Looks Good Enough To Eat—But Don’t!

Sandy Levins, of Haddonfield, is fast becoming one of the premier historic faux-food designers in the country.

Sandy Levins with trompe l’oeil stewed duck, left, and roast lamb for an exhibit at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.
Photo by Hoag Levins.

Sandy Levins’s refrigerator and dining room table have lately been laden with delicacies that someone’s old-world grandmother would kill for—pickled pigs feet, sauerbraten, just-baked black bread. But before they reach for the rump roast, houseguests inclined to midnight noshing might want to check with their hostess.

Though the food looks real, more often than not it’s a lifelike facsimile coated in 10 to 15 layers of latex.   

Levins, who lives with her husband and 88-year-old father in Haddonfield, is fast becoming one of the premier historic faux-food designers in the country. Historical societies and museums call on her when they need, say, meat pies that look like they were made by Martha Washington.

Thanks to recent buzz in American Spirit magazine (sort of the Better Homes and Gardens of the Daughters of the American Revolution set) and Early American Life, a trade journal for all things colonial, her dance card for 2012 started filling up months in advance.

“I only just returned from Monticello,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I’ll be doing a number of hanging hams and slabs of bacon for Mr. Jefferson’s smokehouse,” as well as some smoked hams and shipboard foods for the frigate U.S.S. Constellation project in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Levins is also filling the larder of a circa-1880s German bier salon with knockwurst and limburger cheese for an exhibit at the Tenement Museum in New York. Called “Shop Life,” the exhibit is scheduled to open this fall.

Her rise in the ranks of the pseudo-culinary arts began 11 years ago when she joined the board of the Camden County Historical Society. She loved that the society’s 18th-century Quaker mansion was authentic down to the pattern on the silverware, but it was missing one thing: life.

“The house would have been really busy with family, with visitors, but you would never know it by looking at the dining room and the kitchen because there was absolutely no food,” she recalls. 

She began researching what a wealthy family with an open-hearth kitchen might have eaten in 1788. Jane Ann Hornberger, the education coordinator at the Winterhur Museum in Delaware, shared tips on how to make a hunk of boiled beef look different than, say, a beautifully browned roast. Levins soon found she had a knack for fashioning wedges of aged cheese from styrofoam completely covered with hot-glued wire mesh and Crayola Model Magic, and making gravy from translucent paint. Six years ago, Levins (historicfauxfoods.com) closed her medical records service business to pursue faux food full time.

“The thing about her work is that it doesn’t stand out,” says Richard Pillat, past president of the Camden County Historical Society. “You go into the kitchen and see the fruit and the vegetables and the grain, and just assume it’s the real thing. The difference between Sandy’s work and the rubberized plastic thing is they look fake and her food doesn’t.”

Since Levins’s bread and butter is the unrefrigerated 18th century, realism often involves vermin. When Levins told Pillat about her commission for the U.S.S. Constellation project, “I asked her, ‘Do they want weevils, do they want maggots?’” Pillat relates. “And she said, ‘Absolutely!’”

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