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Toast Water could be described as a journal, though there is no issue two. It could be a cookbook, but there are no process shots. There's no definite cookbook author, either. The recipes come from a variety of sources, like newspapers or the back of a can of pumpkin puree; the most real estate each recipe takes up—even more involved ones like blueberry pie—is an 3x5 index card, maybe two.
These are the foods cooked by photographer Noah Fecks' grandmother, who died in 2013 at the age of 95. She left behind what Fecks calls "a clandestine Rosetta Stone":
A few months after Nana’s death, my mother presented me with a small dented green metal box. There was no explanation, no description, just a rusty little box. Inside was the edible ephemera of an entire lifetime... My mother and her sister, Aunt Marianne, revealed that some of these items were made frequently, where others seemed entirely foreign to them. While a custard pie was quickly affirmed as “our father’s favorite,” the sisters disavowed any knowledge of “Toast Water” or “Gold Cake.” Perhaps some of these cards were aspirational? Items to be made for an imagined occasion in the future that may or may not have arrived. In any regard, it is clear to me that the little green box had an audience of one: herself.
So what is Toast Water? Art, yes; it's an homage to a woman who'd lived through many phases of America. The passage of time is evident in her recipes, from "the hunted and foraged squirrel of the 1940s to the space age Strawberry Chiffon Cake concocted from dubious pre-packaged ingredients." It's the result of Fecks collaborating with inimitable food stylist Victoria Granof, as well as Ben Knox and Christopher Spaulding of Reclaim Design (on prop styling and set design), and Adam Kendall Woods (on art direction).
When a copy of the handsome, striking book arrived in our founder Amanda Hesser's mailbox, it wasn't long before we reached to Fecks and Granof about their experience of creating and self-publishing Toast Water. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our correspondence—plus, a recipe for Crustless Pizza, which is every bit as wacky and wonderful as it sounds.
Nikkitha Bakshani: "Toast Water" is an interesting name. What is it, and why did you choose to name this book that?
Victoria Granof: The name came from one of the recipes in the book, which calls for burning toast, then scraping the burnt bits into boiling water to make a sort of charcoal tea, for nausea. We decided to use it when it came to me in a dream!
NB: How did you conceive of the idea for this book?
Noah Fecks: We had been talking for a while about doing a project that was a something self-published, where we could play around and do as we pleased. I had been holding on to my Nana’s recipe box for a few years, and was starting to post images of some of the more decimated recipe cards on Instagram. Victoria called me and told me to bring the box to a very long lunch, where we laid out all the cards and decided over bowls of ramen that we would illustrate these recipes with photographs, and that this would be the book we had been chatting about. Victoria was very insistent on “no beige food, please…”
NB: Using little newspaper cutouts of recipes is a beautiful artistic decision here. Why did you choose to do that?
NF: When I was a photo assistant many years ago, I worked on a piece where we photographed the damaged and charred ID badges that had been salvaged from the World Trade Center. These were very holy objects and relics to be revered. I had the same feeling about these very well-worn cards that were found in my Nana’s recipe box. Some were neatly handwritten, others typed out with precision, and some were hastily clipped from newspapers and magazines. However, in all cases, they had some level of decay. I wanted to photograph them with that same love and respect, depicting them as fragile talismans.
NB: Do you plan on doing any more culinary books like this? Or do you see this more as a one-off book?
VG: We are working on another project with Ben Knox and Christopher Spaulding, who did the sets and props for Toast Water. We're fabricating items from the Foxfire books of the 1970s) and documenting them in pictures. This one may take awhile.
Toast Water ($25) is available for purchase here.
Behold: Crustless Pizza!
A few recipes in Toast Water don't look too different from the ones here at Food52: Waldorf salad, apple fritters, all-purpose pie crust, "dip"—though with a warmer embrace of Crisco or margarine. Crustless Pizza charmed the socks off us because of its 4-ingredient list—one of which is "an 11- or 12-inch skillet, preferably nonstick"—and air of customizability. No pepperoni? No problem. What you need to do, essentially, is fry cheese and powdered spices until the mix is the texture of a cracker, clinging close to the pan.
"My mom is 'pretty sure' this came from the Daily News, probably in the 1980s, because that was Nana’s favorite paper," says Fecks. The paper does not advertise the pizza's gluten-free element, but calls it "one of the truly great inventions of the modern era."
- 2 cups coarsely shredded cheddar (or muenster, Swiss, or mozzarella—or a combination of such cheeses)
- oregano, garlic powder, red pepper flakes, and black pepper, as desired
- bits of sliced pepperoni, salami, cooked sausage, if available
Any newspaper recipes you love? Let us know in the comments!