I am a writer and far from a chef: I’m much more at ease when dealing with words than when doling out dishes I’ve made for others to taste. But in light of a cookbook recently published by Aperture, I’m sharing some culinary creations from my kitchen.
The Photographer’s Cookbook, as its name suggests, is a real gem for photo enthusiasts, featuring the favorite recipes of 50 major photographers, from William Eggleston to Marion Faller, each accompanied by a picture of the artist’s choosing. Over the past few months — with the help of a patient sous-chef — I’ve tried a number of these recipes, attempting to concoct (with slight deviations from the instructions) edible breakfast foods, soups, desserts, and more.
Like a typical cookbook, this one is divided into categories. But what differs are its photographs, which do not faithfully document any of the recipes’ mouthwatering end results but are rather representative of each artist’s personal eye. For instance, to accompany his recipe, “The Royal Pot Roast,” Richard Avedon offers a view of a woman’s slender arm, focusing on her corsage-adorned wrist and her elegant fingers that tilt a wine glass on a table. Arthur Tress, known for his otherworldly portraits, presents us with an image of a woman lost in her own thoughts as she eats a hotdog — next to his instructions to make sweet and sour broccoli.
While I have no clue what any of the dishes I made should really look like, I did feel like I received the full guidance of the photographers while cooking. Many recipes read as if the artists are speaking directly to you. “I like a fast couple of sandwiches,” Bill Arnold writes before his instructions for a melted cheese sandwich. “I’ll pretty much eat anything with bread and something to wash it all down with.” To preface his — to be frank — un-fun, straightforward recipe for steamed and sautéed vegetables, Minor White includes a characteristically solemn description of the photographic process: “During editing, heightened awareness is invoked frequently whenever choices must be made until final result satisfies, then the threads of weaving several separate photos are broken,” he writes. “Seen as a whole, the production of a sequence with words is a complex tapestry indeed.” Whereas conceptual photographer Les Krims’s recipe for his “formalist stew” presents you with just two sentences: “It has 185 ingredients and takes 31 days to prepare. The only problem is, you die of hunger and boredom before it’s ever finished.” I did not attempt to create Krims’s stew.
These recipes and photographs have sat together in a box labelled “Photo Cookbook” for over 35 years. Lisa Hostetler, curator of the George Eastman Museum, recalls in an essay for The Photographer’s Cookbook how she came across them about three years ago, realizing she had found a project that had never come to fruition. Born in 1977, the cookbook was the brainchild of Deborah Barsel, an assistant registrar at what was then known as the George Eastman House, and was originally a side project, meant to ease Barsel of boredom from her daily duties. She solicited the material by publishing a public notice in the museum’s magazine and writing letters to photographers. She received over 120 responses over the course of a few years — including a postcard from a New Jersey steakhouse, signed by John Gossage with the message “I eat out” — but abandoned the project when graduate school called.
This new publication, Hostetler writes, exists as “a virtual time capsule of the photography community in the 1970s,” including photographers who were then starting to make a name for themselves in the contemporary art scene, such as Eggleston and Stephen Shore. The images represented are diverse in style, offering the perspectives of artists who worked in fashion, like Avedon; photojournalism, such as Burt Glinn; advertising, like Ralph Steiner; or favored experimentation, such as Betty Hahn or Jerry Uelsmann. But the recipes, too, intrigue on their own, giving us, literally, a taste of these well-established photographers’s lives beyond the frames of their pictures.
“A recipe can also be a bellwether of cultural currency,” as Hostetler writes. “To review these recipes is to visit a time when the perils of cholesterol and saturated fat had yet to be fully understood, a time when recipes calling for Velveeta and lard were not unusual.”
I made my first Velveeta purchase ever to replicate Eggleston’s “Cheese Grits Casserole,” an easy-to-follow recipe. It yielded a gooey dish of the same striking yellow that fills his submitted photograph of a diner, where a lone ashtray rests on a table, with no food in sight. You obviously can’t go wrong with baking grits, butter, and processed cheese — I imagine Eggleston would steadily eat forkfuls of this stuff while drinking whiskey and listening to Bach — but I personally would have had a heart attack if I hadn’t given most of this away.
William Eggleston’s Cheese Grits Casserole
- 1 cup grits
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 4 cups water
- 1 stick butter
- 1/2 pound velveeta cheese 3 eggs, slightly beaten
- 1/3 cup milk
Cook as usual grits in salted water until done. Then add butter, cheese, eggs, and milk. Stir until melted smooth. Place in quart casserole, and bake for 1 hour at 350 degrees. Serves 6–8.
Much trickier was an intriguing concoction from the typically predictable Ansel Adams: eggs poached in beer. This is a pretty genius idea, although, it requires very careful preparation and extra attention to timing, as Adams dictates you poach the eggs in a microwave. After their brief beer sauna, your eggs (hopefully soft and unexploded) have a nice and subtle bitterness that also delights with a little boozy kick.
Ansel Adams’s Eggs Poached in Beer
- 1⁄4 cup (1/8 pound) butter
- Mixed spices
- Dash sherry
- 1 bottle dark malt liquor or strong ale (ordinary beer is not strong enough)
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 eggs
- 2 pieces toast
- Dash paprika
1) Melt butter in microwave oven, but do not allow to brown. Add a dash of mixed spices and sherry.
2) In a small bowl, microwave malt or ale with 1/4 teaspoon salt just to the boiling point. Carefully slide eggs into this hot liquid, cover with paper plate or glass bowl (to retain thermal heat), and cook as desired in microwave. (See note below on microwave cooking.)
3) While eggs are cooking in microwave, make two pieces of toast. Spread part of the butter-spice mix over the toast.
4) Serve eggs on the toast, and pour over the rest of the butter-spice mix. Add a dash of paprika.
Note on microwave cooking:
I like my eggs poached soft. I find that 1 egg in the hot ale or malt takes about 1 minute to cook, 2 eggs about 2 minutes, etc., all the way up to 8 eggs about 8 minutes. When working with as many as 8 eggs, the bowl should be moved around every 2–3 minutes.
The Photographer’s Cookbook does feature more traditional dishes, such as Wynn Bullock’s “Italian Spaghetti Sauce,” which made for a comforting and hearty dinner. And because dessert is arguably the most important part of a meal, I also tried my hand at creating Hahn’s “pure POLISH” jam cookies, which flaked beautifully like biscuits; Stephen Shore’s “Key Lime Pie Supreme” (albeit with a pretty pathetic crust); and Joseph Jachna’s cookies baked with crushed potato chips, which were a huge hit when I brought them into the office despite some being slightly charred.
It’s been a while since I’ve spent time in a darkroom, but moving quickly around the kitchen for this project reminded me of the carefully timed dance of working with an enlarger or transferring wet prints from tray to tray. In both cooking and photography, you mix and arrange your materials while following a basic set of instructions. But as this culinary exploration reminded me, the most important ingredient is always creativity: the best finished works may just result from a little trial and error.