Sandy Levins researches the foodways of bygone eras to create historically accurate faux foods for period settings. From a simple cheese-and-cracker platter to a traditional holiday feast, her foods help create the illusion of “lived-in” historic spaces.
Today many historic sites use food to help bring their stories to life. But to use real food or food products is to literally invite all manner of pests, from mice and insects to mold and fungus, to the table. That is why Levins creates her realistic faux foods from only museum-safe, nontoxic materials.
President of the Camden County Historical Society in Camden, New Jersey, she began researching historic foodways and crafting period-appropriate fare for the Society’s 18th-Century Quaker mansion, Pomona Hall, in 2002. Since then, her work has appeared at Winterthur Museum and Country Estate in Delaware; Historic Deerfield in Massachusetts, where her foods were featured in the 2010-2011 exhibition Dinner is Served! Dining and the Decorative Arts in Early America; at Savannah’s Telfair Museum of Art; the country house of American General Philip Schuyler at New York’s Saratoga Springs National Park; at the Deshler-Morris house, also known as George Washington’s Germantown White House; at Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park; and at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens in Virginia, where her faux foods helped bring the recently reopened Green House Slave Quarters to life.
A researcher by training, Levins pores over period cookbooks, studies 18th-Century newspapers to learn about local and seasonal food availability, has added terms like “off-gas” and “VOCs” to her vocabulary, and has had run-ins with curators about “lived-in” settings so accurate they include faux flies on the fruit and faux crumbs on the dining room floorcloth.
Levins lives with her husband of 42 years in Haddonfield, New Jersey, where she continues to enjoy the trial and error that is the fun of faux food, and savors the surprise and satisfaction of transforming plaster, papier-mache, and acrylic paints into historically correct dishes that actually look good enough to eat.