7 Artist Recipes, from Dalí’s Avocado Toast to Ed Ruscha’s Cactus Omelette
As art history shows, artists have always been fixated on food. In the Dutch Golden Age, they flaunted their painting skills by depicting extravagant tabletops overflowing with grapes, meat, and wine. In the 20th century, food was a natural subject for Pop artists like Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol, who depicted the staples of American cuisine in monumental fast-food sculptures and screenprints of soup cans.
Within the comfort of their own kitchens, some artists also looked to food as another creative outlet; as Olafur Eliasson once said, “Cooking, like art, is both reactive and creative—it is about being in flux, navigating and trusting our senses and then connecting and transforming.” As holiday feasts approach, we collected six recipes by modern and contemporary artists, from Louise Bourgeois to Ed Ruscha. Whether assembled for creative projects or relayed in memoirs, these artist recipes reveal fascinating glimpses into their chefs’ day-to-day lives—and surprising connections to their art.
Frida Kahlo’s Strawberry Atole
1 ¼ Cups of masa harina
6 Cups water
2 Cups strawberries
¾ Cups brown sugar
Frida Kahlo, The Bride Frightened At Seeing Life Opened, 1943. Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, Mexico City.
At Casa Azul, her Mexico City home, Kahlo hosted festive dinner parties with her husband, painter Diego Rivera. On these rambunctious occasions, which she called “días de los manteles largos” (days of the long tablecloth), she would serve mole, tamales, pulque, mescal, and other traditional Mexican foods with the same zeal and creativity she fueled into her art. In 1994, Kahlo’s stepdaughter Guadalupe Rivera published a memoir of her time living with the couple as a college student; interspersed throughout her recollections were recipes of meals served on major holidays, like Christmas and Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.
On October 31st, Rivera writes, Casa Azul “moved into high gear” in preparation for the Day of the Dead festivities. The menu for the occasion included both sweet treats, like dead man’s bread and pumpkin in syrup, and savory foods, like chicken in pipián sauce and tamales in banana leaves. Served alongside these dishes were cups of strawberry atole, a hot, corn-based drink often flavored with fruits or spices. Though typically served on the Day of the Dead, it’s an ideal sipper for any chilly day.
To prepare, dissolve the masa harina in 4 cups of water and let sit for 15 minutes before straining. In another bowl, puree the strawberries with the brown sugar and 2 cups of water, then drain. Mix the masa harina and strawberries in a large saucepan and stir constantly until thick.
Frida’s Fiestas: Recipes and Reminiscences of Life with Frida (Clarkson Potter, 1994)
Marcel Duchamp’s Steak Tartare
½ pound chopped raw beef
chopped raw white onion
bright green capers
curled slivers of anchovy
fresh parsley, chopped fine
black olives minutely chopped in company with yellow celery leaves
“Let me begin by saying, ma chere, that Steak Tartare, alias Bitteck Tartare, also known as Steck Tartare, is in no way related to tartar sauce,” writes Duchamp. “The steak to which I refer originated with the Cossacks in Siberia, and it can be prepared on horseback, at a swift gallop, if conditions make this a necessity.” This recipe comes from Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook (1961), which features 220 recipes by 55 painters, 61 novelists, 15 sculptors, and 19 poets—including Harper Lee, Irving Stone, John Keats, and Man Ray. And on horseback or not, this recipe is indeed as easy as the artist indicates.
With an eye for artistic arrangement, Duchamp specifically recommends that you prepare the dish on an ivory plate “so that no pattern will disturb the distribution of ingredients.” First, arrange beef “with artistry into a bird’s nest,” and place egg yolks in its hollow core. Surrounding the nest, in the shape of a wreath, place bouquets of onion, capers, anchovy, parsley, and chopped olives with celery leaves. “Each guest, with his plate before him, lifts his fork and blends the ingredients with the egg yolks and meat,” he concludes. “In center of table: Russian pumpernickel bread, sweet butter, and bottles of vin rosé.”
Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook (Contact Editions, 1961)
Salvador Dalí’s Avocado Toast & Casanova Cocktail
1 lamb brain
9 oz. minced almonds
12 slices of rye bread
3 tbsp. tequila
⅓ cup vinegar
½ cube of beef bouillon
© Salvador Dalí. Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2016. Photo courtesy of TASCHEN.
“If you are a disciple of one of those calorie-counters who turn the joys of eating into a form of punishment, close this book at once; it is too lively, too aggressive, and far too impertinent for you.” So begins Dalí’s Les Diners de Gala. Originally translated to English in 1973 and named for his wife Gala, with whom he threw costumed dinner parties, Dalí’s cookbook is a work of art in itself. Chock full of illustrations, the book includes 136 extravagant recipes that are equal parts cannibalistic and erotic: One chapter is devoted to “les cannibalismes de l’automne,” while dishes include “Cytherean meatballs,” “Aphrodite’s purée,” and “Siren’s shoulder.” The cookbook was a lifelong dream for the artist, who wanted to be a chef since he was six years old.
Among the delicacies is a simple recipe for a rather decadent spin on avocado toast. The first step: Soak the lamb brains (a specialty of French cuisine) in cold water, remove their outer skin, and place back in the water. Meanwhile, boil a pint of water; add vinegar and beef bouillon. Remove the brains from the water, drain to remove excess water, and mix with avocado pulp. Then add minced almonds, salt, cayenne pepper, and tequila. Spread on toasted slices of rye.
If you’d prefer to pass on the lamb brains, try the simple “Casanova cocktail” instead. In a glass, combine a pinch of cayenne pepper and a teaspoon of ginger; pour in a tablespoon of Campari, 4 tablespoons of brandy, and 2 tablespoons of Vieille Cure (old brandy). Refrigerate or chill in freezer for 30 minutes, then mix in the juice of one orange and stir. “Let us stress another advantage of this particular pep-up concoction is that one doesn’t have to make the sour face that usually accompanies the absorption of the remedy,” writes Dalí. “Drink...and wait for the effect. It is rather speedy.”
Les Diners de Gala (Taschen, 2016)
Claude Monet’s Chestnut Cookies
½ cup unsalted butter
1 cup unsweetened chestnut purée
¾ cup sugar
3 eggs, separated
Monet’s pink house at Giverny is most famous for its breathtaking gardens, which inspired his famous water lily paintings. Inside, however, there’s more to the artist’s life, including a yellow dining room with Japanese prints above the mantle, where the artist enjoyed meals prepared by his cook, Marguerite, in the adjacent blue-tiled kitchen bedecked with copper pots. Monet would start his day early, with an omelette made from fresh eggs from his own chickens, sausage, toast with jam, and tea. After painting for a few hours, he would invite friends like Mallarmé, Valéry, Whistler, Cézanne, and Rodin over for lunch—strictly at 11:30 a.m. so he could spend the rest of the day painting en plein-air while the sun was still out.
Monet’s Table: The Cooking Journals of Claude Monet, a cookbook of recipes translated from the artist’s own journal, includes several classic French dishes in addition to treats the artist and his friends enjoyed over tea. Though vert-vert, a green cake with pistachio cream, is said to be his favorite, the chestnut cookies seem especially fitting for the holidays. To prepare, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease 20 cupcake molds. Over low heat, melt the butter; add chestnut purée, sugar, and egg yolks (set the whites aside) and stir. Take the pan off the heat. Beat the egg whites to form stiff peaks, and fold them into the mixture. Add the mixture to the molds and bake for 20 minutes or until firm.
Monet’s Table: The Cooking Journals of Claude Monet (Simon & Schuster, 1990)
Louise Bourgeois’s French Cucumber Salad
6 cucumbers, peeled
6 tbsp. olive oil
2 ½ tbsp. tarragon vinegar
½ tsp. tarragon
chopped chives or green scallions
Bourgeois’s approach to cooking was as personal as her art. “I was told as a child in France that cooking is the way to a man’s heart,” she recalled in The Museum of Modern Art Artists’ Cookbook. “Today I know that the notion is absurd.” After cooking for her father for many years to assist her ailing mother, Bourgeois avoided cooking entirely as a student, getting by entirely on yogurt, honey, and pumpernickel bread in an effort to make up for what she perceived as lost time. In the 1960s and ’70s, however, while immersed in the New York avant-garde, she became fond of entertaining her artist friends: “When the galleries close, we all troop over to my house. I have to be prepared to feed as many as fifteen people at a moment’s notice. It is easy for me because of my pressure cookers and my freezer,” she said at the time. Post-vernissage, Bourgeois would serve her friends meat, vegetables, and white wine to relax and refill before a long night at Reno Sweeney’s or the Bottom Line.
Bourgeois’s contributions to the MoMA cookbook (which also features her contemporaries Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Warhol, and Helen Frankenthaler) are all simple and economical, reflecting her love for French staples like endives, fennel, and sardines. To make this elegant salad—prepared by the artist as a first dish for her hungry guests—layer slivers of cucumber in a small bowl, sprinkling with salt between each layer. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for 12 hours. Remove the cucumbers and wash under cold running water, then dry on towels. To make the dressing, combine oil, vinegar, tarragon, salt, and pepper in a bowl and whisk. Drizzle the mixture over the cucumber slivers and toss. Add chives or scallions, then serve with hot French bread.
The Museum of Modern Art Artists’ Cookbook (MoMA, 1978)
Ed Ruscha’s Cactus Omelette
2 tbsp. small curd cottage cheese
2 tbsp. diced celery
3 tbsp. diced cactus (nopalitos, commonly found in a grocer’s international section)
1 tbsp. sweet butter
The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook: A Collection of Stories with Recipes © 2016, edited by Natalie Eve Garrett, illustrated by Amy Jean Porter, published by powerHouse Books.
When Doug Aitken asked Ruscha to participate in his 2013 “Station to Station” project, Ruscha pictured himself riding through the desert and distributing a prickly concoction: “Cactus omelettes on a choo-choo train seemed to be more than compatible.” While grocery shopping in a Mexican market, Ruscha had stumbled upon a jar of nopalitos, a Mexican dish of diced stems from the prickly pear cactus. His curiosity was immediately sparked. “To me, the idea of eating cactus suggests saving yourself at the last minute in the desert at a time of doom,” he writes in the 2016 update of The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook. (Inspired by the 1961 version, this volume features the likes of Marina Abramović, James Franco, and Sanford Biggers.)
For Ruscha’s cactus omelette, whisk eggs in a bowl, heat a pan with butter, and prepare an omelette as you normally would, lifting the edges when they harden and tilting the pan to let the runny layers slide underneath. While the top is still moist, add salt, pepper, and cottage cheese in the center, followed by celery and the nopalitos. Fold in half and let the omelette set for one minute over low heat. “For people who like shaggy dog stories, add little bits of the green cactus on the top of the omelette to make sad or funny faces,” Ruscha says.
The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook (powerHouse Books, 2016)