"The preparation of good food is merely another expression of art, one of the joys of civilized living."—Dione Lucas
From Michel Eyquem de Montaigne all the way to James Beard, many a great mind has mused on the equation of the artist and the chef. Even if modernist cuisine drives you bonkers and the thought of foam and squeeze bottles causes you to break out into hives, you'd likely agree that cooking deserves a spot alongside the other artistic endeavors out there. And given the massive saturation of food in media and culture—and the commercialization of cuisine—now more than ever is a time to celebrate the voice of the outsider in that world.
That's a sentiment that Natalie Eve Garrett, an artist, writer, and editor, seems to understand well. After all, Garrett is the driving force behind The Artists' and Writers' Cookbook: A Collection of Stories with Recipes, a genre-bending cookbook that was released earlier this month. The book, which contains recipes and personal stories from 76 iconic artists and writers, was actually inspired by a 1961 book of the same title and conceit.
Whether you're interested in Neil Gaiman's "perfectly eerie cheese omelet" or the basement "picnics"of Kamrooz Aram's childhood in Tehran, Garrett's cookbook has you more than covered. Each of the recipes contributed by a panoply of contemporary artists and writers is accompanied by a personal essay. Like its 1961 predecessor, which featured recipes from Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and Harper Lee, the updated book provides an enthralling look into the lives and creative processes—via the food they cook and consume—of everyone from Anthony Doerr and Joyce Carol Oates to Ed Ruscha and Marina Abramović.
In order to learn more about The Artists' and Writers' Cookbook, we spoke to Garrett about creating a new form of culinary expression for a contemporary generation of artists and writers.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Natalie! What can you tell us about the original 1961 Artists' and Writers' Cookbook and why it spoke to you? Natalie Eve Garrett: I decided to make the book three years ago, when I was busily taking care of my two little kids, and also trying to paint, write, cook, and publish. One day I happened upon an article about The Artists' and Writers' Cookbook from 1961, a rare book that has been out of print for years (and likely never sold well, since there was only one edition, though it was rediscovered in recent years and is much adored by collectors). It includes 220 recipes from luminaries including Man Ray, Marianne Moore, Helen Frankenthaler, and Harper Lee, with a foreword by Alice B. Toklas and illustrations by Marcel Duchamp, Robert Osborn, and Alexandre Istrati. Immediately I snagged a copy on eBay. As I read, I felt like all of my passions were coming together. The book is so odd and big-hearted—I knew right away that I had to make a modern version.
While I adore the version from 55 years ago, and while the title and concept of my book are inspired by and indebted to it, the result is intentionally very different. The original is first and foremost a recipe book; the focus of my book is on the stories. Some of the recipes in the '61 version include stories or very brief anecdotes, but most do not. For me, though, that was by far the most fascinating part of that book. When I read it, I didn't just want to know what Marianne Moore cooked (pudding), I wanted to know when and why and with whom—I wanted that kind of intimacy and accessibility with everyone, every time. The version from 55 years ago also has a charming, sweet design, but it's very low-key, with small, black-and-white illustrations. I wanted to make my version bolder and brighter and dreamier in every way.
How did you decide which artists and writers to include in the update of the cookbook? My selection process was personal: I invited artists and writers whose work I admire, and tried include the right balance of artists and writers from all over the country with wide-ranging backgrounds, perspectives, and dishes to share. Although I honed in on "Americans," I kept that loose, choosing to include expats and people who were born here but currently living abroad. I think there's something magical about creating a book that contains food stories and recipes by way of Mexico, Vietnam, the Bahamas, and Bombay, as well as New Orleans, LA, Kentucky, and the mountains of Idaho. There is a beautiful thread that runs through the book about cultural identity and the connections between food and a sense of place.
How did you go about working with the artists and writers to create the recipes and the stories attached to them? For the most part, I reached out to complete strangers; it must have been such a leap of faith for everyone to even open my email, let alone share such personal memories and dishes with me. I had only one requirement: That each recipe have a story. I asked for accidental recipes, dream recipes, the recipe the contributor recalled eating most as a child or the dish they ate while falling in love. Some people wrote me to say that they knew immediately what they'd share. Lev Grossman told me that when he received the invitation, he felt like he had been waiting for years to tell his story, and if I hadn't asked, he probably never would have. It was incredibly moving to hear! But there were other contributors who I was in touch with for months or even years before they committed to the project, going back and forth about different possibilities before ultimately landing on the perfect story and recipe for the book.
I would imagine that the recipes would somehow be expressive of who the artists and writers are—or somehow in tune with their work. Did you find that to be true? Some artists and writers were "on brand" in their pieces, e.g. Liza Lou and her "Feminist Popcorn," or Aimee Bender and her "Another Stone Soup." But that was definitely not so for everyone, and I think that's something wonderful about the book–that it reveals new, surprising aspects of your favorite writer or favorite artist. And if it's a writer or artist who you don't already know, this portal into their world is a lovely way to begin to get acquainted. For example, Joyce Carol Oates writes poignantly about the loss of her husband; Lev Grossman shares the story of the dish that lifted him out of decades of depression.
How did you go about testing the recipes for the book and what are some of your favorites? I edited the recipes for clarity, but not for taste (though if I thought ingredients and/or procedures were missing, I'd work with contributors to amend as needed). It was more important to me to share the exact dish that the artist or writer makes than the version of it that I prefer.
As for favorites, I love all of the pieces in the book, each in their own way. Francesca Lia Block's beautiful prose poem is deeply moving, and also happens to include four amazing recipes. Curtis Sittenfeld's is also incredibly moving and simultaneously funny. AND delicious! Same for Elizabeth Alexander: achingly beautiful story plus a delicious recipe that I have eaten many times and crave every time I reread. And there is humor, too: Ed Park's piece is laugh-out-loud funny, as is Patricia Marx's. There are fantastical recipes like Aimee Bender's dystopian soup and Henry Alford's piece which includes a recipe for "Skinny Dipping at Dusk." For me, it keeps things unpredictable and interesting. Now that the book is complete, parsley will forever remind me of Neil Gaiman's eerie omelette; pho makes me think of An-My Le's childhood in Paris; and I can't make PB & J for my kids without thinking of James Franco's closing line: "Get to work, suckas."
Why are we so fascinated with what artists and writers eat? Don't we want to learn to cook from people who do it professionally? Far from a traditional cookbook, this book is "A Collection of Stories with Recipes." Award-winning food writer Kevin Pang said, "This is a book that belongs on your kitchen shelf as well as on your bedside table." I couldn't agree more.
Thanks for speaking with us, Natalie.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Natalie Eve Garrett is an artist, writer, and editor who likes to cook. Her work can often be seen on The Hairpin.