A sorry-state dinner

An artist cooks a tasting menu -- including Trout

Published December 1, 2009 1:01AM (EST)

Trout à la Waterboard: Poached trout, chicken broth, saut
Trout à la Waterboard: Poached trout, chicken broth, saut

Is good food always about pleasure? In "Feast for Bush," the artist Lauren Garfinkel creates a menu in remembrance of the George W. Bush years that is delightful, playful and horrifying.

We used to name dishes after people, like Pêche Melba and Bananas Foster; we honored them by taking pleasure in their name. Garfinkel's dishes, too, hold stories: Heck of a Job Brownie turns brownies and chocolate sauce into a scene of Katrina's loss and abandonment; Trout à la Waterboard is even more harrowing than it sounds.

In an interview with our friends at Eat Me Daily, Garfinkel talks about her work in the metaphoric terms of food we choose to eat and ideas we choose to be fed, which is perhaps why so many of the pieces look like food you'd actually want to have on a table in front of you. While many art projects use edible materials to investigate the notion of food as sustenance, Feast for Bush stands out for the degree to which it actually involves cooking.

We e-mailed with Garfinkel on the project and how she found "cooking as catharsis."

What does the act of cooking mean to you?

Cooking is pure pleasure for me. I am never in a hurry when I make a proper meal. I savor time spent chopping onions just so, manning different pots on the stove, adding fresh herbs and zest and nutmeg. Cooking is a social event for me, so there’s usually a glass of wine and music and laughter when I cook.

I love it, but outside of an occasional apple pie, I rarely spend time cooking at home anymore. Since I’ve been working on the feast, time spent in the kitchen that’s not art-related feels like a total indulgence. Sometimes dinner is peanut butter and a spoon.

Can you describe your process as a cook, compared to your process as an artist?

As a cook, I tend to go with what’s familiar. The preparation is usually very simple. There are no turduckens happening.

As an artist, for this project, I choose dishes whose titles, ingredients and configurations signify  the subject matter -- as well as a plate of food can. My experience with these materials has no bearing on my choices, and that can be daunting.

For the Dick Cheney Birdshot Salad, quail needed to be a component. Their little bodies kind of haunted me. I dropped them into my pan, and they came out spooning with one another. It was truly macabre. For the artist, it was an adventure; for the cook, it was fairly grotesque.

As opposed to the laissez-faire attitude of preparing food for casual dining, cooking for "Feast" is tense, full of anxiety and uncertainty.

The pieces in this project vary widely in tone. Some are jokey. Others feel very different. Which piece struck you the most as a person?

Guantanamole, for sure. For every piece, I researched images, read testimony and considered the White House’s motivations. This dish re-creates a scene of a prisoner in total isolation, with goggles, headphones and a mask.

I had roasted orange peppers to make his prison jumpsuit, but the skin of the chicken, cooked and fleshlike, made an impact on me. The prisoner at Guantánamo is obscured to spare the viewer the evidence of his humanity. Revealing the skin is a reaction to that idea.

And as an artist?

The Heck of a Job Brownie. As I began gathering my materials, I realized that what happened after the storm was a reflection of what had happened before the storm: an abandonment of people in that region. So, with a nod to Kara Walker, I chose a few simple silhouettes waiting to be noticed by a president.

You said that these dishes are all meant to be eaten. Can you talk about your process as you make them?

In terms of the actual preparation, there are a few rules. First, there are no special tricks -- the food is all food. Second, it’s important that the components in a dish make sense together, not just look good together.

In the Trout à la Waterboard, a whole poached fish is simply beautiful and elegant. From the broth to the sautéed lemons, the zucchini board and the scallion tie, the dish really came together. The double cheesecloth over its worrisome face worked nicely, too.

By the time I finished photographing a dish, though, I was too emotionally attached to imagine eating it.

So what did you mean when you said that you found this cooking to be cathartic?

I had been too overcome with emotion to creatively reflect upon the administration in any real way. Days after the 2008 election, however, I set out to prepare the Trout á la Waterboard, and the oppressive weight of eight years of George W. Bush began to lift. As I tied that trout to the zucchini plank, placed cheesecloth over its face and poured broth over its head, a chill ran through me. "This is waterboarding," I thought, "and it’s horrifying." It was such a relief.

Preparing the ingredients for each dish with the utmost care I think is my way of showing respect to my subject matter. They are all part of my history now, and in treating them with compassion, cooking the broth just so, finding the most beautiful produce, the most elegant presentation, I allow myself to mourn them, and to kind of be free.

You talked about putting together a cookbook for this project. Is that a literal cookbook?

Yes, it is. There will be complete directions on how to prepare each dish and how to plate.

I hadn’t planned on a cookbook, but after receiving inquiries about one, it dawned on me that other people might be interested in creating these dishes for themselves. For me, this experience has been profound.

Cooking is universal and accessible, and through it, I’ve been able to explore a broad range of emotions endured during the course of a very difficult and confounding time. I would gladly share this peaceful means of protest and remembrance with others. 

By Francis Lam

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

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Food George W. Bush