As a follow up to my last article I thought I’d discuss the notion of food as art or as a creative outlet. For me, creative expression has always been a fundamental part of who I am. Some sew, some play instruments. For the longest time my outlet was dance and movement. As I got older and various injuries caught up with me, I quit dance and turned my attention to more academic ventures including the study of gastroanthropology. What I found was the pang of creative urges didn’t disappear and needed to manifest itself in another area. Food and cooking bridged the academic and creative gap for me, and in many ways, I have found it even more endlessly fascinating as the possibilities are virtually endless.
Consider the artist’s palate. The myriad of colors of vegetables and fruits, herbs and spices, types of proteins, plates and dishes. The only barrier is the creative urge that can sometimes be fleeting. And art, of course, is subjective, as it has always been, so I’m well aware that what I find to be a masterpiece may not be met with the enthusiasm I had in creating it. That doesn’t always matter as the fulfillment often comes in the process. Although I won’t lie, I get endless pleasure out of seeing clean plates come back to the kitchen.
Sometimes inspiration comes from a variety of places. Guest requests are one source. For example a while back, a group had been doing a Bible study based on the story of Amistad and requested a West African menu, which of course appealed to the anthropologist in me. I spent days researching the cultures along the West Coast of Africa and enjoyed discovering the individual food habits of those cultures and coming up with a menu that represented them. Out of that menu came a delicious pumpkin and peanut soup recipe that I have since added to my repertoire.
More recently a different group was doing a themed dinner party based on the story of the Runaway Bride. They came in full costume and had rented a bus that they decorated with bells and streamers and had written “Just Married” on the back of it. Of course, I had to be equally as creative with my food as they had been with their clothing and transportation, so for fun I created a cake that had crooked layers and we took a little plastic bride and groom, stuck the groom on the top layer of the cake and put the bride on the side of the cake like she was trying to escape. The guests loved the whimsical nature of the cake, and I had a great time making it.
Most recently I was inspired to do a Dr. Seuss-themed dinner menu. Imagine the confusion of the staff at the library when I showed up and asked to check out a bunch of Dr. Seuss books to read for inspiration. I kind of felt like a kid again. So many colors and themes to play with amongst the many food references in several of Dr. Seuss’ works including “Green Eggs and Ham” and “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.”
But sometimes I don’t necessarily want to be literal in my creativity but more abstract. It’s like a post-impressionist or modernist view of cuisine rather than a Renaissance one. So maybe I’ll take the notion of the Lorax and come up with a suggestive dish of the trees he was protecting, or I’ll take the notion of a Whoville from “Horton Hears a Who” and make a dessert that looks like a Whoville.
Very often as grown-ups we lose the sense of fun and make believe that children possess. Children are inherently innocent and curious. They look at the world as an opportunity for discovery, and they don’t allow their inhibitions to keep them from having fun. They don’t worry about how others will judge them for their creativity, and that is a refreshing way of looking at things.
By allowing myself to express my creativity by playing in the kitchen, I feel like I am inadvertently getting in touch with the child that exists within me, within us all. I encourage you all to find what you are passionate about, find something you can express yourself with creatively and don’t be afraid to do it with abandon. You’ll be surprised at how liberating it really is.
Monika Sudakov is the chef and innkeeper at the Chestnut Street Inn in Sheffield. She can be reached at email@example.com.