Monday, April 06, 2015

NYT: In the Kitchen with Jackson Pollock

Snapshots from "Dinner with Jackson Pollock," from left: shoes and a stool in the artist's studio; a beach picnic often enjoyed by Pollock, recreated by Robyn Lea for the book.
Everyone knows we eat with our eyes, and that the world’s best chefs, despite their origins or cuisine, turn out dishes as visually arresting as any work of art. But what happens when an artist, say Jackson Pollock, wears the apron? Thanks to his iconic drip masterpieces, the late painter has become a household name. And today, with the release of a new book stemmed from the contents of his former kitchen, Pollock begins his second legacy: as a foodie with a penchant for baking.
Credit Courtesy of Assouline
Several years ago, when the Australian-born, New York based photographer Robyn Lea visited the East Hampton museum that was once Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner’s home, she took particular interest in the kitchen’s wares, especially the Le Creuset pots and Eva Zeisel dinnerware. “For that time, it was the very best possible tableware you could buy,” she says. “It was very modern. Everything was pointing to the fact that they might be foodies. ‘Who has Le Creuset in the ’40s and ’50s?’ I started to wonder, ‘What did they eat?'” When Lea asked the museum if they found any recipes on the property, she learned that handwritten recipes, by both Pollock and Krasner, indeed existed but were not on display. Thus began her two-and-a-half-year labor of love researching Pollock’s culinary history.
She started on site in the pantry, perusing its cookbooks and discovering New York Times recipes dating back to 1942. Then she branched out, even going so far as to track down Pollock’s mother’s cookbook in California at the home of one of her great-granddaughters. “Her drive for cooking was monumental. It was incredible. She had more than 90 dessert recipes — cakes you wouldn’t believe, a beautiful mille-feuille. This was a woman who was driven to create,” says Lea, explaining that Pollock’s mother lived in the countryside with very little money and five sons, whose clothes she made and hand-washed all on her own. “How, at the end of the day, she found the creative energy or even willpower to create an amazing meal is astounding.”

To flesh out “Dinner with Jackson Pollock” (Assouline, $50), a book that is about entertaining as much as it is about food, Lea also interviewed people who were close to Pollock. With their help, she shares stories about dinner parties, Syrian-inspired cuisine beach picnics in Montauk, and Pollock and Krasner’s foraging trips that resulted in luxurious feasts. Lea even, in the name of research, threw some dinner parties of her own to try out the recipes she’d discovered on her friends, who agreed they were “very, very good.”
Of course, not all recipes she found painted the picture of a beautiful life. Lea says that Pollock’s image had once, in some ways, been distilled down to a genius, artistic alcoholic with a violent temper. “Some aspects were true — I’m not denying that in my book — but he tried so hard to overcome it,” she says, recalling that there were many diets and cures for his alcoholism among his belongings: vegetable juices (brussels sprouts and dandelion juice), healthy smoothies and fruit drinks that the couple would make in their Waring blender. “It was November 1950, when he was drinking again, and they were all trying these methods to cure him.”
The recipes are mostly traditional American fare, and include Pollock’s favorites: spaghetti sauce (he didn’t try spaghetti till he was 18 at a dinner in New York City with his eldest brother, Charles, an artist whom he followed to the city), meatloaf and Long Island clam pie. But Pollock was primarily a baker, and loved to make bread and comforting desserts, including a prize-winning apple pie, the recipe for which follows here.