Half eaten peaches, juicy hams, glistening grapes all lying nonchalantly upon a sill as if their owner has walked away for but a moment. A famished visitor to a museum finds no respite in the halls of the galleries. Food abounds in 17th century Dutch still lifes, Japanese pleasure quarter scenes, 1960’s Pop Art, Greek vases, Mughal miniature paintings... So, what if that imagined person just beyond the frame of the still life decided to make dinner?
On a warm September afternoon, we had our friends over to experience 10 courses inspired by works of art. And for the bounty we provided, our friends, all from the underpaid arts underclass of Cleveland, were asked to commemorate each course with a sketch or photograph.
A Spanish monk made me do it: The Planning
A few months ago, I stood in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts memorized by Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon painted by Juan Sanchez Cotan, a painter and Carthusian monk. The vegetables and food were so realistic and immediate I had to override an irrational desire to reach into the painting. Why were these items together? Could they be composed into a single dish? This incipient idea for a recipe blossomed into extravagancy thanks to a sort of dare by Foodbuzz, who planned to feature 24 fantastic food events around the world on the last weekend of summer (winter in the summer hemisphere)
The planning began with the free-for-all period, scouring the oeuvres of our favorite artists. After which, there was the lobbyist phase, where each of us pitched menu choices and associated artists. When reason and feasibility returned, the menu finally began to take shape. Some pieces were vetoed for sheer impossibility, making individual boxes of tea and ginger flavored sweets for each guest as an interstitial. Other items were dismissed for their unseasonal nature; we haven’t seen quince at the market and so Cotan was out.
As with everything we eat, our goal was to remain seasonal and to use as much of our Ohio produce as we could. Clearly there were imported items (spices, figs, rice), but the backbone of the meal remained the produced of Northeast Ohio.
Finally, thanks to Maybelle’s Dad, the menu involved some level of practicality—items were often nixed for their difficulty of preparation; many items were chosen because their flavor improved when created the day before.
“I will astonish the world with an apple”
After the Protestant Reformation, the Dutch cultural ethos of reverence, piety and humility infused with a healthy helping of conspicuous consumption resulted in a thriving market for paintings of food. Job Berckheyde’s Baker, with his crusty breads and trees of pretzels, seemed an apt herald for things to come and was the seed for the first course, pretzels and ginger zinger cocktails (1). The heady cocktail was planned and mixed by the sommelier for the evening, my friend C, as guests rested in our impromptu garden seating area upon the lawn. With the ample aid from the prosecco and vodka in the cocktail, guests were asked to assign themselves one of the four classical temperaments: sanguine, melancholic, phlegmatic, and choleric. Menu cards were passed out to be festooned throughout the meal.
No one item was more central to the European diet until the 20th century than bread even serving as tableware for banquets. We built these trenchers, day-old bread that served as plates, into our plan for the meal as they afforded us a break in plateware for the meal service and a chance to run a load of dishes. Our trenchers were made using Wild Yeast’s Olive Oil Wafers as a guide; though our wafers were flavored with fennel and kalamata olives.
When this project came about Maybelle’s Dad and I both felt that meat would need to take a backseat to the lovely bounty of our CSA and farmer’s market for monetary and sustainability reasons. And in reality, the amount of meat consumed by the average first world consumer far outstrips that consumed by the average Renaissance individual. So, in the fourth course, we decided to feed our guest’s humors with 12 different vegetable selections. There was a Greek concept, reborn in the humanist Renaissance, that there were four essential make-ups (melancholic, sanguine, choleric and phlegmatic); and to keep your personality in check, you would need to medicate with foods that counteract the negative elements of your internal composition. For the Renaissance hostess this meant that you would often need as many dishes per diner for each course, so for a 5 course meal, each course might have 20 dishes. In case multiplication is not your strong suit, the math results in hours and hours of labor.
While the fourth course was somewhat light, it had many complex and even competing flavors (as most individuals chose to eat beyond their humor.) For the interstitial course, we focused on an astringent. Tea scenes, often hosted in the Pleasure quarters of Tokyo, are classic elements in 18th and 19th century Japanese orints. In that increasing urban culture, steeped (sencha) tea, poetry games, and listening to the samimasen were part of cultured, urbane society. Today in Tokyo, perfecting cha soba (matcha buckwheat noodles) requires apprenticeship with a noodle-making master. Our sencha soba raviolo were in no way perfection but their cool rounded grassy tone topped with crispy daikon did strike the right note. Again, plateware was somewhat creative; balsa wood replaced the more tradition basketry box; and guests were encouraged to roll up the nori sheet and make a tea noodle handroll (5)
Banqueting in Asia invariably involves rice. In the Islamic courts of Medieval India, biryani, layers of fragrant fruited rice and curry would be baked and served warm. There are legends of the storied feasts where every manner of creature was consumed, but for the historian, there is also some about of fact. One of the Sultans (kings) had a cookery book with full illustrations published; subsequently, the Nimat Nama is a wonderful tool about what sorts of foods the royals ate. Though this course is Indian in flavor, the real impetus ended up being a Spanish painting. The great Spanish painter Murillo created a haunting portrait of a poor boy seated in a solitary corner eating tiny shrimp. That picture in its quiet loneliness kept returning to my consciousness, and finally I decided I would use shrimp instead of fowl as the meat in the Biryani. Our version separated the curried rice and shrimp to allow the dinners (with their varied dietary concerns) to reconstruct a small layered biryani on their plates.(6)
In an effort to puncture the food lethargy that would inevitably set in at this point in the meal and create a break before the final courses. The next palate cleanser was fairly biting—pear sorbet with candied ginger letters (7). Pop artists often used words and letters in ironic and interesting juxtapositions in their arts. While Claes Oldenburg's Alphabet in the Form of a Popsicle is a lithograph, it is so sensual and tactile you can taste it. Our goal was to recreate this look and the irony of words in edible form; achieved here using letter fondant cutters and candied ginger. As guests ate their tablespoon of pear/ fresh ginger sorbet, they attempted to create words from their letters.
In our overly food rich society, it is no surprise that contemporary artists continue to use food as a central motif. The Chinese artist Li Jin displays an unending banquet with skewers preparing to be placed within a hotpot. Rather than literally recreate his dish, we took three visual elements to inspire brochettes—duck with plums, coke bottle ham, and merguez and Ohio maple syrup (8). These were served with lovely little potatoes, simply roasted and salted. While there were some protestations at the onset of the course of supposed overfilling of our guests, the meat platters returned to the kitchen completely empty.
Due to our amateur’s zeal, the portioning was definitely off during the courses, and by the simple salad seemed to be more torture than a palate cleanser. There had been dreams that we would all happily create salad faces (9) a la the enigmatic paintings of Arcimboldo, but alcohol consumption, overeating, and sundown all prevented such things. While the designated drivers in the bunch seemed to have fun making faces, most others happily conversed as they pushed the mixed greens around their plate or enjoyed only a virtual salad.
In the very beginning of this process, the first image I had in my mind was of surrealist Rene Magritte’s apples. The apple, that stuff of Edenic damnation and Johnny Appleseed all-Americanness, was something that engaged artists. Cezanne dreamed of astonishing the art world with his depictions of the fruit. But for my money, it is Magritte with his apples as a faces with bowler hats and his apples that are not which engaged me. Magritte’s art is about the real and the fake overlapping and convoluting not unlike our menu altogether. Ceci n’est pas un tart, n’est-ce pas? Our apple tarts were served with pistachio kulfi, sugar, and edible paper (10). As the sun had long since set on our happy group, they were eaten by candle light with very strong coffee and much good humor.
Conclusion: "Art is what you can get away with."
At the onset of yesterday, it seemed to be a once in a lifetime insanity to create a tasting menu as a homecook and an amateur at that. But, in the end, when you invite your friends, plan carefully, and make sure to salt everything, good results were truly possible. The event was just that garden party we desired. Our guests were an ideal audience, convivial companions who had already loved art and were resolute in their love of food. They were game to draw and photograph the meal and amenable to all of the insanity to which we subjected them.
Thanks to all my friends who joined us and helped supply drinks for each course, M for helping with the menu, C for the wine selections, my boss for letting me take a few hours off this week, my mom for watching the baby, Clement for help with the wines, L and A and all the guests for helping with the clean up, and to Foodbuzz for the impetus.
Art Object: Job Berckheyde, The Baker, about 1681, Oil on canvas, Worcester Art Museum
Paired with wheat beer and ginger cocktails
Spicy Fig Samosas upon Carrot Raita paired with
Fava Bean and heirloom tomato Panzanella
Art Object: Luis Meléndez, Still Life with Figs and Bread, 1760s, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington
Paired with Trimbach Riesling
White Bean Gazpacho with Flagolet Salad
Art Objects: Giovanna Garzoni, A Dish of Broad Beans, 1600 & Annibale Carracci, The Beaneater, Oil on canvas, Galleria Colonna, Rome
Pairing:Huber Hugo Gruner Veltliner
Carrot and Walnut Salad
Roasted and Dried Beet Salad
Red Lentil and Fennel Salad
Watermelon and Feta Salad
Pesto Beans En Papillote
Roasted Pepper Rolatinis
Roasted Buttered Squash
Art Objects: many, many...
Pairing: A to Z Oregon Pinot Gris
Tea House Handrolls (Sencha Soba Sheets with Daikon Salad in Nori)
Art Object: Katsukawa Shunchô, Women at a Tea House by an Iris Pond, Japanese, Edo period, Boston Museum of Fine Art & Woman Eating Soba Noodles, Japanese, Late Meiji era, Boston Museum of Fine Art
Pairing: water and a deep breath
Deconstructed Shrimp Biryani
Art Object: Nimat-Nâma, c. 1510, Collection of India Office Library & Estaban Murillo, The Young Beggar, Oil on canvas, Musee du Louvre, Paris
Pairing: Cloudline Pinot Noir
Pear and Ginger Sorbet with Candied Ginger
Art Object: Claes Oldenburg, Alphabet in the form of an Ice Cream Bar, 1970, Lithograph. Kresge Art Museum.
Pairing: Lunetta Prosecco
Trio of Meat Brochettes: Soda-candied Ham, Smoked Duck with Plums, Turkey Merguez with Ohio Maple Syrup
Art Object: Li Jin, A Feast, 2001, Ink on paper. Seattle Art Museum.
Pairing: with Ravenswood Vintner’s Blend Red Zinfandel
Make you own Salad Face
Art Object: Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Summer. 1573. Oil on canvas. Louvre, Paris, France
Apple Tarts with Pistachio Kulfi
Art Object: René Magritte. This is Not an Apple. 1964. Oil on panel. 142 x 100 cm. Private collection.
Pairing: coffee or chai