November 2013

Teri Vlassopoulos


The Modern Art Cookbook

There's a certain pleasure in stumbling on recipes or descriptions of food in books when you're not expecting them. I read about something called "Noah's pudding" in Orhan Pamuk's Silent House this past summer. "I... slowly ate my dessert in little spoonfuls of pomegranate seeds, beans, chickpeas, dried figs, corn, dried black currants, with a little rosewater spread over it all, how nice, how lovely!" I'd never heard of a dessert like this. Lovely, yes, but strange, too -- chickpeas? It turns out that Noah's pudding's formal name is ashure or asure, a traditional Turkish dessert, and there are many, many different ways of making it. I found a relatively simple recipe, gathered the ingredients and whipped up a batch. It was fine, not necessarily to my taste, but still, the experience of reading about it, dog-earring the page, researching it, and finally making it was satisfying.

Mary Ann Caws, the author behind The Modern Art Cookbook, must understand this satisfaction. Her cookbook is a compilation of recipes culled from various artists' repertoires or inspired by their preferences, interspersed with paintings, photographs, snippets of poems, fiction, and essays about food or cooking. For instance, there's a recipe called "Cezanne's Anchoiade" in homage to the daily anchovies he ate rolled between sautéed eggplant slices on the way to his studio. Instead of pictures of the finished product, a painting by Julian Merrow Smith of two silvery anchovies accompanies the recipe.

What Caws is doing is highlighting the intersection between the act of creating art and cooking. "The sorts of things to be thought through available to the cook are clearly of a different order from the elements of still-life, but the worthwhile processes of preparation are bound to include looking," she writes in the introduction. And while it may feel facile to look at Edouard Manet's Cucumber with Leaves and tack a recipe on to it, Caws is more thoughtful, more researched than that. Instead she gives you Robert Haas's "Poem with a Cucumber In It" ("Sometimes from this hillside just after sunset / The rim of the sky takes on a tinge / Of the palest green, like the flesh of a cucumber / When you peel it carefully") and Alice B. Toklas's recipe for Creamed Cucumber (which requires no less than a dozen cucumbers). Actually, there are quite a few selections from The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, the dense, gossipy cookbook Toklas wrote while recovering from jaundice after Gertrude Stein's death. But any fewer references to the book and I would've been surprised; it's exactly the kind of source material that belongs in this kind of exercise.

And as someone who mentally collects found recipes in literature, it's nice to see that The Modern Art Cookbook divides its attention equally between both the literary and visual arts. In the beverages section, for instance, there's a great excerpt from a Chekhov story -- a description of the difficulties of hostessing a Russian tea party, of guests calling out their preferences for sugar, milk, no sugar, both sugar and milk, and then, after carefully putting together the right blends, having them grab the cup closest to them. I also keep thinking of Edna O'Brien's description of a raspberry-flavored jelly: "like a beautiful pink tongue, dotted with spittle and it tasted slippery."

Artists tend toward eccentricities, and their tastes are bound to as well. Dali, who probably hadn't yet experienced brick-shaped packages of frozen spinach, is quoted as saying, "I like to eat only things with well-defined shapes that the intelligence can grasp. I detest spinach because of its utterly amorphous character." The recipes throughout the book, however, are not so eccentric, and fall on the simple side of cooking. The first recipe (inexplicably credited to Georgia O'Keefe) is for roasted asparagus, and there's nothing remarkable or strange about it. Emily Dickinson's gingerbread is also straightforward, but there is something thrilling about the fact that the recipe was found jotted in her own handwriting.

I was relieved when I realized that The Modern Art Cookbook wasn't just a riff on modern art paintings. It seemed too easy to mess that up, to get it wrong or seem ridiculous, so the research that went into the cookbook and the direct links to art were reassuring. I wondered if this would hold true for another recent modern art-themed book released this year -- Caitlin Freeman's Modern Art Desserts. Freeman, formerly of the Miette pastry shops in San Francisco, developed her recipes for the Blue Bottle Café at SFMOMA. She takes works of art on display at the museum and breaks them down into cakes, parfaits, and marshmallow concoctions. The cover of the book shows a cross-section of the café's most famous dessert, the Mondrian cake: white, red, blue, and yellow cake cut into various squares and rectangles and then glued back together with a chocolate ganache to replicate one of Piet Mondrian's Compositions. And, yes, the whole thing could easily be dismissed as ridiculous if it also wasn't also deliberately thoughtful.

Most of the desserts in the book are less literal than the Mondrian cake -- it takes some extrapolation to make the link to the piece of art. One of Cindy Sherman's clown photos is distilled into an ice cream float with raspberry granita and vanilla ice cream mimicking the colors in the photo. It's topped off with a bubblegum soda concentrate you make with a few pieces of Bazooka. It's silly, for sure, but the photo is, too, and often it's Freeman's self-awareness and humor that can save the more tangential dessert interpretations from being too much. This is evident in her discussions of the developments of the desserts and the trial and error required. For instance, a Jeff Koons white-and-gold-ceramic homage to Michael Jackson and Bubbles ends up being deconstructed to white hot chocolate and Lillet marshmallows, but before getting to that point, Freeman experimented first with the idea of a frozen banana as a nod to the chimp. She coated it in white chocolate, and you can imagine what it looked like and why it didn't make it to final production.

It's the simple cakes that are the most stunning, though. Wayne Thiebaud was Freeman's inspiration before she became a pastry chef, and even before she became a pastry chef who made desserts based on art. The trio of cakes based on Thiebaud's Display Cakes are thickly frosted in dreamy pastels -- nothing gimmicky about them. But of course simplicity doesn't mean easy. I didn't quite have the courage for the Mondrian cake (despite the fact that Freeman had an embosser made that says, "you can totally make the Mondrian Cake!") The Lichtenstein Cake seemed like a good place for me to start -- more visually unique than the Thiebaud cakes, but still manageable. It's a stark, four-layer red and white cake, with the top dotted with those pop art Ben-Day printing dots found in Lichtenstein's work. Freeman is open with her wariness of the ubiquitous red velvet. "Come on, just admit it!" she says to it just being an excuse to eat something bright red. (Busted.) The color, though, fit nicely with Lichtenstein's primary color scheme, so she gave in. The recipe for red velvet is better than ones I've made in the past, and the point where you add drops of food coloring to the batter and watch it swirl together in the bowl of the stand mixer is a thing of beauty in itself. Unfortunately my finished product looked nothing like the clean lines in the book, but it tasted good, at least.

Unlike The Modern Art Cookbook, the recipes in Modern Art Desserts are far from simple, but they're a good way to deal with displaced art energy, for a day when you want to make something, but can't quite figure out what it is. Sometimes a cake can help. Both The Modern Art Cookbook and Modern Art Desserts are unabashed in their link between the pleasures of eating and making food and looking at and making art. The enjoyment in these books is derived not just from cooking from them, but from looking and studying them as well. The epigraph in The Modern Art Cookbook is Joseph Cornell's approach to his art, "Elements of the commonplace (easily forgotten) recalled vividly," and this is what these books do: take ingredients, desserts, dishes, and examine them from all sides.