The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook: Food-Related Memories, Meditations, and Favorite Recipes by Beloved Creators
Neil Gaiman’s unblinking omelette, Joyce Carol Oates’s thin-sliced defiance of grief, Marina Abramovic’s meteoric antidote to doubt, and other existential edibles.
By Maria Popova
“Art is a form of nourishment,” young Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. But the inverse is equally true — food is a form of art, and it is artists who have always savored this two-way delight most ardently. In the past century alone, we’ve witnessed ample cross-pollination of culinary culture and the arts: the cuisine of Futurism, Salvador Dalí’s erotic cookbook, great poets’ favorite recipes, the found meals of the Lost Generation, Liberace’s cookbook, a sampling of modern art desserts, and the meals of famous fiction.
Now comes The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook: A Collection of Stories with Recipes, envisioned and edited by artist and writer Natalie Eve Garrett, illustrated by Amy Jean Porter, and inspired by a the classic 1961 edition.
Among the seventy-six contributions from painters, poets, novelists, and other contemporary artists are food-related vignettes, meditations, micro-memoirs, and favorite recipes by Neil Gaiman, Ed Ruscha, Joyce Carol Oates, Nikki Giovanni, Roz Chast, Elizabeth Alexander, Paul Muldoon, Sanford Biggers, Anthony Doerr, Sharon Olds, and Marina Abramović.
The project does for food what artist Emily Spivack’s wonderful Worn Stories did for clothing — something seemingly mundane becomes a springboard for imaginative leaps into the depths of the human experience. Perhaps because food is so inseparable from our creaturely existence, undergirding these culinary curations are reflections — sometimes rapturous, sometimes poignant, often redemptive, always deeply humane — on life’s most inescapable commonalities: love, grief, growing up, the messy, unhandsome, absolutely beautiful journey of becoming who we are.
Recalling her first encounter with the vintage cookbook that inspired the project, Garrett writes in the introduction:
The more I read, the more the connection between art, writing, and cooking made sense: Ideally all three are about something new. They all require some measure of vision, revision, faith, and magic, not to mention a high tolerance for disaster. All three also engage the senses, surprise and sustain us, and can be evocative. And, at their best, they can even be transformative.
Master-enchanter Neil Gaiman contributes a recipe based on a passage from his beloved book Coraline:
Her other mother smiled gently. With one hand she cracked the eggs into a bowl; with the other she whisked them and whirled them. Then she dropped a pat of butter into a frying pan, where it hissed and fizzled and spun as she sliced thin slices of cheese. She poured the melted butter and the cheese into the egg-mixture, and whisked it some more.
“Now, I think you’re being silly, dear,” said the other mother. “I love you. I will always love you. Nobody sensible believes in ghosts anyway — that’s because they’re all such liars. Smell the lovely breakfast I’m making for you.” She poured the yellow mixture into the pan. “Cheese omelette. Your favorite.”
Coraline’s mouth watered. “You like games,” she said. “That’s what I’ve been told.”
The other mother’s black eyes flashed. “Everybody likes games,” was all she said.
“Yes,” said Coraline. She climbed down from the counter and sat at the table.
The bacon was sizzling and spitting under the grill. It smelled wonderful.
“Wouldn’t you be happier if you won me, fair and square?” asked Coraline.
“Possibly,” said the other mother. She had a show of unconcernedness, but her fingers twitched and drummed and she licked her lips with her scarlet tongue. “What exactly are you offering?”
“Me,” said Coraline, and she gripped her knees under the table, to stop them from shaking. “If I lose I’ll stay here with you forever and I’ll let you love me. I’ll be a most dutiful daughter. I’ll eat your food and play Happy Families. And I’ll let you sew your buttons into my eyes.”
Her other mother stared at her, black buttons unblinking. “That sounds very fine,” she said. “And if you do not lose?”
“Then you let me go. You let everyone go—my real father and mother, the dead children, everyone you’ve trapped here.”
The other mother took the bacon from under the grill and put it on a plate. Then she slipped the cheese omelette from the pan onto the plate, flipping it as she did so, letting it fold itself into a perfect omelette shape.
She placed the breakfast plate in front of Coraline, along with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and a mug of frothy hot chocolate.
“Yes,” she said. “I think I like this game.”
Gaiman steps out of his fictional universe and onto the kitchen floor, where he offers a real recipe for Coraline’s omelette:
1 tablespoon milk
a pinch of salt
Beat together eggs, milk, and a pinch of salt.
Melt a large pat of butter in the frying pan, coat the pan with it, then pour it into the egg mixture and beat it in.
Pour the mixture into the pan.
Sprinkle grated cheese onto the omelette.
Push the eggs away from the edges of the pan, letting anything liquid cook. Don’t let the bottom of it brown. Fold it in the pan or do the elegant thing where you slip it half onto the plate then let the top half come down on the bottom half. Garnish with fresh parsley or don’t, depending on the finickiness of whoever you are feeding and whether or not they are scared of parsley.
In an even further extreme of the levity-gravity spectrum, Joyce Carol Oates captures the mundane finality we only recognize in hindsight, that most gutting aspect of grief:
Something simple like scrambled eggs with onions and smoked salmon and a particular sort of sourdough bread, and he might’ve had a glass of wine, possibly two glasses of wine, and there’d certainly have been a salad, mostly red-leaf lettuce, though with some of those little red cherry tomatoes he grew in his garden; and thin-sliced cucumbers, and thin-sliced red peppers; for it’s a household custom to make a simple meal when you’ve been traveling, and to put a small vase of flowers on your desk for you to discover when you return. And it comes as a slow revelation to you — (you who are dazed with travel, both at the time and now years later recalling that time as across an abyss of such depth and vertigo you dare not glance into it) — that yes, this is the last meal he will prepare for the two of you, the last meal he will prepare on such an occasion, or on any occasion, on this wintry evening in February 2008, as it is the last time you will set the table for two and light the dining room candles in the glass-walled house; and so you are thinking that possibly you can’t prepare the simple meal that had been one of your customs, for it’s too soon, and you aren’t ready, you aren’t strong enough; a recipe
Scrambled Eggs, Onions & Smoked Salmon
4 eggs, scrambled
small pieces smoked salmon
In frying pan melt butter and cook onions.
Add pieces of salmon.
Stir in scrambled eggs.
With an eye to a different sort of grief, civilizational rather than persona, the Pulitzer-winning Irish poet and New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon offers a caricature of our undignified, self-defeating flight from and fight with nature — a satirical lament for our Monsantocene:
Take one pork cutlet,
preferably from a pig that’s been growth hormone-addled
and shows evidence of low-dose antibiotics
that’s sometimes swept under the rug.
Brush with a corn derivative
and place on grill.
Add two ammonia treated defatted beef patties
but only if they carry a USDA stamp.
On no account overcook
lest you accidentally kill
any of the superbugs
or other strains of bacteria about to enter your system.
It’s best if they’re resistant to drugs.
Take one Arctic apple
designed by the irresistible
Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc. of Canada
to itself “resist” browning when sliced.
Cut in half
and place on grill.
Set aside your suspicion that genetic
modification is now endemic
and season with verbiage that comes by hook or by crook
from Capitol Hill.
Turn the cutlet twice,
then drizzle with honey and low pesticide residue nutmeg.
For nutmeg you may substitute low pesticide residue allspice.
Via-à-vis the honey,
the ideal would be to harvest it from a collapsing colony
that had built some semblance of a hive
in your grill.
IN a pan sweat a small onion but don’t
for a moment succumb to pathogen-paranoia.
Garnish with watercress almost entirely rife with liver fluke,
raised as it was a hydroponic rill
that’s the runoff from a piggery.
As to whether the Arctic apple is “truly non-browning,”
you’ll have to wait and see.
The poet Elizabeth Alexander offers a counterpoint to this tenuous question of authenticity as she reflects on the cultural and culinary heritage of her late husband, whom she eulogized so beautifully in her memoir of love and loss.
With an eye to the idea that altering the “authentic” can be a sanctifying act of the imagination, rather than the hubristic desecration Muldoon paints, Alexander writes:
When Ficre Ghebreyesus and I met in New Haven in the late spring of 1996, the first thing he wanted to do was show me his art. He was living at the time at 218 State Street, the New Haven Cash Register Company building, in an unfinished lot where he slept and painted when he was not cooking his Eritrean fantasia food in the kitchen of Caffé Adulis, the restaurant he owned and ran with his brothers Giddeon and Sahle. The restaurant was named in homage to Adulis, an ancient port city on the Red Sea that is now an archeological excavation site, one of Africa’s great “lost cities.” Pliny the Elder was the first writer to mention Adulis, which he called “city of free men.”
There were paintings everywhere, mostly large dark canvases lit with brilliant corners of insistent life. The paintings gave a sense of his beloved homeland in wartime — the Eritrean War of Independence began shortly before he was born — infused with the light of determined humanity that would not be deferred or extinguished.
Our love began in an instant and progressed inevitably. When Solomon Kebede Ghebreyesus, our first son, was born in April of 1998, we moved to 45 Livingston Street in New Haven. Ficre continued to invent and cook at Adulis. The great food writer and old-school newspaperman R.W. Apple visited the restaurant and after tasting Ficre’s creations asked, in his article in The New York Times, “A Culinary Journey out of Africa and into New Haven”:
“Is all of this authentic?”…
“Tricky word, authentic,” [Ficre] replied. “Tricky idea. Food ideas move around the world very quickly today, and if you went to Eritrea, you’d find American touches here and there. There are thousands of Eritreans living in the United States, and when they go home, they take new food ideas with them. For us, that’s no more foreign than pasta once was.”
Adulis was a gathering place where people ate food they’d never imagined and learned about the culture and history of a country that most of them had never heard of. Ficre created legendary dishes such as shrimp barka that existed nowhere in Eritrea but rather in his own inventive imagination. Women called for it from St. Raphael’s and Yale-New Haven Hospitals after they’d delivered their babies; people said they literally dreamed of it, a fairy food that tasted like nothing else.
Here is how you make it.
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium red onions, thinly sliced
4-6 cloves garlic, minced
5 very ripe and juicy tomatoes, chopped coarsely
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
½ cup finely chopped fresh basic (1 bunch)
15 pitted dates (½ cup), cut crosswise in thirds
3 tablespoons unsweetened shredded coconut
½ cup half-and-half
1 pound medium shrimp (16-20), shelled and deveined
? cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 ½ cups cooked basmati rice
In a large, heavy pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onions, and sauté until wilted, about 10 minutes. Add garlic, and continue sautéing, stirring frequently to prevent sticking, for 2 minutes longer. Stir in the tomatoes, salt, and pepper. Cover and cook for about 5 minutes.
Add basil, dates, and coconut, and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 5 more minutes. Add the half-and-half, cover, and cook for 3 minutes.
Add shrimp to sauce. Cook covered, until shrimp turn pink, about 5 minutes. Stir in cheese and then the rice, and serve immediately.
Artist Marina Abramović cooks up a conceptual menu partway between Yoko Ono’s action-poems and Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Do It:
In time of doubt
keep a small meteorite
in your mouth
to be consumed on a solar eclipse
take 13 leaves of uncut
green cabbage with
13,000 grams of jealousy
steam for a long time in a
deep iron pot
until all the water
eat just before attack
mix fresh breast milk
fresh sperm milk
drink on earthquake nights
on top of a volcano
open your mouth
wait until your tongue
close your mouth
take a deep breath
Complement the thoroughly delectable Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook with its vintage counterpart and the fantastic, forgotten MoMA Artists’ Cookbook, then revisit Joan Didion’s favorite recipes and these real recipes from Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s books, illustrated by the great Sir Quentin Blake.
Illustrations and excerpts courtesy of powerHouse Books
Published October 11, 2016