How to Eat Like Jackson Pollock

In a new cookbook, photographer Robyn Lea amasses recipes by action painter Jackson Pollack and his wife Lee Krasner, along with anecdotal insights into how these larger-than-life artists chose to cook, eat, and live.

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May 20 2015, 4:49pm

The public has grown accustomed to a split view of Jackson Pollock, the visionary splatter genius doing battle with the rage-prone alcoholic, life in disarray. Now let's throw another Pollock into the mix—a baking obsessive with a pantry crammed full of French cookware, recipe binders brimming with blueberry blintz and clam pie instructions. And not to toot an oft-tooted horn, but Pollock's apple pie recipe won top prize at a Long Island country fair.

It's all true. Australian photographer Robyn Lea was researching Pollock for a photo project when she suspected she'd found a kindred cooking enthusiast. She gained access to a cache of recipes from Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner and started cooking them at elaborately themed dinner parties. The results were so positive that Lea decided to share her discoveries with the world.

In the cookbook Dinner with Jackson Pollock: Recipes, Art & Nature, Lea amassed more than 50 Pollock and Krasner recipes, along with anecdotal insights into how these larger-than-life painters chose to cook, eat, and live. MUNCHIES spoke with Lea to learn more about the curious intersection of impassioned home chef and tortured artist.

MUNCHIES: Hi, Robyn. So, how did this project first come about? Robyn Lea: When I arrived in America four years ago, I was shooting a story for an Australian magazine. I was very drawn to Pollock's house and studio. After I went out there, I took any opportunity to go back, Eventually I ended up in the pantry, photographing all of the objects inside there; I really started to wonder about their dinner parties. I kind of wished myself back in time to what it might have been like to be there. Who cooked, and what was spoken about and how they presented their food. I was very curious about that, being kind of a foodie myself.

I wondered if there were any recipe books to look through that might have notations or markings that would give me the feeling for what they might have eaten. The director of his house said they had hand-written recipes from Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner which she scanned and emailed to me. Going back to the house, I found dozens of recipe books, literally.

It turned into quite the project. First there was finding the recipes; then staging a series of dinner parties at our house to really try them all. Everybody was enthusiastic about them because we were surprised how incredible they tasted. Then I started researching all the recipes—who gave them to them, trying to give a little culinary heritage, not just of the Hamptons but also areas from Jackson's childhood. It was really a multi-pronged process.

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Photo courtesy of Robyn Lea.

Going back to your first time in his pantry, was there anything unusual about the setup? Were there, say, really great knives or anything else that stood out to you? The first thing that jumped out at me was the collection of Le Creuset pots. They had not just the cookware but the bakeware. They had the ceramic ones, they also had the really heavy iron ones. I thought, Gosh, this is the 40s and 50s. For an American in a small town to have such a large collection of high-end French cookware is really interesting and unusual.

What does that signify, in your opinion? To me that means they were passionate foodies. I don't think people would spend that money or even understand that kind of value unless they were a little obsessive about their food. Then they had things like tableware from Hungarian designer Eva Zeisel; that particular tableware collection is either at the Met or MOMA, sort of the epitome of beauty in tableware design from that period.

They were very very interested not just in food but also presentation at the table. It's probably not a surprise when we think about it, that it wasn't just about the flavors for them; it's about the colors and the presentation and plating.

What you're describing sounds a lot more precise than what I think of as Pollock's art. Going into the project, I came in with exactly the same view you're talking about now. Kind of this painter as wild guy thing. Genius, instinctive, slightly crazy but amazing. Slowly it became very apparent that all of his recipes required incredible precision; if you put half a teaspoon too much of some ingredient, it wouldn't work. He did all the baking. I started to think of all the people I know who are into baking, it's almost a personality trait. Then I really started to reconsider Pollock. It's well-documented that he denied the accident in his painting. He says he knew exactly how each drop of paint would land on the canvas. There is a rethinking now of this concept of him just throwing paint around. Some see an incredible precision in Pollock's approach. This collates between baking and painting.

How would you describe the type of food? Seems like a lot of American comfort stuff. There was a lot of classic American recipes in there, a good number of Southern dishes too. Their good friends were from the South, showed them how to make chile con carne and that sort of thing. Then there were surprising things, like the Syrian cuisine, introduced to them by their artist friend Lucia Wilcox. They had salon-style dinners with a lot of surrealists, Syrian picnics down at the beach.

Do you feel like a dinner party with Jackson Pollock would be loads of fun? Well, I don't really want to ignore the fact that he was kind of a difficult person. Particularly later in life when the alcoholism became a profoundly depressing part of his day to day life, what would happen in a dinner party in those later years doesn't represent the earlier ones. People close to him describe him as a very thoughtful, curious person, very interested in other people. I think a dinner party would be interesting, also because Lee Krasner was apparently an incredible storyteller. People would be hanging on her every word. A very opinionated, sometimes domineering person. I think it would be fascinating to be in their company.

Would each dish be discussed in-depth or was it just like "here's dinner?" Friend who dined with them on a regular basis told us it was difficult bringing a dish to their dinner parties. Let's say Lee asked you to bring a dessert. She would then go through the steps of exactly how she wanted it cooked, exactly how it should be displayed, exactly which ingredients to use.

That's intense. It showed an incredible passion for color, form, presentation. Kind of just an extension of the artistic mindset. On other hand, it's restrictive and borderline rude, if someone's offered to bring dessert and you tell them exactly how to bring it. It's crazy!

You enjoyed the Pollock dinner parties you threw? Sometimes we'd photocopy original recipes and lay them down as placemats, a different one for each person. Jackson's handwriting was so precise, was like he was working on lined paper even though he wasn't. Lee's writing was more wild, using whatever utensil and scrap of paper she had handy.

Did any of their recipes not pan out? There was one recipe in their collection for onion soup. I tried it, didn't come together real well. It was kind of watery and didn't taste right. Interestingly I found an onion soup handwritten in Jackson's mother's handwritten recipe book. I tried that one and it was excellent. We wondered if maybe it had been written out incorrectly. One other bad one was the cheesecake recipe, which I didn't end up including in the book. We're thinking, this was the 30s and 40s and 50s—ingredients were different. An egg today is not an egg of yesteryear. The milk, was it raw or un-homogenized? This affects the texture. The cheesecake didn't set in the right way.

Which is your favorite of the recipes? Well, that changes a bit with the season. I do love the fresh Johnnycakes; it's a very simple recipe. It's a nice story actually. Jackson and his brother Charles took a trip across America to California in a Model T Ford. This was the Depression era,;they were basically penniless and made Johnnycakes all across America as this staple of their diet. They would augment that with whatever cheap they found along the way. The story of the two brothers is so interesting.

Was there any food that was a weakness for Jackson, that he'd go back to again and again? [Long pause] Good question. Honestly, alcohol was his biggest weakness. Not sure if you read about this, but when he was trying to quit drinking he tried this diet prescribed to him by some pharmacist. It was supposed to cure his alcoholism. He had this long list of what he could and couldn't eat. Protein drinks twice a day, mineral injections, it was supposed to cure his alcoholism apparently. It's kind of funny but also really sad, how hard he was trying to cure himself. He had all sorts of these cures given by people who were virtually quacks. It gives some real insight on Jackson—we usually think of him as this irresponsible character. This shows him trying to take responsibility and cure himself.

Thanks for speaking with me, Robyn.