On Food and Art
Visiting the “Nafas” exhibit at the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn.
I got off my 4:20 a.m. flight from San Juan to JFK and went immediately to the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn. No, that’s not true: First, I picked up my luggage, then I took the AirTrain to the A Train and I shed a tear when the conductor said, “A Train to Manhattan. Stand clear of the closing doors.” It was my first trip back since May. The things that make me feel at home in New York are so impersonal; this is the opposite of San Juan, where I must feel specifically welcomed (whenever I leave, though, I take an extra deep whiff of the air before I go into the airport; this was true even before I moved here).
Still, I didn’t go straight there—I don’t know why I liked that as my first line. I went to breakfast at a restaurant in Crown Heights that I used to love when I lived in the neighborhood. The food was atrocious, and the waiter asked if I wanted the bill while my plate was still half full. I couldn’t tell if this was just the New New York that I’ve been warned about through tweets about Dimes Square, filled with Gen Z transplants who’ve mistaken rudeness for cool, or whether he was doing me a solid by trying to take away something disgusting. Why would I want anyone to take French fries away from me, though? Here, I got the feeling that despite how much emotion MTA announcements drum up within me, I couldn’t just come back and pick up piecemeal what I had enjoyed as a regular, a local. Friends in San Juan say that people who’ve left always want to come back and find the city unchanged; we can’t ask that of cities. When we leave, we leave; we get older and everything changes to suit others.
Anyway, then it was on to the Invisible Dog, at 51 Bergen Street. I’d received an email from its founder and director Lucien Zayan about their upcoming exhibit, “Nafas”—meaning, in Arabic, “the elusive gift that makes food taste better”—which was to include 36 artists’ work combining food and art. I get a lot of emails, but Zayan’s was one that actually intrigued me. I told him that I’d only be able to come in on this day, a week before their official opening, and he accommodated me—even printing out images of the pieces that weren’t yet on display. He had been on his way out for a cigarette when I was standing at the door, with a duffle bag, considering whether to knock or send an email.
The tour began—and he’s a fabulous guide—with a piece that stunned me once I saw it: By Peter Treiber, an artist and farmer on Long Island’s North Fork. “I’m from Long Island!” I squealed, thrilled to see peas growing in the window, ears of dried corn, stalks of garlic, and crates filled with bottled cider. Treiber had even made a tortilla press—he’d made all of the wooden components and grown the edible ones. I’d been reading and writing about corn (next week’s essay) and this reminder that as a kid, we would go get lost in corn mazes and grill corn that we shucked pulled it all together. My belief in Long Island as a fruitful place, literally, despite everything, was all there, embodied in his piece. The abundance.
Zayan, who opened the space in 2009, told me of the inspiration for the exhibit, which had been postponed many times over the course of the pandemic, being his own blooming interest in food. Part of the exhibit are some of his own books: Betty Crocker right next to Kajitsu: A Shojin Restaurant’s Season in the City. His own dinner series, Salle a Manger, provided an outlet and an influence.
From there, we looked at Spencer Morolla’s pastries of dust; Prune Nourry’s hybrid breast-udder; Elena Subach’s Ukrainian dinner table; Robin Frohardt’s seafood stand; Zhanna Kadyrova’s realistic slices of cake; Stephen Morrison’s juice-drunk dog. On the back wall, given a striking primacy of place, are three paintings of watermelon by the Palestinian artist Khaled Hourani: a flag that could not be taken away.
There are a few events to accompany the exhibit, including a pickling performance with Niyoosha Ahmadikhoo and Julie Dind on the 24th and an apple tasting and botanical history talk with William Mullan, author of Odd Apples, on the 25th. These are a fantastic way to make visceral the connections between food and art; to make obvious just how much our daily relationships with food are performance. The show is open through October 10.
I left the exhibit (and Zayan, finally, to his cigarette) feeling thrilled, even without any sleep or a proper breakfast, and I made my way to MoMA to see the Barbara Kruger installation “Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.” I’d just read the essay about Kruger in Gary Indiana’s Fire Season, and there was a review of this exhibit in the issue of ArtForum I’d been reading earlier that morning at the airport, and so I figured it was meant to be. I still had the fucking duffle bag, and museum security had to thoroughly vet me to let me in because the coat check is still closed, which meant that when they did figure out I was just a silly person who planned poorly, I had to carry the bag all around. I wish I had recorded a video of this. I need the foresight of a TikToker who tapes themselves crying in public.
Eventually, after seeing the Kruger and having whatever feelings evoked I was in search of (the feelings will be articulated at a later date, in their own essay), I sat down to charge my phone for a bit. When I’m in this neighborhood, I have to light candles at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for my brother and grandma, so I did that after I got to 80 percent—I even paid this time, God—and then went to Lodi, because I wanted their Rockefeller Martini. The host asked where I wanted to sit and I told her, “Wherever you need to put me,” and she said it was the easiest seating of her life. The martini was worth it, and since I married a bartender, I rarely take pleasure in a martini outside the house.
(A note that when I say something is “worth it” or that I’ve enjoyed a restaurant, it’s because I try to walk through the world with curiosity, generosity, and a desire to enjoy myself; I don’t want not to like things. I’m learning that many people walk around trying not to have a good time! Not me.)
I was supposed to wait and meet my mom for dinner, but my body was desperate for rest, so I hailed a cab and went to Penn Station, to be lulled to sleep on a train to Babylon as I have been so many times before, once again finding my solace and my New York home in public transportation.
In this Friday’s From the Kitchen dispatch for paid subscribers, we’ll be talking about what to cook for fall. I’ll be gathering in one post all my most autumnal recipes, too, in case there are some you’ve missed. See the recipe index for all recipes available to paid subscribers.
I wrote about the art of setting the table for SSENSE. This will also be in their new print issue. I’m soon going to start saying I write about the intersection of food and aesthetics—JK!!!
Actually, I’m not going to tell you for this week and next, because I’m compiling my reading and watching, etc., into something for publication.
A lot of gnocchi because who has the time!!!