Most moms and dads have a rule at the dinner table: Don't play with your food.
You might know all about this if you've ever made a mountain with your mashed potatoes or stuck your green beans in your Jello and pretended it was an intergalactic spaceship.
Imagination is a good thing, but food is supposed to be eaten.
Or is it?
Some chefs think of food the way you might think of paints, paste, and clay: They can be good for art supplies.
Once a year in Boston, a bunch of chefs create paintings and sculptures from food and then gather to display them in a show called ''Edible Art.'' (''Edible Art'' raises money to help kids study art at the Art Institute of Boston.)
This year, 30 chefs were invited to create a masterpiece that honors their favorite artist or their favorite work of art.
The results were surprising.
Some of the artwork was meant to be eaten. Chef Daniel Bruce chose Frank Stella as his honorary artist. He took white plates and painted on them, using squeeze bottles, lines of red paint (red pepper oil), green paint (parsley oil), and black (squid coloring made from the ink squids shoot at predators). Then he served smoked salmon rolled around cream cheese on top of his decorated plates.
The funny thing was, once you were done eating, you had an interesting blurry abstract painting left on your plate, almost as if you took a brush and mixed up an artist's palette of red, green, and black paint.
One of the most colorful and intriguing pieces of edible art at the show was Koji Takano's collection of Japanese goodies - sushi, maki, carved radishes, and more - grouped together in the shape of a Karaoiri No robe, which is a ceremonial robe worn in Japanese theater.
The shape of the robe glittered from afar like a real No robe with complex stitching and brilliant embroidery. Up close, it was a different kind of artwork: It was a cluster of pretty-colored jewels of food and abstract shapes.
Can you imagine how a chef might make a painting out of rice?
Chefs Paul O'Connell and Paul Hathaway made a wonderful replication of Vincent van Gogh's painting ''Sunflowers.'' They colored the rice and carefully glued it to a canvas.
Other chefs' artworks were edible, but you wouldn't want to eat them right there. Take, for instance, the replica of Roy Lichtenstein's ''Grrrrrrrrrrr'' - a growling dog. Chefs Chris Douglass and Eva Lebowitz made it by gluing a lot of different-colored beans to a board. From afar, it looked just like the cartoon-like artwork. But up close, you could see all kinds of beans - black beans, navy beans, red lentils, and garbanzos.
Creating art with food can be fun when you don't have to limit your artwork to a flat surface. Stiff dough is always a good art material, as Chef Charles Grandon proved. His sculpture ''First Buffalo'' was made out of popcorn salt, dough, corn starch, water, and spices. It won first prize.
Similarly, many of the desserts at Edible Art were like sculptures.
Pastry chefs have a lot of good art supplies to work with, such as sugar, flour, cream, and butter. And they have a lot of practice making sculptures. If you've ever been in a fancy restaurant, you've probably seen some of their pretty creations.
One outdoorsy kind of creation was Frank Vasello's re-creation of ''Walking in Circles,'' by artist Richard Long. The real artist created his work by dipping his hands and feet into mud and then walking around in a circle with them. Pastry chef Vasello made sugar cookies shaped like hands and feet, dipping them in chocolate (instead of mud), and arranging them in a circle.
My favorite piece of edible art was a simple, sharp-looking work made out of sugar. Denise Strang made slabs of clear colored ''candy'' in a tribute to Louis Comfort Tiffany - the artist who created the beautiful stained-glass lamps. She presented the delicate ''glass'' all broken up and strewn about, like huge clear lollipops that had shattered into precise pieces. The bright colors were a feast for the eyes.
All these ''masterpieces'' got me thinking about edible art and how you could make it yourself. (In fact, if you've ever carved a pumpkin or decorated a Christmas tree with strings of cranberries and popcorn, then you've already made edible art.)
It could be as simple making an M&M face on your peanut butter sandwich or pouring crazy-shaped pancakes on the griddle.
What would you make?
SWEET TREAT BEAST
Crispy rice and marshmallows make a fine sculpture medium. Follow the recipe on most cereal boxes or marshmallow packages; our chef suggests using extra butter to make it easier to mold. This critter has peanut M&M's for eyes and a nose.
Vegetables can be used, too. Raid the produce drawer for anything crisp, fresh, and colorful. The pieces can be assembled with toothpicks, or using peanut butter for glue. Make an edible centerpiece!
Here's a favorite party activity: Serve dishes of ice cream, and set out every variety of topping and sprinkle decoration you can find - the sky's the limit (or at least the ceiling).
This takes some practice - and an adult. Use the last of the pancake batter, which is usually runnier and smoother. Try various-sized spoons to pour out shapes on the griddle; start simply (teddy bear), then experiment. The tiger's stripes are lines of batter that cooked till they were dark, before filling in the rest of the body around them.