Cooking the Books: Recipes by Artists
by L. Sasha Gora
A marriage of ingredients and instructions, recipes seek to standardize. They translate how hands fold and pinch and how temperatures heat and cool. Cooking’s mother tongue is a physical one and recipes translate these acts into words. They sort through the messy and often improvisational practices of turning plants and animals into food. They’re time based and relational. Written in second person, a recipe is a script. To follow is to trust, sometimes blindly. Other times, a cook wanders off course. And sometimes, a recipe even requests such wandering, as artworks often do. Either way, a recipe’s author pulls and pushes our bodies like each limb is attached to a string. Playing these strings, its author has intimate control. Knead this, taste that.
Pork adobo and Coca-Cola in Guelph. Maruya —battered banana fritters—in Mexico City. Pancit—both the Filipino word for noodles and the name of a noodle dish—in Berlin, and, most recently, “Swedipino” shrimp lumpia—spring rolls—with vinegar dipping sauce in Malmö. Under the title of Kitchen Codex, multidisciplinary artist Patrick Cruz has been cooking Filipino fare at galleries in exchange for visitors’ recipes since 2015.
It began with the impetus to share recipes: a trade between Cruz’s cooked food and the instructions to make someone else’s signature dish. It’s telling that Kitchen Codex’s debut bore the subtitle A Community Portrait.1 Between stewing pork in vinegar or deep frying spring rolls, Cruz asks visitors for their favourite recipes, or ones they know. “A lot of people who don’t cook recall something from their family,”2 he points out. Cruz asks them to write down their ingredients lists and instructions. Some are in Korean, others in Spanish. “It can be very impenetrable, which I like. It doesn’t have to be accessible for me or for anyone,” he explains. By welcoming recipes in any language, Cruz broadens the range of culinary knowledge visitors can contribute. He compares it to a secret ingredient—that feeling when a dish enchants you and you ask for a recipe only to find your attempt misses some sparks. The diversity of languages mimics this sense of what a recipe holds back. Just like Cruz shares his personal cooking—seasoned to his palate and informed by his own geographical and cultural history—visitors share recipes that are often biographical, connected to memories, knowledge, and lived experiences. Instructions for private meals shared in a public space. But visitors share these edible scripts on their own terms, not standardizing meals into a clear formula of: serves X number of people or goes best with Y.
Kitchen Codex, like much of Cruz’s work, is open-ended and ongoing. Yet, he plans to turn this collection of handwritten recipes into a cookbook of sorts. A future contribution to the library of artist cookbooks. After all, there is nothing novel about art’s interest in food. From subject to material to choreography, there has been a long-term entanglement between artistic practices and the social and political concerns of eating. As Jennifer Higgie writes, “[N]ot everyone makes art, but everyone who makes art eats.”3
More than a genre, cookery books are an artistic medium. There are titles penned by artists who work with food in their practices, but also ones by those who don’t. That so many of these titles are collaborative efforts reveals that cooking—whether as art, sustenance, or both—is never a solo endeavour. Artist cookbooks are worth considering at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing gatherings to distance and diversify. How are these collections venues for communication, ways to gather? How do recipes connect people, plants, and places, both near and afar? And, by travelling from studios and exhibitions to home kitchens, how do these recipes diversify access to art at a time gallery contact is limited?
Some of these cookbooks serve as records of previous gatherings and instructions for future ones, like Salvador Dalí’s Les Dîners de Gala (1973), a catalogue of recipes from the uncanny dinner parties he and his wife Gala threw. At their 1941 Night in a Surrealist Forest Ball in Pebble Beach, California, Gala wore a unicorn costume and Bob Hope ate a fish course served in satin slippers.4 Studio Olafur Eliasson: The Kitchen (2016) chronicles daily communal lunches the studio’s employees line up for, fill their plates with, and sit down to eat together (many of its recipes serve 60). Others deliver manifestos, like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s The Futurist Cookbook (1932) and Antto Melasniemi and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Bastard Cookbook: The Odious Smell of Truth (2019). The former employs cooking to further nationalism, enthusiastically waving the Italian flag and even concluding with a “Little Dictionary of Futurist Cooking,” which proposes to replace the use of foreign words like bar and sandwich with the Italian quisibeve and traidue.5 Melasniemi and Tiravanija’s book, in contrast, promotes hybridity, a dissolution of nationalism through the mixing of the authors’ Finnish and Thai backgrounds. In it, there are recipes for “Nam Pla Ice Cream” (fish sauce) and “Bastard pad Thai” Thailand’s and Finland’s most famous dishes, pad Thai and oven-baked macaroni casserole, baked together in a single ovenproof dish.
Some books are artworks themselves, like Dorothy Iannone: A Cookbook (1969), FOOD SEX ART: The Starving Artists’ Cookbook by the duo EIDIA (1986–1991), and Aleksandra Mir’s The How Not to Cookbook: Lessons Learned the Hard Way (2009). Rather than record past actions, these cookbooks initiate and stage projects of their own. Iannone’s cookbook is indistinguishable from her paintings and drawings that celebrate female bodies, pleasure, and ecstatic unity, and often include text. A record of her favourite recipes, her cookbook is written by hand and layers instructions over boldly coloured pages. Between ingredients lists of rice and parsley are confessions, self-reflexive questions, drawings of bodies, and other doodles. In 1986, artists Paul Lamarre and Melissa P. Wolf named their collaborative practice EIDIA, an acronym with multiple meanings, including “Everything I Do Is Art.” Bored of cooking, the duo solicited recipes—in the widest sense of the word— from other artists, including Hannah Wilke’s “Mussels Manna from Hannah.” Komar and Melamid’s recipe for “Burger Pravda” instructs cooks to take four shredded pages of one Pravda (the official newspaper of the Soviet Union, although the artists suggest experimenting with The New York Times as a substitute), moisten them with water in a meat grinder or food processor, mix, and then form into patties. Beyond the recipes, the project’s archives include photographs and an accompanying video series; running nine hours long, the videos log the recipes’ authors cooking in their studios, including footage of Louise Bourgeois using a table saw to prepare oxtail.6 Lastly, as part of Mir’s 2009 show at Collective Gallery, Edinburgh, she asked over 1,000 cooks to transform tales of kitchen failures into advice. Covering explosions, dating, and everything in between, the advice ranges from the practical to the berserk. For instance, “Do not check out the benefits to your arms when whisking Meringue because someone will notice and you will be teased forever.”7
Similar to EIDIA’s cookbook, Julia Sherman’s Salad for President: A Cookbook Inspired by Artists (2017) documents the artist’s own recipes together with gifted ones, like “William Wegman’s Charoset: Toast with Minced Apple, Concord Grape Juice Poached Figs, Pecans, and Balsamic Drizzle,” “Tauba Auerbach’s Shredded Brussels Sprouts Salad with Lemony Almonds and Shaved Apple,” and “Ron Finley’s Banana Blossom and Green Mango Salad.” In 2014, Sherman, an artist who has made growing, making, and eating salad a collaborative and performative affair, invited Alison Knowles to perform her classic 1962 Fluxus piece Make a Salad with greens Sherman had grown on the MoMA PS1 roof.8
Coding experiences into recipes that can be shared, exchanged, and brought to life remotely is a way of cultivating community. From 2017 to 2019, AKA Artist-Run centre on Treaty 6 territory (Saskatoon) hosted Locals OnlY, a community-based project exploring food security through intergenerational exchange between artists, elders, cooks, activists, and scholars in its neighbourhood, Riversdale. Partnering with local initiatives like the Child Hunger Education Program (CHEP Good Food), Locals Only employed art as a way of initiating discussions about local access to food. The poet and artist Kevin Wesaquate, for example, planted 200 misaskatomina (Saskatoon berry shrubs) as part of an effort to re-indigenize the neighbourhood’s ecology. Future berries for all. One of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, Riversdale is now experiencing unequal development and economic change. As another response, artist Jordan Schwab developed the project Somewhere between a chicken and a T-Rex. This installation of mobile carts functioned in part as tables from which participants distributed fresh fruit, and part as a blank slate, where locals scribbled their wishes and worries for the neighbourhood’s future.
Locals Only celebrates community through food but without sentimentalizing it, acknowledging that food can be violent. Across the lands now called Canada, food has been a means of colonial control. For years, government regulations have threatened Indigenous food sovereignty, from restricting access to traditional hunting and fishing lands to culturally assimilating children at residential schools with meagre portions of dishes made from wheat or dairy, ingredients imported from Europe’s culinary canon. Yes, food can bring people together but also, in the words of a T-shirt designed by the Bronx-based culinary collective Ghetto Gastro, which works at the intersection of food, art, and design to raise awareness and funds in light of the Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020, “Food is a weapon.”
In its engagement with food’s many faces, Locals Only concluded with a catalogue of conversations, poetry, projects, and recipes generated from its events. From Holly Schmidt’s A-Y, a bread-making exchange between elders in Riversdale, came recipes for “Steamed Braided Buns” and “Rolled Bannock with Poppy Seeds,” which map the neighbourhood’s Indigenous history layered with stories of migration and exchange. There are also recipes for “Puerto Rican Lentil Soup” and “Pickled Cattail Heart.” The nine artists behind the ongoing collaborative project Garden Don’t Care9 also contribute a recipe. Among a collage of photography documenting different aspects of their work together, a list of ingredients, or Adanac kebab is a handwritten “Recipe for Justice.” Its ingredients list inclusion and imagination, compassion and community. “Take the best of what we each have to offer,” it instructs, and “focus on that. Elect governments that support community-building initiatives and social justice actively and financially. … Do it again and again. … Share with all.”10 These instructions serve as an example of Susannah Worth’s claim in Digesting Recipes: The Art of Culinary Notation that the recipe’s “status as banal and domestic allows it to speak suitably messily about whether to impose new realities or to challenge existing ones.”11
Trusting the author’s authority, recipes chronicle a before and project an after. The ingredient list portrays the before, and often a glamour shot—or even just the dish’s name models the after. Recipes promise transformation: what you can eat after you follow the steps. They are aspirational. Their goals are clear. And yet no matter how detailed, a recipe can never be definite. It may instruct when and how to eat a dish, but never where or with whom. And during this time when people are cooking more and more at home out of necessity, recipes feel even more like suggestions and less like scripture. More people are learning to improvise, to use a recipe to cook up an after of their own.
“The writing of a recipe,” curators Marisa Jahn, Candice Hopkins, and Berin Golonu explain, “almost always occurs as a deliberate pause and anticipation of the future.”12 The pandemic has fused this sense of pause and anticipation, further abstracting what comes next. I asked Cruz about this. “I wonder about the next Kitchen Codex, post-COVID: will I be wearing a hazmat suit cooking something in the kitchen?” he laughed. His plan for the next edition was to print the donated Kitchen Codex recipes onto a tablecloth, centring this textile as a place where people would come to eat. “I imagined this tablecloth to be continually growing until it could be used to drape something or create a very architectural space where the recipes become the space,” said Cruz. Converted into an installation that takes the form of a tent or a fort, the recipes—and everything behind each one—would become the roof under which visitors meet. Especially while such a cozy congregation seems distant, artist cookbooks operate as other sites to gather, however diffusely, with their authors, and other readers. To follow artists to our kitchens to conduct our cooking, guide our hands.