“Permit two egg yolks to recline.”
There is indisputable charm to cookbooks inspired by modern art, literature, and science, and the authentic recipes of favorite poets hold a special allure, but none come close to the magnificent The Artists’ & Writers’ Cookbook (public library) — a lavish 350-page vintage tome, illustrated with 19th-century engravings and original drawings by Marcel Duchamp, Robert Osborn, and Alexandre Istrati. Originally published in 1961, it features 220 recipes and 30 courses by 55 painters, 61 novelists, 15 sculptors, and 19 poets, including such luminaries as Man Ray, John Keats, Marcel Duchamp, Lawrence Durrell, Robert Graves, Harper Lee, Irving Stone, William Styron, and Georges Simenon. The diverse contributors take the assignment with various degrees of seriousness, some sharing their recipes in earnest and others using the cookbook as a canvas for wit and creative deviation — but all having invariable and obvious fun with the project.
The foreword comes from none other than Alice B. Toklas, who knows a thing or two about literary cookbooks. She offers three of her favorite famous concoctions, among which an omelet recipe which George Sand once sent Victor Hugo:
Beat 8 eggs with a pinch of salt, 1 tablespoon sugar and 3 tablespoons heavy cream. Prepare the omelet in the usual manner. Before folding it, place on it 1 cup diced candied fruit and small pieces of marrons glacés which have soaked for several hours in 2 tablespoons of curaçao. Fold the omelet to keep the fruit in place, on a fireproof serving dish. Surround with marrons glacés and candied cherries. cover at once with frangipani cream made by stirring 2 whole eggs and 3 yolks with 3 tablespoons of sugar until they are pale lemon-colored. Then add 1 cup of flour and a pinch of salt, stirring until it is perfectly smooth. Add 2 cups of milk and mix well. Put the mixture in a saucepan over the lowest heat and stir until it is quite thick. It must not boil. Be careful that the cream does not become attached to the bottom or sides of the saucepan. When it has thickened remove it from the heat and add 2 tablespoons of butter and 3 powered macaroons. Stir and mix well. Pour the sauce over the omelet and sprinkle ¼ cup diced angelica over the top. Then sprinkle 6 powered macaroons on top and, finally, 3 tablespoons of melted butter. Place the omelet in a preheated 550-degree oven only long enough to brown it lightly.
Tucked inside my original edition was also a flyer featuring several beautifully typeset teaser cards.
Irving Stone speaks to the life-anchoring power of a writerly routine and outlines “The Perfect Writer’s Luncheon”:
I am one of those writers who, as he gets halfway through a long book, decides that there is nothing he can possibly eat that will agree with him. I start out at page 1, line 1, weighing some 170 pounds, and a quarter of a million words later, in seventh draft and ready for the printer, I have come down to 145 pounds. With particularly long books, I get so thin that there is nothing around my hips to hold up my slacks; and, during the last chapters I find it nearly impossible to write sitting down because there is no flesh left to sit on.
As a consequence I have evolved the perfect writer’s luncheon, and I have not deviated from it in thirty-five years. My sole and complete lunch consists of an American cheese sandwich on toast and a dish of tea. There are times when the monotony of this lunch is almost unbearable. However, during the last year of the writing of each book, if I attempt to substitute a tongue or beef sandwich, or even a piece of chicken, I am so distressed that I am unable to set down a line during the afternoon.
By a rough estimate, I think I have eaten ten thousand cheese sandwiches during my thirty-five years of concentrated writing. They reached their point of diminishing returns twenty-five years ago, but when one has to make a decision between dietary ennui or indigestion — what choice is there?
2 slices of white bread — dull, factory-baked, full-of-air, unadorned kind.
1 slice pasteurized American cheese — presliced too thin, to be sure no pimento mixed in, too exciting.
Toast bread, lay cheese on one slice, cover with the other. On festive, daring occasions put open face in oven for a few minutes to get holiday change.
Beloved author and anti-censorship opinionator Harper Lee shares her tongue-in-cheek recipe for “Crackling Bread”:
First, catch your pig. Then ship it to the abattoir nearest you. Bake what they send back. Remove the solid fat and throw the rest away. Fry fat, drain off liquid grease, and combine the residue (called “cracklings”) with:
1 ½ cups water-ground white meal
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup milk
Bake in very hot oven until brown (about 15 minutes).
Result: one pan crackling bread serving 6. Total cost: about $250, depending upon size of pig. Some historians say this recipe alone fell the Confederacy.
Denise Levertov, an all-time favorite poet, presents her signature unnamed dessert:
This is a dessert I invented. No name attached.
equal quantities of:
Maple syrup to taste
(If you put too much,
add a little lemon juice)
with: Sliced bananas and walnuts
Creative culture icon Marcel Duchamp reveals his secret to Steak Tartare:
Let me begin by saying, ma chere. that Steak Tartare, alias Bitteck Tartare, also known as Steck Tartare, is in no way related to tartar sauce. The steak to which I refer originated with the Cossacks in Siberia, and it can be prepared on horseback, at swift gallop, if conditions make this a necessity.
Indications: Chop one half pound (per person) of the very best beef obtainable, and shape carefully with artistry into a bird’s nest. Place on porcelain plate of a solid color — ivory is the best setting — so that no pattern will disturb the distribution of ingredients. In hollow center of nest, permit two egg yolks to recline. Like a wreath surrounding the nest of chopped meat, arrange on border of plate in small, separate bouquets:
Chopped raw white onion
Bright green capers
Curled silvers of anchovy
Fresh parsley, chopped fine
Black olives minutely chopped in company with yellow celery leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
Each guest , with his plate before him, lifts his fork and blends the ingredients with the egg yolks and meat. In center of table: Russian pumpernickel bread, sweet butter, and bottles of vin rosé.
Legendary photographer and Dadaism godfather Man Ray takes a liberty of defiant proportions with his “Menu for a Dadaist Day”:
Le Petit Dejeuner.
Take a wooden panel of an inch or less thickness, 16 to 20 inches in size. Gather the brightly colored wooden blocks left by children on the floors of playrooms and paste or screw them on the panel.
Take the olives and juice from one large jar of prepared green or black olives and throw them away. In the empty jar place several steel ball bearings. Fill the jar with machine oil to prevent rusting. With this delicacy serve a loaf of French bread, 30 inches in length, painted a pale blue.
Gather wooden darning eggs, one per person. If the variety without handles cannot be found, remove the handles. Pierce lengthwise so that skewers can be inserted in each darning egg. Lay the skewered eggs in an oblong or oval pan and cover with transparent cellophane.
Anna Tolstoy, dedicated biographer of her father, serves up her Russian Mint Cookies:
Mix well. Make balls the size of an apricot. Heat stove — 350 degrees. Bake for 12-15 minutes till bottom of cookies gets light brown. Keep in closed jar or in a bag in the refrigerator.
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
Boil and cool off
3 tablespoons vegetable oil (any kind)
1 teaspoon baking ammonia (must be ground into powder)
25-30 drops peppermint oil
5 ½ cups white flour
Complement The Artists’ & Writers’ Cookbook with the legendary Alice B. Toklas Cookbook and the delightful John Keats’s Porridge, then wash down with some artful parody of famous writers’ imaginary recipes.