A Paper on Joan Bruneau’s Fiddlehead Platter: Let’s Reclaim Meal Time

Our North American scientific and political histories have taught us to see food as nutrients not whole entities1. Our desire for fuel is devoid of our need for food and all the sensual pleasure accompanying what is put on the table. How is it that art has drifted so far from our tables? How is it that pottery has drifted so far from our food? How is it that food has drifted so far from humanity? What has become of the act of eating? I say act because it is with actions that we learn, test, ask and establish customs, that we question, cultivate and shape our cultures, that we perpetuate value systems and relations. Pottery enables the act of eating. It is the great mediator between our food and ourselves and can literally set the table for crucial conversations. No convivial conversation can take place at the table if we eat alone, rapidly or on the go. If we are to be healthy and have healthy food systems we must eat together and reclaim meal time as a manner in which to question, establish and perpetuate new food systems and traditions. Joan Bruneau, a Nova Scotian potter, has produced wares that ask us to change our perception of food and question our food consumption. This is accomplished by way of her work’s physical form, surface, presence, utility and function2. This paper will scrutinize exactly why and how her work embodies crucial food issues. Joan Bruneau’s work sets the table for vital food education, pleasure and debate in the private domestic  and public spheres, something that needs to happen if we are to live healthy lives.   

Berneau’s work raises many monumental issues around food production and consumption, however, due to the small scope of this paper it is impossible to cover all these pertinent issues. As a result I have selected one platter, Spring Platter with Fiddleheads (see fig. 1), one of many platters made since Bruneau founded Nova Terra Cotta Pottery, Lunenberg Nova Scotia, in 1995 to serve up three major food issues today: 1) We are out of touch with our food and unhealthy due to our privatized industrialization of food systems. 2) Food traditions, rules and education are skewed in the public and domestic spheres. 3) Regular pleasure in communal eating has been lost and must be reclaimed. Bruneau is currently making work for a show entitled Full Circle: Flower Bricks and Serving Vessels for Every Season that opens November 29 20123. These works together demonstrate that food issues have always been at the core of Bruneau’s work.

Fig. 1Joan Bruneau, b. Halifax 1963

Nova Terra Cotta Pottery, Lundenburg, NS, founded 1995

Spring Platter with Fiddleheads, 2006

Nova Scotian earthenware with slip and polychrome glazes

9 hx 53w x 39 d

markings: signed

Collection of Joan Bruneau

photo credit: Peter Eastwood


The platter’s motif of fiddleheads is a pivotal choice in Bruneau’s commentary about current food issues, it “grew from a series of platters designed to represent foods for each season – in this case spring and early summer, with the Maritimes delicacies of fresh fiddleheads and salmon” (Alfodly and Gotlieb 92). Here locality is connected to fauna and fauna to food and food to ceramics, we can see the direct path of Bruneau’s choices. Agriculture is intimately connected to ceramics. “After Man the Nomad settled, one of his earliest needs was to store the bounty of summer’s harvest, to allow him to get through the cycle of autumn, winter and spring before fresh crops were again available” (Hopper 20). This was done through impervious clay storage vessels. How far we’ve come since then, to eat every thing, from everywhere, all the time. We no longer recognized the seasons as a factor of what we eat due to globalized industrial food systems. “In just a few decades the out-of-season vegetable moved from novelty status to such an ordinary item, most North Americans now don’t know what out-of-season means” (Kingsolver 49)  at the sane time “a profit-driven, mechanized food industry has narrowed down our [food] variety and overproduced cornand soybeans. But we let other vegetables drop from the menu without putting up much a fight4” (Kingsolver 54). This a problem Joan Bruneau feels everyday and channels through her work. Do you reside in Nova Scotia? Do you eat fiddleheads come spring? Her platter by way of surface decoration asks you to entertain the idea. It is worth a fight.

Mechanized food systems are not only stripping our environments but, “our addiction to just two crops has made us the fattest people who’ve ever lived, dining just a few pathogens away from famine4” (Kingsolver 54). We believe there to be variety in our grocery stores but we are culling the world’s food to just a few tasteless monocultures5. Bruneau has a big qualm about honey crisp apples, she explains that heritage varieties of Nova Scotian apples “are all dug up and a [honey crisp] monoculture replaces the more diverse culture of apples. Honey crisp are grown espaliered, they are very vulnerable and spindly, and we live in a hurricane zone” (Bruneau, Interview). Bruneau is acutely aware that we must eat locally and seasonally to survive bodily and culturally. For her upcoming show Bruneau is juxtaposing handcrafted platters and slow local labored food with factory plates and main stream factory farmed foreign fruit. Slip cast giant red “Monsanto6” tomatoes will sit upon stark lifeless dollarstore white plates and be entitled “Everfresh” ironically “to counter balance the other pieces in the show meant for certain seasons- decorated with indigenously grown food and foliage and fauna. It is [her] comment about Factory Food on Factory ceramics” (Bruneau, Interview) and a call to action. The exhibition neighbors the Halifax Seasport Market and is key in thinking about the audience Bruneau is hoping to attract. “Somebody who’s a farmer at that market would so get [the Monsanto tomatoes]. They can be a catalyst to draw attention to the pots.” By taking domestic work akin to the Spring Platter with Fiddleheads (see fig. 1) that was designed “from a love of cooking and dedication to the presentation of food” (qtd. in Alfodly and Gotlieb 92), seasonal local food and pairing it with industrial food stuffs that are killing us and our ecosystems and placing it in the public sphere Bruneau is blatantly causing us to question our food values and systems. She is suggesting we could do better and suggests we do so by the sensual enjoyment and pleasure in eating.

Our general actions say we don’t value food. Jamie Oliver’s sure feels so. He states, “People don’t give a toss about what they put in their mouths every day… If you walk around your average supermarket, even though big efforts have been made, there are still lots of products riddled with additives, hydrogenated fats and a whole catalog of fillers-  fake food.” (Oliver 6) Jamie knows this must change. So what should we eat? Micheal Pollan has determined we should “eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants7”(In the Defense 1). North American eaters eat ignorantly out of season industrialized food-ish things synthesized in labs or in factories their growth dependent on chemicals and machines, our industrialized food now seldom touches the hand, with dire consequences. We live in a drastically disconnected and desolate foodscape. “So violent a change in a culture’s eating habits is surely the sign of a national eating disorder. Certainly it would never have happened in a culture in possession of deeply rooted traditions surrounding food and eating” (Pollan, The Omnivore’s 2).

We must make new food traditions and nurture old ones through eating and education8. Our cultures should codify the rules of eating in an elaborate structure of taboos, rituals, recipes, manners and culinary traditions to keep us from having to constantly re-enact the omnivore’s dilemma 9 at every meal but, we inhabit bewildering food landscape where we have to worry that some of those tasty-looking morsels might kill us. (Pollan, The Omnivore’s 4). Knowing what your food really is by buying directly from the farmer eradicates the doubt in your food and connects you to a community invested in combating food issues.  Besides, there is the integrity of something that just tastes really good because its just been picked and you know the person who grew it, if it is a strawberry its not just a visual strawberry, its a flavorful strawberry (Bruneau, interview) you can identify with that farmer and that land and that eating experience. “Preparing and presenting an inspired meal.. affirms our connection to identity, while elevating domestic rituals from banal to beautiful10” (Bruneau, website). The shared beauty of good whole foods and good health fosters respect and interest in their and our cultivation. The “wonderful thing about pottery is that every time [people] use it they identify with it. It ends up representing a memory of a past experience or a dinner party they had. People develop relationships with the objects we make when they use them” (Bruneau interview). So we must use our pots and rally together to see the beauty they give food. According to Marget Visser, renowned author and historian “one of the great eye-openers of the 20th century is the realization that the use of humble everyday objects is not only habitual- which is to say we cannot do without them… but they embody our mostly unspoken assumptions, and they both order our culture and determine its direction. Food is “everyday”- it has to be, or we would not survive. But food is never just something to eat” (12), food is culture.

We’ve arguably been trying to “invent [our] own food culture” (Mowbray 6) in the void of clear traditions. We’ve have established community practices and movements such as farmer’s markets, food co-ops, community gardens, potlucks, slow food11, buying local/eat local challenges and community shared agriculture programs and foodies12. We must cook and eat together to grow and perpetuate healthy food culture. When we cook now, we are never alone we, “bring fathers and mothers and kitchen tables, and every meal we’ve ever eaten. Food is never just food. It’s also a way of getting at something else: who we are, who we have been, and we want to be” (Wizenberg 2). Johnathan Foer explains in his book Eating Animals that food is story and defines us, for his grandmother food, “is not food. It is terror, dignity, gratitude, vengeance, joyfulness, humiliation, religion, history, and, of course, love13” (5). Food is a way of life and life is meant to be shared. Bruneau’s platters by way of their size explicably denote this, they ask us to, “slow down and enjoy the sensuality of eating” (Bruneau, Interview) and share a meal. When you get right down to it, it is “all about pleasure… We know that the fresher the food is and if is grown locally, in a non industrial environment, it is going to taste better. It’s quite basic… it is the same principal in living and using beautiful objects… it is fundamentally about beauty and quality of life” (Bruneau, interview). We know “Good food and good company are two of life’s greatest pleasures, and the dinning room is where these pleasures come together” (Pottery Barn 7). Bruneau’s Spring Platter with Fiddleheads (see fig. 1) when brought to the table is all about drama. Your platters and bowls frame your food, your ideas about food and your enjoyment of that food (Bruneau, Interview). As ceramic guru Robbin Hopper writes, “cooking and serving are closely related” (24) and so is the joy there in, we must do them together as food conscious civilized eaters.

Civilization entails shaping, regulating, constraining, and dramatizing ourselves; we echo the preferences and the principles of our culture in the way we treat our food” (Visser 12). “Eating is an agricultural act, it is also an ecological act and a political act too” (Pollan, The Omnivore’s 4). It is also an artful act. Contemporary Craft Practices, Craft History, Food Science,  Food Politics, Agriculture, and Cultural History accompany us to eat everyday. Bruneau harnesses this power in her work, it is arguably activist work. She knows that the “important thing is to educate the public” (Bruneau, interview) and asks us to learn by eating. The work really is, “a feast for the eyes and a delight to use,” her “intent as a studio potter is to inspire interaction with pots” (Bruneau, website) and with this interaction get us back in touch with our food, perpetuate good food traditions and reclaim joy in eating together, necessary actions if we are to survive.


  1. In The Defense of Food by Michael Pollan is a tome to defend and clarify such a grand statement. The first ten chapters of his eater’s manifesto is dedicated to “The Age of Nutritionism”. It follows the path that science took breaking down our whole foods into nutrients to establish cause and effect in health. The thing is science has failed. Food is far to complex, the nutrient by nutrient approach fails to make us healthy. However, by scientific business standards new claims must be made and a food industry pushes such claims along creating epic food fads. Governments issue dietary guidelines heavily swayed by this industry. My favorite example of corruption is when the American Heart Association in January 1977 put forth guidelines, “calling on Americans to cut down their consumption of red meat and dairy products. Within weeks a firestorm of criticism, emanating chiefly from the red meat and dairy industries” caused the statement to be withdrawn and replaced with “choose meats, poultry, and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake” (23). Politics took us from “cut down” to “choose”.
  2. Please refer to Bruneau’s website <http://www.joanbruneau.com/> for a sampling of her work that visually proves my point.
  3. Please refer to the Mary E. Black Gallery website <http://www.craft-design.ns.ca/gallery.html> for more information in regards to the opening.
  4. Kingsolver’s struggle to ensure heirloom vegetables and animals prosper is humorously depicted in chapter 19 of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life where she rears turkeys to naturally reproduce- something factory farm turkeys do not do.
  5. For an staggering example of what monocultures can do to a landscape and community read “Vanishing Species” (Pollan, The Omnivore’s 38
  6. Monsnato = death.
  7. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. That is, more or less, the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy” which Pollan spends all of the book In the Defense of Food defending. He tries to simplify food so we can enjoy good health again and comes up with this subsequent rule- only eat what your Great Grandmother considered to be food. Bread by its label and her standards is no longer “food”.
  8. Food education in schools is so important. Jamie Oliver has taken great steps teach both children and adults about cooking. His pledge it forward challenge, presented in “Jamie’s Food Revolution” is a novel idea. The man is proactive!
  9. “To one degree or another, the question of what to have for dinner assails every omnivore, and always has. When you can eat just about anything nature has to offer, deciding what you should eat will inevitably stir anxiety, especially when some of the potential foods on offer are liable to sicken or kill you” (Pollan, The Omnivore’s 3). This is the dilemma.
  10. Bruneau is demonstrating the beauty of food with her ceramics not just in galleries, show rooms and homes but in print. She feels “the bottom line is beauty and it it really important that platters function, and function is also decoration, and the pieces are as functional as decorative objects as they are as object you use to serve and deliver or display contents”. To exemplify both aspects in functionality and get people involved she is collaborating with Elisabeth Bailey, author of  Taste of the Maritimes: Local, Seasonal Recipes the Whole Year Round. Bruneau knows, “there are foodies that are not visual” (interview) and is using this as a tool to let them see the possibilities.
  11. Bruneau has been part of the slow food movement and through her partners farm is interested  in the preservation of native foodstuffs.
  12. In a personal interview Bruneau confessed, “I’m a huge foodie and I love to cook- Since I’ve lived here I’ve always bought from the farmer’s market and eaten really well. Now my boyfriend is a farmer and grows his own food. He has educated me a lot about the difference between factory farmed food and something that’s grown local- he doesn’t use the term organic because its a marketing term”.
  13. Foer’s Eating Animals is a comprehensive investigation into the act of consuming factory farmed animals. As a novelist Foer understands that food is made of the stories we tell about them and in so struggles emotionally with what eating it means. His recognition of the complexities our eating rituals embody is mad impeccably clear in the conclusion of his book when he states, “Of the thousand-or-so meals we eat every year Thanksgiving dinner is the one that we try most earnestly to get right. It holds the hope of being a good meal, whose ingredients, efforts, setting, and consuming are expressions of the best in is. More than any other meal, it is about good eating and good thinking. And more than any other food, the Thanksgiving turkey embodies the paradoxes of eating animals: what we do living turkeys is just about as bad as anything humans have ever done to any animal in the history of the world. Yet what we do to their dead bodies can feel so powerfully good and right. The Thanksgiving turkey is the flesh of competing instincts- remembering and forgetting” (248).

Work Cited

Alfoldy, Sandra and Rachel Gotlieb, curators. On the Table: 100 Years of Functional Ceramics in Canada. Toronto, ON: Gardiner Museum, 2007. 22, 44.

Bruneau, Joan.  Joan Bruneau, 2012. Joan Bruneau. 30 October 2012

<http:// www.joanbruneau.com/>

Bruneau, Joan. Personal interview. 29 October 2012.\

Hopper, Robin. Functional Pottery: Form and Aesthetic in Pots of Purpose. Lola: Krause      Publications, 2000.

Kingsolver, Barbara. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. New York: Bantam Books, 2006.

Mowbray, Scott. “This Issue’s a Big Wet Kiss.” Cooking Light. November 2012: 6.

Oliver, Jamie. Cook with Jamie: My Guide to Making You a Better Cook. New York: Penguin Group, 2007.

Pollan, Michael. In the Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. New York : Penguin Press, 2008.

Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma A Natural History of Four Meals. New York:       Penguin, 2006.

Pottery Barn. Dinning Spaces: Ideas and inspiration for stylish entertaining and everyday dinning. San Fransisco: Weldon Owen, 2004.

Visser, Margret. Much Depends on Dinner: The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos of an Ordinary Meal. Toronto: Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1986.


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