Before Salvador Dalí and his deranged cookbook entered my life, I had never eaten a cricket. I had never eaten an ant. I led a humble, largely vegetarian life. Then I got invited to a $125-a-plate dinner at the Chicago restaurant Ruxbin—a dinner inspired by the second printing of Dalí's 1973 cookbook, Les Dîners de Gala—and everything changed.
Dalí's cookbook is celebrated for its overwhelming Dalí-ness. The original print run was tiny, and the copies that survive today are wildly expensive, but this winter, Taschen re-released the book in all its glory. It begins with a stern warning to "calorie counters," cautioning that the recipes that follow are "far too impertinent" for their ascetic palates. (For example, his twist on avocado toast involves mashed lamb brains.) There's an entire chapter on aphrodisiacs, a dessert called "Toffee with Pine Cones," and tons of original illustrations, including one where Joan of Arc bleeds profusely atop of a tower of crayfish. In honor of the re-release, Ruxbin, a restaurant known for bending culinary rules in its tiny 32-seat dining room, decided to whip up a menu inspired by some of Dalí's most famous paintings.
Gastronomy—much like visual art—can be profoundly alienating if you don't have a certain experimental taste. When it comes to food, I certainly don't. Heading to the dinner, which would be served at a communal table, I had the feeling of someone on their way to a party of strangers who'd all grown up together. That feeling only increased when I sat down to the table at Ruxbin, which was decorated with roses and frozen fish heads. When a pork belly amuse bouche materialized, topped off with a couple of crunchy weaver ants (a famous symbol of decay in Dalí's work), I heard people discussing the distinctive "pop" that an ant's abdomen makes in one's mouth as you bite into it. It was not unlike standing in front of a sculpture and listening to people discuss references and techniques that you'd never be able to name yourself. I swallowed my ant whole.
The first course—inspired by the painting "Rose Meditative," in which a gigantic rose floats against the sky—included a rose, shaped from petals of beet, floating on a cloud of foie gras. To the chef, Edward Kim, the foie gras mirrored the painting in that it came from an animal who inhabited both the land and the air.
Fois gras is possibly the most controversial dish there is. Controversy is expected in the art world, but when it shows up on our plates, we have to confront it in a way that's far more literal. Do we put it in our mouth? Do we not?
Of course, there's often a beauty to the controversial, and I believe the chef knows this, which is why, throughout the meal, he presented his diners with this carnal, almost feral array of animals in such lovingly constructed displays. Later, he would serve a lamb saddle, lightly bloodied, in reference to Dalí's painting "Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War)."
The second course was laid out on gray stones, mimicking the painting "The Accommodations of Desire"—a bowl of squid ink pasta topped with a sea urchin and bulbous basil seeds that were inspired by the swarming ants; another bowl holding pink venison crowned with walnut miso; an eggshell cupping a frothy egg custard, seasoned with the juice of pickled mussels.
It was a luxurious, flavorful combination, but the taste that stood out to me the most was the urchin, which tasted exactly like the ocean. Dalí supposedly loved sea urchins, and would sit down and eat 30 at a time, plucking the meat from the shells.
Bodies, in the third course, were represented just as Dalí liked to represent them: as something warped, outlandish, and not-right. Each plate held a one-legged creature whose leg was a perfect miniature of a human one, like an edible Barbie limb. One had been formed by a piece of red snapper melded to the leg of a frog using the enzyme transglutaminase—which chefs call "meat glue"—to bind the animal proteins together. The result was a new, lopsided being, like something that evolution left behind. The inspiration for the dish was the painting "Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening," in which a fish vomits forth a tiger which vomits forth another tiger which vomits forth a bayonet. "A seafood Turducken," my dinner companion remarked.
There was something that looked like a french fry perched atop the Frankensteinian fish, but it turned out to be the red snapper's deep-fried spine, removed from its body and placed outside of it.
Back in the 1980s, Roland Barthes declared that gastronomy was "a kind of ethnographic ceremony by which man celebrates his own power, his freedom to burn his energies 'for nothing.'" As inspiring as molecular gastronomy and haute cuisine can be, these are arts that requires a lot of money, and a lot of knowledge to appreciate them. To recognize a deep-fried spine as a delicacy requires a certain amount of in-the-know-ness. Plus, as the writer Michel Delville pointed out, this sort of culture implies an audience that is already full, and can thus appreciate their meal on a conceptual level. Fine dining is not for those who are starving. Spines don't fill you up.
But the use of the spine comes from a humble tradition: using every last scrap of the creature. There's a joy, as a cook, in using every part of the animal," Kim told us. "Speaking of the surreal, in dining and food we remove ourselves very much from the fact that this was a living being. It always boggles my mind when people ask for the whole fish but then say, 'Can you remove the head?'"
Just then, I heard a tell-tale crunch. I didn't even have to turn my head to know what had happened.
"You just ate the spine," I whispered to my friend.
"Sorry," she responded. "I'll try to be less audible."
The last course, our dessert, was inspired by Dalí's most famous painting, "The Persistence of Memory." The painting presents nostalgia as a drippy, horrible thing, but the dessert, which was also meant to conjure up nostalgia, was far simpler: a grown-up peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
"There are very few things that are more childlike in the US than a PB&J taken to school," said Kim. "We wanted to do something that was very reminiscent of those flavors but acknowledged that our palates have matured." He replaced the peanut butter with sunflower butter and topped the sandwich off with a tiny segment of ants-on-a-log, but with the "ants" represented by crickets instead of raisins. The crickets were meant to invoke the feeling of being a child, of opening your lunchbox, and of realizing that—oh, gross!—ants had invaded. "Every kid has a similar memory," said Kim. I thought about the time my brother ate a live cicada on a dare. The persistence of memory is a tricky thing. Not wanting to be the one who wouldn't try a cricket, I gulped one down.
In his memoirs, Dalí wrote, "I know exactly, ferociously, what I want to eat!" For him, nothing was off limits, "whether it be the sublime viscosities of a fish-eye, the slithery cerebellum of a bird, the spermatozoal marrow of a bone or the soft and swampy opulence of an oyster." Unlike the famed Surrealist, much is off limits for me—I'm too squeamish to even eat the insides of most creatures. But Dalí's cookbook shows us just how food can rise to the level of art and how artists can lose themselves in a plate of sublime food. Both can engage us in a dialogue about life and death and experimentation—the things that disgust us, and the things that are important enough to save.