“Images, and in this case artistic depictions, are a good way to provide that missing information,” said study coauthor Ive De Smet, the head of the Functional Phosphoproteomics Group at the VIB-UGent Plant Systems Biology Centre in Belgium.

“We are mainly interested in the story that, say, the modern orange carrot made from its humble beginnings as a weed, to its current popular form,” he said.



What did our food look like hundreds of years ago? Art history may have the answers

Vogue, June 01, 1975: In the underground art gallery in the home of Happy Rockefeller in New York state, the far wall is covered by a 1970 tapestry version of the 1931 Picasso painting “Pitcher and Bowl of Fruit.”




“Genomes of ancient plant-based foods can help us understand what this plant could have looked like — for example, color based on the active pathways that produce different colors — and which characteristics it might have possessed — for example, sweetness,” he continued. “This helps us pinpoint the appearance of certain characteristics on a timeline, the same way paintings can.”

De Smet and co-author David Vergauwen, who is a lecturer on cultural history at Amarant, a Belgian cultural institution — have been friends since high school more than 30 years ago.

Attending the same university they studied disciplines that, until now, seemed worlds apart. But every now and then the friends “take a trip together to visit a region or city we cannot convince our wives to go to,” De Smet said.

A few years ago, the duo stood in the Hermitage Museum in Russia, in front of a painting of fruits by the late Flemish painter Frans Snyders. Neither of them recognized the fruits, so the following question was whether the fruit had looked the same in the 17th century, or whether Snyders was merely a bad painter.



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