Brain Pickings

The Modern Art Cookbook: Recipes and Food-Inspired Treasures from the Twentieth Century’s Greatest Creative Icons

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Picasso’s sangria, Emily Dickinson’s gingerbread, Frida Kahlo’s red snapper, and other delectable delights from beloved artists and writers.

As a lover of unusual cookbooks — especially those at the intersection of literature, art, and cuisine, from the Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook to Salvador Dalí’s erotic gastronomy to Andy Warhol’s little-known illustrated recipes to Dinah Fried’s magnificent photographs of meals from famous fiction — I was instantly enthralled by The Modern Art Cookbook (public library). Art historian, literature scholar and professor Mary Ann Caws constructs an “amalgam of literary passages, recipes, still-lifes, photographs and film frames” related to food, featuring contributions from such icons of modern art and modernist literature as Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Man Ray, Andy Warhol, Ernest Hemingway, Emily Dickinson, and Vincent van Gogh. Eleven chapters explore different courses and gastronomical categories — appetizers, soup, eggs, fish, meat, vegetables, sides, bread and cheese, fruit, desserts, and beverages — treating each as a distinct genre.

In spirit and sensibility, the project is the culinary counterpart to Literary Jukebox, pairing great literature and art with recipes and other food-related meditations.

Here is but a small sample taste to whet the appetite.

Maira Kalman, 'Herring and Philosophy Club,' 2006

In between painting and pondering the poetics of love, Vincent van Gogh tried his hand at cooking:

Vincent van Gogh’s
CARAMELIZED ONIONS

¾ pound (340g) pearl onions
1 ¼ teaspoons sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
Pinch of fine sea salt

Bring a small pot of water to a boil and add the onions. Simmer for 1 minute, then transfer to a colander to cool. Trim the root and stem ends and peel the onions. Place the onions in a pan large enough to hold them in one layer, add enough water to barely cover. Sprinkle with the sugar and the butter.

Cut a round of parchment paper to fit in the pan so that it snugly covers the onions. Cut a hole in the centre to allow steam to escape. Cook over a medium heat until the onions have caramelized, 25 to 30 minutes, adding a little water if the pan seems dry. Season with a pinch of fine sea salt.

Andy Warhol, 'Five Views of an Onion,' 1950s

Modernist cuisine godmother Alice B. Toklas is, of course, a prominent presence in the book. In addition to having pioneered French cuisine outside France in her influential memoir-disguised-as-a-cookbook, being the love of Gertrude Stein’s life also gave her a unique perspective on the Parisian modernist expat community as she hosted Stein’s famous salons, attended by such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, René Crevel, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso.

Alice B. Toklas’s
BASS FOR PICASSO

One day when Picasso was to lunch with us I decorated a fish in a way that I thought would amuse him. I chose a fine striped bass and cooked it according to a theory of my grandmother who had no experience in cooking and who rarely saw her kitchen but who had endless theories about cooking as well as about many other things. She contended that a fish having lived its life in water, once caught, should have no further contact with the element in which it had been born and raised. She recommended that it be roasted or poached in wine or cream or butter. So I made a court-bouillon of dry white wine with whole peppers, salt, a laurel leaf,* a sprig of thyme, a blade of mace, an onion with a clove stuck in it, a carrot, a leek and a bouquet of fines herbes. This was gently boiled in the fish-kettle for ½ hour and then put aside to cool. Then the fish was placed on the rack, the fish-kettle covered and slowly brought to a boil and the fish poached for 20 minutes. Taken from the fire it was left to cool in the court-bouillon. It was then carefully drained, dried and placed on the fish platter. A short time before serving it I covered the fish with an ordinary mayonnaise and, using a pastry tube, decorated it with a red mayonnaise, not colored with catsup — horror of horrors — but with tomato paste. Then I made a design with sieved hard-boiled eggs, the whites and the yolks apart, with truffles and with finely chopped fines herbes. I was proud of my chef d’oeuvre when it was served and Picasso exclaimed at its beauty. But, said he, should it not rather have been made in honor of Matisse than of me.

*Note: The leaf must come from Apollo’s laurel (Laurus nobilius), better known outside France as the bay.

Pablo Picasso, 'Le Gourmet,' 1901

Picasso himself, who seems to have felt about his palate as strongly as he did about his art, makes several culinary cameos in the book.

Pablo Picasso’s
HERB SOUP

2 bunches radishes
2 handfuls chervil
1 bunch sorrel
2 cloves garlic
2 soupspoons olive oil
1 egg yolk
6 slices toast (optional)
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Remove the green from the radishes and wash them with the chervil and the sorrel leaves, draining off the liquid. Put the radishes aside to serve them with salt later. After having reserved 20 chervil stalks, chop finely all the greens. Peel the garlic cloves.

Heat the oil over very slow heat in a stewing pan to reduce the garlic cloves, and then the greens, stirring with a wooden spoon. Add 2.5 liters of water, salt and pepper. Let it simmer uncovered for 35 minutes. Taste the soup, season if necessary, and pour in a mixer, then put it through a sieve.

In the soup tureen, beat the egg yolk and pour over it the soup, still beating, Scatter the chervil over it, and serve with the toast.

Despite once stating that Dalí “has had the monopoly on eggs ever since Christopher Columbus” (which he did), Picasso didn’t shy away from the culinary genre himself:

Pablo Picasso’s
SPANISH OMELETTE
(Omelette à L’Espagnole)

4 potatoes
2 onions
6 soupspoons olive oil
10 eggs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Peel the potatoes, wash them, cut them in slices and dry them carefully. Peel the onions, chop them perpendicular to the bulb, and heat over a gentle flame with half the oil in a large saucepan until they are slightly golden. Add the potatoes and cook for 15 minutes, stirring often.

While they are cooking,break the eggs into a large salad bowl and beat them until they are foamy. Take the potatoes and onions from the pan and drain them on a piece of paper to absorb the moisture. Toss them in the salad bowl, salt and pepper them, and mix it all together.

Heat the rest of the oil in the pan, and pour in the mixture from the salad bowl. Let it cook over a medium flame until the bottom of the omelette takes and is golden. Turn the omelette over to cook it on the other side, keeping the inside runny. Serve it with potatoes, hot or cold, cut into cubes.

William Scott, 'Bowl, Eggs and Lemons,' 1950

Among the recipes are also beautiful gastronomically infused passages from the public and private writings — from novels to diaries — of beloved authors, such as this succulent section of A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway:

As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.

And what’s a modernist volume without some Ezra Pound, who manages to violate his own don’ts of poetry in this delightful verse?

STATEMENT OF BEING

I am a grave poetic hen
That lays poetic eggs
And to enhance my temperament
A little quiet begs.

We make the yolk philosophy,
True beauty the albumen
And then gum on a shell of form
To make the screed sound human.

When Frida Kahlo wasn’t busy handwriting passionate love letters to Diego Rivera, contemplating political philosophy, or cooking up DIY paint recipes, she turned her formidable creative talent to the kitchen:

Frida Kahlo’s
RED SNAPPER, VERACRUZ STYLE

1 red snapper, about 4½ pounds (2 kg)
Salt and pepper
6 medium tomatoes, sliced
20 pimento-stuffed olives
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
1 tablespoon dried oregano
5 bay leaves
3 thyme sprigs
5 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
2 large onions, thinly sliced
8 red chillies (recipe calls for guero chillies, picked or fresh, but adapt it as you find suitable)
1 cup (235 ml) olive oil

Dry the fish thoroughly. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and arrange on a large baking dish.

Top with tomato slices, olives, capers, oregano, bay leaves, thyme, garlic, onions and chillies. Drizzle with the olive oil.

Bake in a preheated 375ºF (180ºC) oven for about 40 minutes, or until the fish is cooked, basting the fish with its juices 3 times during cooking.

Georges Braque, 'The Black Fish,' 1942

Georgia O’Keeffe’s
WILD ASPARAGUS

1 bunch (around 12 ounces / 350g) wild or cultivated asparagus
Butter or oil, to taste or for sautéeing
Herb salt and freshly ground pepper

Wash the asparagus carefully to remove all fine sand. Cut the woody part of the stem off, keeping the asparagus in long pieces. This tender, young asparagus can be steamed or sautéed

Edouard Manet, 'Bunch of Asparagus,' 1880

Man Ray’s
POTLAGEL
(ROMANIAN-STYLE EGGPLANT SPREAD)

Serves 4
2 large eggplants (aubergines)
½ medium onion
5 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
French bread, rye bread or Russian black bread

Wash the eggplants and pierce them with a knife. Place them in a microwave and cook for 8-9 minutes (for best results cook on a barbecue).

Place the cooked eggplants in a bowl and cool for several minutes, then split them lengthwise and scrape out the pulp with a large spoon. Put the pulp in a small blender or grinder, along with the onion, garlic and olive oil, salt and pepper to taste. Pulse, do not purée.

Chill the mixture in the refrigerator. This makes a great spread on French baguettes, sliced rye, or Russian black bread.

Joseph Stella, 'Eggplant,' c. 1939

From Pablo Neruda comes a beautiful ode to the artichoke, translated by Ben Belitt:

The artichoke
of delicate heart
erect
in its battle-dress, builds
its minimal cupola;
keeps
stark
in its scallop of
scales.
Around it,
demoniac vegetables
bristle their thicknesses,
devise
tendrils and belfries,
the bulb’s agitations;
while under the subsoil
the carrot
sleeps sound in its
rusty mustaches.
Runner and filaments
bleach in the vineyards,
whereon rise the vines.
The sedulous cabbage
arranges its petticoats;
oregano
sweetens a world;
and the artichoke
dulcetly there in a gardenplot,
armed for a skirmish,
goes proud
in its pomegranate
burnishes.

Frida Kahlo, 'Fruits of the Earth,' 1938

The penultimate chapter explores desserts — a course cross-pollinated with modern art particularly well. Found among the manuscripts of Susan Gilbert, Emily Dickinson’s closest friend — or, as some have speculated, more-than-friend — was the following recipe in Dickinson’s handwriting:

Emily Dickinson’s
GINGERBREAD

½ cup (115g) butter
½ cup (110 ml) cream
1 quart (560g) flour
1 teaspoon soda
1 tablespoon ginger
1 teaspoon salt
Make up with molasses

Cream the butter and mix with lightly whipped cream. Sift dry ingredients together and combine with other ingredients. The dough is stiff and needs to [be] pressed into whatever pan you choose. A round or small square pan is suitable. The recipe also fits perfectly into a cast iron muffin pan, if you happen to have one which makes oval cakes. Bake at 350ºF (180ºC) for 20-25 minutes.

Joan Miró, 'Bottle of Wine,' 1924

The book closes with a chapter on beverages, among which is this festive treat from Picasso:

Pablo Picasso’s
SANGRIA OF ELS QUATRE GATS

For 8 cups
1 bottle of good red wine
1 cinnamon stick
Zest of 3 oranges
3 cloves
4 soupspoons acacia honey
2 soupspoons cognac

Pour the wine into a pot, add the cinnamon stick and heat over a high flame. As soon as the wine is boiling, add the orange zest and the cloves, and bring again to a boil. Add the honey, the cognac and a little glass of boiling water, and serve very hot in thick wineglasses.

The Modern Art Cookbook is an infinitely delectable delight in its entirety. Complement it with Marinetti’s Futurist Cookbook, Liberace’s little-known recipes, and Dalí’s magnificent Les Diners de Gala.

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