It'd been a while since I'd bought a Colt 45, but I had breakfast to make.
Once I tracked one down—I was hazy on where to look, perhaps on account of having acquired them solely through bribed older siblings and friends—I did the next logical thing: I microwaved eggs in a shallow dish of the hot malt liquor. I was on direct orders from Ansel Adams’s recipe in Aperture and George Eastman Museum's newest release, The Photographer’s Cookbook.
The book is exactly what it sounds like—a compilation of recipes from well-known photographers—and exactly nothing like what you expect. Did you know Imogen Cunningham has strong feelings about borscht? Or that, unlike the rest of the world, she wasn’t charmed by Alice B. Toklas? (To wit: “For one thing I do not consider Alice B. Toklas a GREAT cook. Very likely her cooking contributed to the death of Gertrude and herself.”) Or that you could be eating your grits like William Eggleston did? (In casserole form, with a healthy 1/2 pound of Velveeta.) You know that Ansel Adams cooked his eggs in beer, in the microwave—but I’d bet you a forty you didn’t five minutes ago.
The book’s origin story calls to mind finding a treasure from another era, a past tenant, under a rental’s floorboard: Its contents were found by Lisa Hostetler when she started working at George Eastman Museum—at this time, it was all letters and postcards and cut-outs from artists, piled into a box—and she, along with Aperture’s senior editor Denise Wolff, made a mission of bringing it to life.
But the original conception belonged to Deborah Barsel, a reportedly bored assistant registrar at the museum in the late 1970s. As the introduction of the book details, she requested submissions of photographers’ favorite recipes—as entertainment, a side project; over 120 of them wrote back; then Barsel, perhaps bored again, abandoned her box full of responses and left the museum. It then hibernated for over 35 years.
Paging through The Photographer’s Cookbook is to picture Barsel leafing through her box all those years ago—clutching the postcard she received from John Gossage that read simply “I eat out,” or the letter from Les Krims that details his “Formalist Stew”:
I’ve got a great recipe for “Formalist Stew.” 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 can see her being surprised by the detail of Arthur Taussig’s "Tongue in 'Polish' Sauce with Crouton and Apricot Dumplings," and not at all so by step five of Bill Arnold’s “The Melted Cheese Sandwich,” which instructs the cook to place the just-assembled sandwich in a hot oven, being careful not to “let your camera slip off your shoulder.” Budding photographers take note: True dedication to craft means cooking with your cameras.
Personally, I’ve bookmarked Joseph Jachna’s “Potato Chip Cookies,” packed with both pecans and potato chips, perhaps the precursor to Tosi’s Compost Cookie reign. And Richard Avedon’s "The Royal Pot Roast," if only to see how I fit 20 onions, chopped, into one pot. Neal Slavin’s “Hot Dogs in Full Dress” section has enough “regional” variations to keep me busy through three cycles of grilling season, at least: There’s a German dog decked with applesauce and crab apples; a blanket of previously-frozen mac and cheese for the Southern iteration; and the one I feel most quizzically drawn to, like the odd kid at the party who wears the loud print: The Chinese dog, which you make by cutting slits in a hot dog, stuffing these with water chestnuts, and then topping the whole thing with canned, sliced peaches, bamboo shoots, and a generous slathering of sweet and sour sauce.
There’s a lot in here that was submitted, as the editor says, “with a wink and a nod”—those wry artists—but my beer eggs were pretty damn good, if a little boozy for before noon. (He requires both malt liquor and sherry, and in that sense, it’s a meal made more from your liquor cabinet than your pantry.) And Judy Dater’s breakfast tacos? They look like they might be better than mine.
But the point of this book—regardless of whether you prefer your eggs drunk—is that you feel closer to the figures you’d only previously seen in museums, or read about in your well-off uncle’s coffee table book. To learn someone else’s recipe is to learn something about who they are, to be told the stories and taught the idiosyncrasies written between the lines. There’s nothing that humanizes a famous artist quite like knowing their method of microwave cooking.
Cook the eggs, or don’t; this is a book where I just looked at the pictures actually flies. But you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t at least marvel, like I did, at some of the very excellent recipe-writing from these artists—it was like Ansel was right there, in front of the microwave, with me. Or the detailed account of a luncheon Beaumont Newhall hosted for James Beard. Or gaze at the portrait Arnold Newman took of Julia Child. But should you keep this book on your coffee table or in your kitchen? Get a copy for each room.
- 1/4 cup (2 ounces) 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
Go hang with the Aperture team—and eat a dinner inspired by this book—at their spring party! Tickets here.