the Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati have partnered with the Lloyd during the exhibition to promote urban agriculture and healthy “garden to table” eating.

Pictures on display from the Civic Garden Center and Walnut Hills show happy people of all ages and different races feeling connected with the earth. Van Skaik wants to highlight more of those faces during the exhibit through a photo-sharing campaign.

“Gardeners, maybe they’re a modest group,” she says. “They tend to take lots of pictures of tomatoes and the things they produce, but they don’t take pictures of the gardener!”

The sepia-toned photos of men and horses working the dusty fields a century ago at Carriage House Farms are as captivating as any of the rare botanical works in the exhibit. In fact, Campbell says visiting that North Bend operation today was her favorite thing about putting the show together.

“I could stay inside, researching these plants,” she says. “I love the illustrations — love, love, love them. But to go out and see them actually being planted and actually talk to farmers really fleshed things out for me.”

Any gardener can dig that.

Garden to Table: Traditions and Innovation is on display through July 13 at the Lloyd Library and Museum (927 Plum St., Downtown). More info: lloydlibrary.org.

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