LONG BEFORE IT became a source of irony, food was a figurative object in still lifes, which were never so popular as in Europe’s Low Countries in the early modern age. Critics initially disdained the genre as merely decorative, lacking the moral heft of narrative art. But food has always had a story: It is ephemeral — destined to be consumed or spoiled — and thus, in a subgenre of still lifes called vanitas, a reminder of mortality. And food has cultural freight, helping to define social strata. As Amsterdam prospered from trade in the first half of the 17th century, Dutch still lifes morphed into luxurious mise-en-scènes featuring lemons from the Mediterranean and mince pies suffused with Indian spices. These were as meticulously staged as today’s Instagram posts, forgoing realism to make a statement about the increasingly rich, bourgeois merchants who had commissioned them.