Adam Harrison Levy | Essays

Artist’s Cookbook: Joel Meyerowitz

Joel Meyerowitz, Photo by Ariel Meyerowitz

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a six-part series from Adam Harrison Levy about designers, artists and cooking. To see all the installments, click here.

Can food be a metaphor for marriage? Joel Meyerowitz first tasted this dish, pasta con le sarde, while on honeymoon with his wife, Maggie Barrett. They were in Sicily and saw it on the menu. Instantly they were intrigued; they were familiar with lobster with pasta, shrimp with pasta, clams with pasta, but sardines with pasta?

"The first time was lusty and earthy, 'dirty' we called it, meaning that dark mysterious flavor of things that have come together in the making that impart a deeper fragrance than the individual elements," recalls Meyerowitz.

Food plays a central role in their relationship. In fact, it brought them together. "We began our courtship by each having a dream the night after we met that we were preparing a meal together. So that was an amazing coincidence and one that we followed up on the following evening. We've been cooking ever since."

Maggie Barrett, Photo by Joel Meyerowitz

Pasta con le sarde is one of the dishes that they have been refining and enjoying together for almost ten years. Like a good marriage, it's a work in progress. "We like the spontaneous decisions of throwing something together and the possibility of working in ways we haven't experienced before."

The dish is sensual. "The sardines melt down and mingle with the sauce to give it this really intense flavor." The ingredients are simple yet pungent, the colors are deep and lush.

One would expect nothing less from a photographer whose innovative work with color in the 1970s helped to transform the medium. In 1977 he said, "Color plays itself out along a richer band of feelings — more wavelengths, more radiance, more sensation." Compared to run-of-the mill pasta dishes, he could be speaking about pasta con le sarde itself.

He once spontaneously cooked the dish for Martha Stewart. He had been commissioned to photograph her gardens, landscaped in 1926 by the renowned gardener Jens Jensen, at Skylands, her summer retreat in Seal Harbor, Maine. As dusk fell on a Friday evening, Meyerowitz was told that she was arriving that night with a bevy of celebrity cooks. As a joke, he said that he would cook for them. Her assistant took him seriously and he found himself faced with this daunting, yet self-appointed task. With a flashlight in hand he raided Stewart's garden for tomatoes, basil and thyme; her assistant provided the rest of the ingredients. Dressed in ratty shorts and a t-shirt, he set to work in her notoriously immense and immaculate kitchen. He had just finished cooking when Martha and all thirteen of her guests arrived. The dish was a resounding success. One celebrity chef actually scarfed down the remaining scraps for breakfast the following morning.

He tells this story for a reason: the dish is sophisticated enough to win over a group of jaded foodies, but simple enough for a non-professional to make.

Doorway to the sea, Provincetown, Massachusetts, 1982  © Joel Meyerowitz

Over the years he and Maggie have traveled extensively; they have experienced many of the world's best cuisines. Their interests are simpler now. They are more intent on natural and organic food, much of which comes from their garden in Cape Cod. It's late October and "Maggie's been making soups that are savory and fresh on the tongue precisely because they come into the pot from twenty feet away and have lost none of their qualities by transport."

For Meyerowitz, food is about simplicity as well as sensuousness, a continuous work-in progress as well as an improvisation. When discussing his photography, he once said, "I'm not trying to work with grandeur. I'm trying to work with ordinariness," — all of which formulates an excellent recipe for marriage itself.

Joel Meyerowitz's Pasta Con Sarde

Garlic – 3 cloves, finely chopped
Fillet of anchovy, mashed
Olive oil – enough to sauté the garlic
Basil leaves – 2 cups, "torn up"
Oregano – 1 tbsp
Cherry tomatoes – 3 handfuls of tomatoes, cut in half
4 to 5 cans of sardines (not skinless and boneless if possible, and in olive oil)
Toasted pine nuts – about 1/3 of a cup
Raisins – about 3/4 a cup
Peperoncini – a pinch of hot peppers for a zing to the palate
Bow tie noodles – the right amount for your dinner party

1) In a large skillet, sauté the the garlic and anchovy, empty the sardine cans and their oil after the garlic softens.

2) Add the pine nuts and raisins. Stir.

3) Add the basil leaves, oregano, and a pinch of peperoncino (not too much at first, you can always add a bit later for that little bite of heat.)

4) Boil water for the noodles, when boiled, add what you need for your guests (a little less than 1/4 lb. per person.)

5) In the skillet, add 2 handfuls of tomatoes to cook into the sauce, saving the last handful for adding a few minutes before serving.

6) Add salt and pepper and taste for your sense of what is right. (We like it just a little salty.)

7) When the noodles are done, drain, but do not add all the pasta at once, add bit by bit to the skillet and keep tossing till there is a nice 'dirty' mix, and there is a proportion of noodles to sauce that feels right.

8) Then stir in the last tomatoes for another 2 minutes.

9) Sprinkle some fresh basil leaves on top and bring to the table. This dish is great the second day as well, as the flavors have deepened.

10) The next time, correct the proportions to conform to the way you re-imagine the dish. By the way, Maggie likes to add some saffron early on.

New York City, 1975 © Joel Meyerowitz

A version of this essay originally appeard on Gourmet Live!

Posted in: Arts + Culture

Jobs | May 25