Book Review: The Modern Art Cookbook, written by Mary Ann Caws

Available in bookstores now.

“Something about cooking lends itself as much to the spontaneous as the reflective: those of us who cook without recipes, but after reading a great deal many of them, feel we know the best of both worlds, flavoured by a certain gusto.”
– Introduction.

Without a doubt, my favourite activity is reading cookbooks. cv_the_modern_art_cookbookBig cookbooks, technical cookbooks, impossibly-beautiful food cookbooks, vegetable-only cookbooks. I love them all, and the shelves in my lounge are filled with brightly coloured cookbooks promising delicious meals and fantastic treats. I’ve had friends text me asking for recipes, sure that I will have the cookbook they remember the recipe from. I copy recipes voraciously, and often feel I need to make a newly obtained recipe RIGHT NOW. After preserving nearly four kilogrammes of plums last week I thought I would never wish to see another – until I came across a recipe for Plum Sorbet.

Backing up my hobby of reading cookbooks are my other hobbies of actually cooking and growing delicious vegetables for my family in our disorganised, windswept backyard.

So a book that is about passion for food and for cooking is one that should surely please me – as The Modern Art Cookbook does. This is not an instruction book, or even one for parties. It is almost not a cookbook, but closer to food writing. The book combines artist’s paintings inspired by food, poems with food as the subject and recipes. Some of the recipes are directly related to the food or poem, perhaps provided by the artist/ author themselves. Others are obtained to reflect back on the provided art, with an emphasis on locating recipes from the relevant era.

Modern cookbooks still reflect the science of cooking – they are rather like manuals, orderly with a methodology and recipe on one page and perhaps an image on an accompanying page. There is a predictable amount of recipes in each section so that the reader can find something that they like. Even the most glossy are logical and somewhat constrained by the format. The Modern Art Cookbook has sections but it is a lot more meandering. Image, words and recipes are tangled alongside commentary. I didn’t want to read this book from start to finish – I wanted to dip and dive erratically – finding my passion and learning why that particular vegetable was so beloved of the particular artist. Reflecting the long held association between creativity and alcoholic inspiration, there is a rather charming beverage section at the back.

Two foods from the book grabbed my attention. Being summer, and a gardener, I am just starting to get tomatoes from the seeds I planted inside back in July. The first few tomatoes from my garden were made into Paul Cezanne’s Baked Tomatoes (below). Using tomatoes, parsley and garlic I grew along with breadcrumbs made from homemade bread I felt a strong link to the joy of tomatoes. I was a little disappointed that there was no art or poetry for the tomatoes – but I am probably a little emotionally over-invested in tomatoes at the moment! I suspect the author favours mushrooms herself – there are a number of pages related to mushrooms.cezanne_tomatoes
The book features two Manet paintings of asparagus in the Appetizer section – if you read the introduction however you will learn that the first picture (of a bunch of asparagus) was commissioned by an owner who eventually overpaid Manet – Manet provided ‘change’ by painting a second picture of a solitary asparagus!

The Modern Art Cookbook is not a book I feel I could outgrow – there is always something that will seem fresh when reading it – a new interpretation of a line of poetry or a renewed appreciation for a particular ingredient. Definitely one for people who like to be inspired by cookbooks, and not always follow the rules precisely.

Review by Emma Wong-Ming.

The Modern Art Cookbook
Written by Mary Ann Caws
Published by Reaktion Books (Distributor: New South Books)
ISBN 9781780231747

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