Welcome to “The Creative Palate: Artist Kitchens!”
Cooking and Art are two sides to the same coin. (In my book.) Taking raw ingredients to create something nourishing body or soul. Sometimes both. I’m not talking artsy culinary “perfect” but rather, what we as cooks (artists) choose to EAT and make for ourselves (families and friends) in the privacy of our own homes.
Cloaked from public eye, singular behaviors become just that: personal and private. Intimate. Being a food lover, and an artist, I began to wonder how some of my favorite artists and writers, leaders and visionaries approached their own kitchens and daily meals. Or did they even think of it? As I mulled this over making carbonara, I realized I did approach my cooking similarly to my easel: with an impressionistic vision in mind but open to seasonal influences and available ingredients/colors. But how did the great creatives approach their FOOD? Did they cook for themselves? Or hire cooks? How did they choose to dine? Any rituals or routines? Did they eat in their socks and read the paper? Or have long meals filled with conversation? And did their favorite foods reflect style of Art? And recipes! Do any survive?
Nerding out completely, I started ordering out-of-print books on food history and reading up online. And it turns out, many artists did in fact have specific opinions about food, eating routines and favorite recipes. Like you’d imagine Julia Child whipped up fancy fare for guests but she did not. Instead, serving guests bowls of cheddar flavored Goldfish crackers. (Isn’t that a hoot?) I kept going, reading about Georgia O’Keefe, Monet, Jane Austen among others. Amazon had quite the month with my credit card. And the first artist I want to tell you about is Frida Kahlo.
Born Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderon on July 6, 1907, “Frida Kahlo” was a Mexican painter known particularly for self-portraits and surrealist, Feminist expression of the female experience, indigenous folk art, and nationalistic rhetoric. Leading Surrealist Andre Breton beautifully described her work as a “ribbon around a bomb.” Painting herself came naturally as the horrific traffic accident she survived as a teenager (after surviving Polio) in her native Mexico City left life long health effects that often isolated Frida from her family and community. Kahlo’s volatile marriage to the hugely famous Diego Rivera brought her to the international stage but her sheer talent, unusual beauty, and original painting kept her there. And in some ways, eclipsed those accolades of her husband. In droves.
When not traveling for mural commissions (Diego) and shows (both souses and later. Frida), Diego Rivera and Frida lived a colorfully domestic life — when happy — with very definite opinions about food and how they ate. Preferring traditional indigenous Mexican dishes eaten together as part of a kind of elevated artistic experience rooted in the “working class.” When relished, Frida purposefully created “small still lifes” for Diego to visually enjoy during their noon meal (Comida). Her tablescapes celebrated native Mexican vibrancy, flavors, and culture with colorful pre-Colonial styled ceramics, linens, small flower arrangements, 10-12 plates of foods… Even inviting household pets to the table “for movement.” Their parrot –who only said “No me pasa la cruda” (“I can’t get past this hangover”) — pecked at fruits while their little monkeys jumped between their shoulders.
I love these details. And I like to think of her as a happy spouse. From the beginning, eating “food of the people” was part of Diego’s daily creative process. And for Frida too. During these times, Frida departed from her excruciating self-portraits to include still-lifes and vibrant domestic interiors drawn increasingly from Mexican folk art. How fascinating that an artist so revered for her unflinching take on the female experience (plus ardent Communist and Feminist), loved sweetly enough to endeavor domestic beauty. And harmony.
Recipes kept to pre-Colonial, pre-Hispanic foods rooted in the deep culinary traditions of indigenous Mexico. Dishes like Zucchini blossom soup, cucumber salads, pork stews, and chicken Escabeche. Diego’s favorite plate of all was Mole, a recipe Frida learned to make from Lupe, Diego’s second wife (and her predecessor) who lived upstairs in their first home as married couple. Actually, Lupe owned the building and lived on the top floor with her two daughters while Frida and Diego, lived ground floor. Despite the unconventional housing arrangement, Frida and Lupe grew to be good friends and Lupe taught Frida many recipes Diego preferred. Frida later expanded her cooking repertoire when the couple moved to La Casa Azul and began cooking from her mother’s The New Mexican Cook (published first in 1888). Ironically, the Rivera’s did not see a conflict between their domestic help and their politics, employing cooks who could authentically create indigenous dishes.
Often entertaining many guests at once, meal time gatherings at the Rivera’s were noted not just for good food, strident leftist discussions, music, and copious libation but also for eating in the manner of the “poor working class.” Tortillas in lieu of forks and knives. Food cooked in the old style over wood flame and no modern stove or equipment like a refrigerator. Should Diego be painting a mural and unable to make the noon meal, Frida took him his lunch in a turquoise pewter pail just as “campesino women” took lunch to their husbands in the fields. Frida’s pail for Diego likely included a protein, rice and beans and topped always with warm tortillas, fresh fruit, sweet breads, and flowers artistically arranged.
Biographer Hayden Herrera describes the couples’ typical eating day (during happy times): “breakfast would be leisurely with Frida or an assistant reading the newspaper to Diego, who did not want to tax his eyes. Afterward, Frida would either paint or go to the market and Diego would go off to work. If he’d been drawing in the marketplace — where he went often to observe the poor who were his most important subjects — he would come home for comida… bringing an ingredient for the cook to incorporate.”
Food and the rituals of Eating were important to the couple. Part of their marital rhythms. Frida relished being the central woman in Diego’s life and they divided kitchen, household responsibilities according to traditional Mexican roles. And for Frida, “domestic tasks took on the nature of an art project…Setting the table was a ritual.. [And] the food itself was treasured for it’s beauty as well as for it’s flavors. After her self portraits, most of Frida’s paintings her still-life works of flowers, food, and domestic interiors. Pivotal paintings still celebrated for her surreal depictions of Mexican national and indigenous pride and unflinching imagery of female experience and form.
Frida’s most personal kitchen was her last (and first kitchen) in her childhood home “La Casa Azul”. Frida continued to live (and eat) here throughout her life — with or without Diego. With or without her parents. Her sisters. Friends. She had no children. Despite their numerous attempts…miscarriages…abortions. Today, it is part of the Frida Khalo Museum and still decorated with her brightly colored yellow and cobalt blue tile, sugar skulls, fresh flowers, and her traditional ceramic cookware, much of which was no longer made even by 1940s. Both the names of Frida and Diego decorate one wall and the recipe for Diego’s favorite Mole is enshrined outside on a museum plaque.
I had trouble finding recipes and kitchen notes about her cooking habits after she and Diego divorced. Frida took great pride in feeding Diego, fussing over him and even bathing him. I appreciate Frida embracing her inner Sapphos yet Wifely Warrior while navigating the early 20th century world to which she was born. Reveling as Artist, Beauty, Wife, Survivor, Daughter / Sister, and Cook… All the while on deep pain medication of some kind. Always… Perhaps though, when Diego was gone, Frida turned to Art more fully as her emotional outlet (her marriage) gave way to sharing her creative wellspring between Diego and Easel.