What do you know about Jackson Pollock, the famous American artist? That his canvases look like splatters of chaotic color? That he was considered rather wild, and struggled with alcoholism? All of this is true, but it's not the full picture of the artist and his life. He was also an avid cook, and a lover of good food, which shades in some fresh nuances to his life and work, explains Robyn Lea, the author of a new book about Pollock and his cooking, Dinner with Jackson Pollock.
Robyn Lea is an Australian photographer and writer who became fascinated by Pollock and his relationship with food. She was doing a story for an Australian magazine and photographed the pantry at Pollock House in East Hampton, NY. "I started to wonder about their food," she told me. "They had beautiful objects in there that said these people were really interested in food, like Eva Zeisel china, and an expensive, complete collection of Le Creuset pieces."
She wondered what the artist's dinner parties were like, and then she discovered his own hand-written recipe books — with dozens of recipes clearly made and loved by the artist. "I started a series of Jackson Pollock dinner parties," Lea told me. The discovery process took over from there, and through it she not only cooked quite a lot of good food from Pollock's cookbooks, but discovered a less-well-known side of the man as well.
"I thought he was the genius wild man throwing paint in the air and drinking too much," Lea said, confirming a caricature of Pollock that is perhaps the most widely known. "And then the great surprise was that he was the baker, which is an art and science that requires precision. That was a great shock to me — he’s a baker but his artwork is not like that."
But, in a twist, Pollock's precision with food casts fresh light on the current scholarship of his work: "But then, he denied the accidental in his work," Lea told me. "He said he knew exactly where the splats of paint would land. Scientific studies now actually show an incredible amount of design and structure to that work." It's very contrary, she said, to how the average person sees the work of Jackson Pollock. "If you look at his cooking from this perspective there’s a great connection to how he painted."
Perhaps the most poignant food connection in Pollock's story, however, is the diet Lea discovered in her research that was intended to cure his alcoholism. "There were very valid attempts to assist him in these cures," she told me. "Very poignant and showed this side of him that was not so egocentric but tried very hard to overcome alcoholism, with therapy and diet, from the 1930s on. There’s a sadness there to find these things out."
The book itself is a beautiful, lively melding of Pollock's work and his recipes, drawn together with Lea's photography, writing, and interviews with his family. She tells many stories, like that of the Cross-Country Johnny Cakes, which Pollock and his brother lived off of on their cross-country road trip to visit their mother in California. There are stories of happy times and many images of Pollock's work, and photographs of him in the studio. It's a rare cookbook — one that doesn't simply offer the novelty of a famous artist's recipes and cooking, but offers fascinating insight on his life as a human being as well.
The spaghetti sauce is one recipe that drew me immediately — partly for its Northern Italian flavors (no saucy tomatoes here!) and the fact that it was taught to Pollock by Rita Benton, a mentor and mother figure to him.
Jackson's Famous Spaghetti Sauce
Jackson was eighteen before he tried spaghetti for the first time, at a Sunday- night dinner hosted by Tom and Rita Benton in their New York apartment. Accompanied by his brothers, Frank and Charles, it was also the first time he met Rita. When the pasta was served, Jackson wasn’t sure how to eat it. Amused and charmed by Jackson’s provincial inexperience, Rita gave him a lesson in tackling the dish, establishing an immediate mother-son-like relationship. Jackson learned this recipe from Rita and became famous for it among his friends.
The recipe was provided directly from the private archives of Rita and Thomas Hart Benton.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 pound pork tenderloin or pork chops, finely cut by hand
1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced
6-ounce can tomato paste
1 can water
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 pound spaghetti
1 cup parmesan cheese, grated, for serving
In a heavy-bottom skillet, heat the oil and brown the onion. Add meat, mushrooms, tomato paste, water, and seasonings; cover and simmer 30 minutes or until pork is tender.
Meanwhile, cook spaghetti in salted boiling water 8-10 minutes; drain.
Toss spaghetti with sauce, and serve with cheese.