The Tale of White Trash

white trash page

     This piece is from a series of sculptural still lifes currently titled “The History of White Food in America,” which takes a fond, not overly serious look at the foods we loved in our youth. As a child of the sixties whose mother was not terribly interested in cooking, I ate my fair share of the offerings of Mr. Kraft, Mr. Kellogg, and Mr. Swanson, and judging by the instant recognition these glass pieces have received, I was not alone. While we know now that some of these weren't the healthiest choices for us, we still remember with fondness our toaster pastries, macaroni and cheese, and Salisbury steaks.

     This series follows an earlier collection of works called “The Most Important Meal of the Day,” which was my first foray into food-related glass and quite a departure from the functional pieces I had been making up to that point. It required all my skills as both a painter and a glass artist, not to mention months in the workshop and the cold shop, to meet the aesthetic and technical challenge of creating hyper-real glass representations of eggs, bacon, toast, and pancakes. As I experimented and eventually achieved successful results with these first pieces, I was encouraged to create more and more challenging items, and thus carried on from Froot Loops to fettuccine, and from single items to larger installations. 

     The idea for White Trash came from two directions. My mother’s favourite cooking utensil was her electric fry pan, which she used most nights of the week, and one of her most frequent offerings was a supper of boiled potatoes, boiled broccoli, and a Schneider’s meat product (their version of Salisbury Steaks) known as “Steakettes.” These, she tortured to a consistently overcooked dry patty in the Sunbeam Electric. I had been thinking about some sort of Steakette-related tribute to my mother when the idea of the “TV dinner” came from a friend, and I was immediately captured by the idea of also recreating the mystery dessert that was generally included under the TV dinner’s foil wrap.

     But because I couldn’t immediately determine how to stabilize a foil tray full of glass (should I be lucky enough to find one leftover somewhere), the idea was postponed until I remembered the divided stainless steel trays I had seen in the gift shop at Alcatraz Prison. Vintage versions from eBay were the answer. Since they were stainless steel, they offered the added benefit of being able to survive the high temperatures of my glass kiln, and thus could be used as a mould for slumping some of the food elements into the various compartments. And since they were bigger than the average tv-dinner tray, they offered more scope for an institutional-sized meal.

     With tray in hand, and a modern microwave frozen dinner for reference, it was time to begin experimenting. Since it has more different ”parts” than any of my previous works, White Trash was definitely the most challenging and time-consuming piece I have made to date. Dozens of initial firings went into the experiments with glass colours, coarseness and firing temperatures before all the elements came into their final forms. I mixed glass and fired it four times before I achieved the colour I wanted for the little pieces of carrot in the mixed vegetables, and the colour and texture of the ground meat took several firings to perfect. The beans were fired individually and then cold-worked to perfect their “beany” shape, and the sauce for the beans was fired at a different temperature (after several experiments) before the two elements could be fired again together - twice. The corn, too, took several attempts followed by cold-working before I was happy with it. Each shred of “cabbage” and “carrot” in the coleslaw was cut and slumped in two different firings over a variety of curved objects before being fired with all the other pieces, and then slumped into a second stainless tray so the salad’s contours would fit snugly. In all, it took over 100 firings to make the different bits and pieces, and hours of cold-working (such as sawing the “carrot” glass into tiny cubes) to create the final effect.

     And now that it is complete, I picture the care-worn prisoner at Alcatraz lining up for his supper, watching as an emotionless cook adds coleslaw to the tray and unceremoniously drops the single slice of white bread (complete with a pat of anemic margarine) on top. If the meat patty was cooked by anyone as determined as my mother, I can only hope that the gravy will help him choke it down.

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© Janet Panabaker 2021       follow me on Instagram!