Albert Kumin's tools are sugar and water, heat, a thermometer, dyes and a marble slab on which to pour the sugar syrup, heated to 314 degrees. Most of all, though, he uses his hands, which after 53 years at his craft, are gnarled and scarred and stained. With those tools he turns hot melted sugar into glorious life.
Kumin pulls sugar into ropes to weave a basket as delicate and precious as porcelain. He blows sugar, just as glass is blown, to create shimmering pieces of fruit to fill the bowl. And he molds sugar for flower petals and leaves.One of his baskets is part of an astonishing exhibit of 200 culinary fantasies called "The Confectioner's Art," now at the American Craft Museum in New York. The show will travel to 10 cities into 1991.
Pulling sugar is hard work, requiring strength and speed. At a touch he shapes the petals of a rose; a twist, and there's a leaf. And in no time he has "pretty much a rose like Mother Nature makes 'em."
Kumin, a former White House pastry chef who is tall and trim, apparently is able to resist the temptation of his own creations. However, no matter how lovely or ingenious, what he creates is temporary, and his basket and some of the other pieces may not even last through the tour of "The Confectioners' Art."
"In our trade, you understand, if it lasts forever, we would lose our jobs. So you make another," said Kumin, now executive chef at the International Pastry Arts Center in Elmsford, N.Y., during a demonstration of his work at the museum.
"The Confectioner's Art" is one rarely recognized, but apparently popular, as people have lined up outside the museum to see such works as a sugar recreation of a Spanish cathedral door, stunning in its intricacy; what appears to be a tapestry of the Statue of Liberty, actually made from jelly beans; a gorgeous blown sugar vase, with a surprise cadre of sugar ants marching up one side; a chocolate bowl that looks like swirled pottery; or an extravagant chocolate New York City skyline carved into a giant Big Apple.
There are edible bracelets, a dazzling sugar White House and Disney castle, glorious wedding cakes and a licorice mosaic. Some pieces are witty and silly; some are literally too pretty to eat.
The creators are equally diverse, some without formal training, pastry chefs or artists who also work with more lasting materials, even major manufacturers who introduced some whimsy in their products.
The exhibit also includes the history of sugar and chocolate; tools of the trade; holiday sweets; and packaging and presentation.
Meryle Evans, a food historian and curator of the exhibit, said its popularity stems from the place sugar and chocolate hold in our hearts - and tummies.
"Sweet foods are associated with celebration, with rites of passage, prosperity and collective joy," she said. "Sweets and their creators have, over many centuries, provided a mirror of civilization, reflecting the customs and traditions of society."
In Renaissance Italy, the confectioner first flourished as an artist.
"In that opulent, extravagant era, with its ferment of expression in all the arts, the confectioner joined the sculptor, wood carver and architect to produce all manner of elaborate allegorical tableaux to grace the banquet tables of popes and princes," Evans wrote in the catalog to the exhibit.
Today, food arts have been revived.
"Food has become a much more important part of our lives again, the whole idea of an artistic presentation," Evans said in a telephone interview. She also noted that many pieces mirror more traditional art, including Peter Boyle's pink and lilac blown sugar vase, called "Ode on a Grecian Urn."
"People are coming in not expecting to see art; they're surprised somehow at the results," said Boyle, who also blows glass. "But some of the pieces could be in any gallery if they were in ceramic or a conventional medium."
But food holds special appeal.
"An artist, of course, hopes that his art can be consumed by the mind and the eye, and if it's consumed by the stomach . . . it's another way to have it touch people," said Boyle, an artist from Hoboken, N.J., who said his initial proposal for a sugar sculpture of a full-size barbecue grill with hotdogs and hamburgers was turned down as too lowbrow. But, he said, he couldn't resist the marching ants.
"The Confectioner's Art," sponsored by Nestle Chocolate, is in New York through Jan. 22, and travels to Atlanta, Philadelphia, Bloomfield Hills, Mich., Chicago, Denver, Seattle, Salt Lake City and Tampa, Fla.
Evans said she hopes people will leave this exhibit "with an appreciation of the art of men and women dedicated to making our lives a little pleasanter, as well as tastier."
But it's all look-but-don't-touch.
"For some reason, the mere fact that it's in a museum, seems to be a deterrent," she said. "Even none of the little kids have tried" to take a bite.