The doughnuts were first. A dozen of them appeared on Sarah Jo Marks’ dining room table one afternoon. They stared at her. They had eyes.
“Honey, what did you do?” Marks asked.
“I just bought you a crapload of fake doughnuts, that’s what,” said her husband, Dov. The doughnuts, stitched out of felt and decorated with sequin sprinkles, were a Valentine’s Day present. From then on, she became a lover of food rendered as stuffed toys. A collector of worm-ridden parsnips, a worshiper of felt toast, of carrots with teeth, of bananas that cry.
Today, two years later, Marks piles her collection of plush food onto the table. Pink cotton candy, pirate peas, an apple with a detachable worm, a portabella mushroom, shrimp sashimi, links of sausage and bratwurst, a melted ice cream cone, ribs, tofu, gyoza, pork loin. Gingerbread men with their parts bitten off. She hurls a stack of pancakes into the melee. Where is its pat of butter? Hiding under the angry asparagus, of course. A T-bone steak, nutritional analysis: 40 percent wool felt, 50 percent polyester fiberfill, 0 percent actual meat. “Love us,” implores its tag, “don’t eat us.”
“What do you do with them?” I ask.
“That’s the problem,” Marks says.
How much is too much? Collecting is a disease. After you own something, you have to take care of it. In a way, Marks believes, it owns you. “Finding it is the fun part,” she adds, “the ‘Oh, my god, I found an orange in a teppanyaki outfit!’”
Growing up with parents who needed that one next last thing to complete the collection makes you hyperaware of the perils of acquisition. She could see living a monkish, ascetic life on a mountain somewhere, without a single collectible to worry about. Then again, she can also see her favorite plush ham sitting, ironically, on a beautiful, sleek modern couch.
Collectors eventually specialize. Marks, for instance, won’t buy stuff that’s crocheted — the crocheted-food subset being, in the increasingly diverse world of plush food, “a whole other problem.”
She pauses from her food arranging and gazes off into the recesses of the house. “I’m looking for stuff wearing glasses. I have a carrot wearing glasses somewhere in the other room.”
Marks looks like Enid in Ghost World, with the short black bob, the eyeglasses, pale skin and mischievous expression. She used to be much more organized. But now, Marks will toss the doughnuts willy-nilly on the meat shelf. The system, admittedly, was never perfect, because where do you put the giant tea bags?
At this point, a piece of plush food has to be pretty great for her to wish to acquire it. It has to be, say, a daikon wearing a tracksuit.
Current pricing sucks for plush-food creators. Sewing a set of $20 shish-kebab skewers can take a half-day. It’s currently a buyer’s market. Plush-food collectors reap the benefits.
It’s the food’s soulfulness that’s so moving. Walk into a room and you’ll notice everything looking at you, some of it with sad expressions. Even the stuff without a face is poignant. A soft, fuzzy roasted chicken contained in a hard-plastic rotisserie pack, for instance. The art-food scene is a very small one, and Marks and the roasted chicken’s creator, Shane Geil, became friends. Geil makes maggots. They got to talking.
How do you put a maggot inside a chicken? How? How? How? This question tormented Geil for a year. The designer’s classic dilemma had struck — how to bend practical construction to the fantasy aesthetic in your mind’s eye. “I want you to have it,” Geil said, handing Marks the finished product — a maggot (big as a newborn baby) wearing a chicken suit — “since you inspired it.”
Some foods seem to be created in plush over and over again. Toast. Doughnuts. Cupcakes. In plush, as in life, carbohydrates are well represented.
Heidi Kenney is the Monet of the plush-food art bunch. Everybody wants one of her placid pastel doughnuts. Or her milk-carton men, the very essence of dairy. Her burnt toast, happy toast, croissant or moldy bread. Perhaps a cabbage or two.
Jared Deal, meanwhile, is the plush Dali. Talk about weird. His catfish has the head of a cat and the body of a fish, served on a silver platter.
Kenta Shibusawa is the Da Vinci: He oozes precision. His realist pastries — éclairs, bonbons, tartlets, cinnamon twists, chocolate petit fours — take everyone’s breath away (and make their tummies grumble) with their verisimilitude.
At heart, though, these guys are all Kandinskys, creators of pieces so deceptively simple and playful, it seems a 5-year-old could have come up with them.
Marks, who, in normal life, is a documentary-film consultant, curated a plush-food show at one point. “STUFFED” took place last Thanksgiving at the Munky King store on Melrose. Like a potluck, artists brought in their contributions, lampooning the traditional American food spread: Lobsters, pizza and other savories surrounded a giant plush turkey for the “feast” area. Cakes, pastries and a plush tea set occupied the “dessert cart.” Produce went into a “grocery store,” where you could purchase items on the spot. (It didn’t sit well with Marks, the thought of telling a kid he had to wait three months until the art show was over before he could pick up his baked potato.)
Not every plush-food creator thinks of her pieces as art. Marks corresponded with a Japanese woman who was busy “crocheting little sushis” and extremely realistic fruit, with oranges that you could peel in sections. The woman had no interest in a gallery showing. She just makes the stuff for her grandchildren.
Later in the day, Marks arranges her plush food into a conga line in the living room. Behold: the entire food pyramid laid out on the floor. The circle of life in felt. Since “STUFFED,” she has acquired a mushroom, a banana and one egg. It would have been dangerously easy to buy a dozen eggs and display them in a real carton.
Humans have anthropomorphized animals for centuries. In urban cultures, where people had little contact with real animals, stuffed animals became popular. Does the plush-food phenomenon indicate our growing disconnect with real food?
Maybe. For health reasons, Marks tries to adhere to a strict gluten- and sugar-free diet. Doughnuts, however, are her weakness, being, as she puts it, “so delectable.”
PLUSH FOOD: A WHO'S WHO
Heidi Kenney: doughnuts, milk carton men, toast, vegetables, ice cream sandwiches, cakes, cupcakes, www.mypapercrane.com
Shawnimals: pocket pork and sausage friends (looking like they’re plotting something), www.shawnimals.com
Dan Goodsell: Mr. Toast, Shakybacon, Joe the egg, Clem the lemon, www.theimaginaryworld.com
I Heart Guts: Frankenfoods (a.k.a., cheese with fangs, green steak, bloodthirsty martini). Also, human organs in plush format. www.iheartguts.com
Steff Bomb: carrot, 10” Mr. Lertch asparagus (comes with angry attitude and can of spray paint), www.steffbomb.com
Shane Geil: roast chicken, Hello Maggot in rabbit or mouse pajamas, www.purpleflavor.com
Crystal Chesney-Thompson: Haminal, the pink plush pork in a can, www.haminal.com
FunFun: toast men by Mark Giglio, www.superfunfun.com
Planet Tokki: tofu, carrots, beets, www.tokkisom.com