A friend of mine told me just the other day that Buffalo is a city that has a love affair with food and art. That’s why when I was asked to go out to lunch with a pastry chef and a curator for the arts, I knew I was in for a special surprise.
It was Claire Schneider, Independent Curator (inset photo), who first piqued my interest in a CSA-meets-progressive dinner series that she was planning with the help of chef Colleen Stillwell, who jumped onboard with the progressive ‘art of food’ journey that takes guests through dimensions of time and taste. When I learned that the three stage dinner series would involve picking up prepared art inspired foods in undisclosed locations, and eating a meal with other foodies and art lovers in a communal setting, I knew that I was dealing with something that was completely out of the ordinary. “Eat Your Hearts Out is an opportunity of a lifetime for people interested in art and food,” said Schneider. “It brings together these exciting ideas that are happening in the art and food worlds. The artist designed meal is a new type of canvas, the creative nature of food and people’s responses to it are growing exponentially, and Lynne McCabe (chosen guest artist) has focused all of this on thinking about Buffalo – its past, present, and future. It dives into history and all of the important immigrant groups that founded this city at a transportation crossroads, but it also considers the present moment, where are we now exactly? How do you represent that in food? And what will the future be? It’s like writing an essay but instead of words you have this fabulous, sensual experience. It brings you back to certain family or community memories. But it also introduces the element of surprise. And encourages one to dream about the future. What will the classic Buffalo dishes be in the year 2020?
“While we were researching this project, I saw “Grain Dances, Steel Floats” and it drove home even more what Lynne is trying to do. Lynne her self describes it best: “To create an experience where one can have a glimpse at how we track migration. How the food we make and eat can be a way for us to carry our home with us. A communion if you will, with the place we have left behind. For the Irish of Buffalo this becomes even more poignant as most of these folks arrived in Buffalo because they were fleeing a desperate famine, there is a monument here in Buffalo that attests to this fact. The monument is situated at the end of the Erie Canal that was a major gateway to the American West for many but it was also the route that the grain producers of the Midwest and northeast used to distribute their food through the country. This gave rise to the grain elevators, which were built on the backs of cheap Irish labor.”
“Lynne conceived of the first dinner specifically to honor this proud history. Working with Colleen, they have co-created a meal that at once appears simple, rustic even but after one bite betrays the complexities and the layers of this history. Buffalo’s past coming to ground through unexpected flavor pairings and aesthetics. Expect the unexpected.
“I’m also really excited that the food and the experience are progressive. They will become more complex with each dinner. For the second “present” meal, Lynne and Colleen have decided to create a mash-up of Buffalo’s legacy as an industrial food producer (think Cheerios, Wonder Bread, Rich Whip Topping) and the farm to table movement. Colleen will be playing with how to make some of these classic packaged goods (say Shake ‘n Bake chicken) homemade. There will also be unique canned items like carrot marmalade or green tomato jam to honor the resurgence in DIY foodstuffs, but they will not be your usual fare. The way you will experience this meal will also be open, it can take many routes, a more traditional one, but there will also be the option to follow an alternative course. Say take those homemade potato chips and shake them up with your chicken.
“Finally, the third “future” meal will be a Pop-Up dinner. We are still looking for the right unusual setting to have this. It will be coursed affair that traverses the various migration groups. It will also be an opportunity for everyone who is a part of this project to finally sit down together and dream about the future. (Remember the other meals are CSA style for take home.) I’m really looking forward to those conversations and what people are thinking about and hoping for in relation to Buffalo and food.
“Lynne McCabe is the perfect artist to do this. Food has always been a part of her conceptual art practice and she is currently in the much talked about exhibition Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art at the Blaffer Art Museum, University of Houston. For that project, where she is showing her video Vexations in the Kitchen, she designed a sixteen-course dinner for a fundraising event with the master chefs at the renowned Uchi restaurant. The elaborate meal, like the eccentric musical composition her video riffs on, had this amazing way of translating one artistic expression into another medium and commenting on it at the same time. And not with footnotes, but four variations of sorrel, mushrooms, and salmon.
“I also asked Lynne because I had just worked with her on my current traveling exhibition More Love and we had so much fun together. She has this way of interacting with people that is a form of art itself. And when I asked her to work with Colleen, I didn’t know what she was going to do. She started researching Buffalo and fell in love with the grain elevators and the people who built them. She is an immigrant herself from Scotland to Houston. She grew up in the housing projects of Glasgow and comes from Irish stock, so she is a kindred spirit of that tough experience. It’s always great to have someone think about a place that is conceptually connected but has some distance. It’s was also her idea to not just focus on the past, but to consider three moments in time, which is how we got to the series idea, or playing off the CSA model.
“And what is even more amazing is that when I asked Colleen, I wasn’t thinking (I didn’t even know) about her being from a South Buffalo family. I was just blown away by the croissants and chocolates I had at the pastry shop in the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute. I wanted to work with someone with that talent. Just like this project, both these women understand the deep soul of Buffalo and want to reflect back to the participants their unique take on the city using all the experience and skills they have gained by traveling and training all over with the best in their respective fields.
“Colleen might not be well known to those in Buffalo, because she has been focused on teaching recently, but she is amazing. She has been mentored from the best in the pastry world, Stephen Durfee, who was a part of the staff that opened “The French Laundry” Restaurant in Yountville, CA and who recently competed for Team USA at the World Pastry Cup in France, and Richard Capizzi of Per Se, Bouchon Bakery, and Lincoln Ristorante. In fact, I hope that we can keep her in Buffalo and she won’t run off to work in one of those kitchens again and will actually open her own chocolate shop. I hope being a part of this project convinces her that there are people in Buffalo who are eager to experience as well as pay for these fine food products and happenings.
“I know a few people are amazed by the price of $500. But what they don’t realize is that it’s actually the deal of the century. You get six dinners for this (three dinners for two people) as well as artwork you can keep forever and frame. In fact, just the box with Lynne’s smart and sensual poems on the front and menus alone, have a market value probably double or triple this. The Feast fundraising dinners were $500 a plate and I just heard about another food + art meal in NYC that will go for $5000. The curator there expects it will sell out really quickly.
“So I hope people understand our commitment to this project. It’s a labor of love for Lynne, Colleen, and myself. I know this type of thing is new to Buffalo, but the people who are brave enough to sign on will really have an experience of a lifetime. I love food and art, but I’m a curator, so the kind of things I will continue to do in this realm are unknown. It’s very unlikely something just like this will happen again.
“I’m also really excited that we are creating the first food + art CSA. Many people are familiar with vegetables subscriptions where you sign up for a season of tomatoes, kale, and squash, whatever the farmer has. This Community Supported Agriculture model has also extended to bread and dairy shares. It’s a way to support your local community, because a farmer or baker knows you are committed, they have a built in season of customers. The art world has jumped on this model recently, so that you can now sign up for a box of prints or multiples, Community Supported Art. What we are doing with “Eat Your Hearts Out” is create the first food + art CSA. I’m thrilled Lynne came up with this idea and proud I can support it.
When I started CS1 Curatorial Projects, I knew I wanted to do things I couldn’t do in other venues. I’ve also wanted to do a food and art project for a long time. I learned to cook seriously at fifteen and have been going to farmer’s markets since then and this was the mid-1980s. I later lived on a farm in Tuscany, worked in the kitchen, helped butcher meat and make sausages, and even wrote a cookbook documenting what I learned there at Spannocchia (long before it became an important food and art destination). I was also a founding board member of Urban Roots. My thing was heirloom tomatoes and making sure we had great seedlings to offer. (I’ve always been interested in the unusual and unique. I usually grow about 30 different kinds and they are often different each year.) As a curator, who loves to work with artists, and often younger or lesser known artists, and commission new projects, “Eat Your Hearts Out” is kind of nirvana for me. It’s a way to bring lifelong passions together.
Why did you decide to focus on Buffalo when I asked you?
I always work contextually. I take my studio practice and obsessions and bring them to the site of a commission and see how I can expand them by being receptive to what the site has to offer. Buffalo was a rich, rich landscape for me to draw from. I have been concerned with the domestic, food and migration for some time now. I guess being an immigrant myself has caused me to be more sensitive to the liminality of being in a place that is not where you’re from. It’s very disorientating and in my experience food is one of the ways we tether ourselves in the new country, to the old. Therefore I was immediately drawn to the history of the immigrant communities in Buffalo. And being Irish myself I took the Irish immigrants and the amazing stories about the grain elevators as my jumping off point.
After doing some research I realized that a lot of artists who had been invited to do work here in Buffalo had also found themselves inspired by the history of the elevators and so I struggled with how I could make something that would not just be another object or image prescribing an idea on to a community that was already so imaged. This is why I wanted to create and experience. To offer people a chance to have a new relationship with buffalos history, through food.
What excites you about Buffalo?
What excites me about Buffalo is that it seems to be at a tipping point in how it regards itself. In the short time I have spent here I get the sense that the people of buffalo are starting to look around the city and reconfigure the possible, reconstituting what Buffalo will be. This really reminded me of my hometown, Glasgow which is also an industrial blue collar town that with the decline of its main industry, shipbuilding and rising unemployment had to reimagine itself and did so though the arts and culture. One of the ways Glasgow did this was by repurposing many of the abandoned industrial sites as arts venues. After touring the grain elevator complex, with Rick Smith I can see that Buffalo is invested in doing something similar but on an even grander scale. Rick described the various events they had planned there, from films screened on the huge concrete curtains of the elevators to poetry, dance and impromptu festivals to celebrate the oncoming of spring. I remember vividly when Glasgow first used the huge Clyde side crane that had been so synonymous with the proud shipbuilding of the Clyde, as a backdrop to a spectacular art event. It changed the people in the city’s perception of themselves and what was possible. I get the same feeling here in Buffalo and I’m excited to get a front row seat in this process and perhaps do my bit to hasten it along.
What are you enjoying about working with Colleen?
Colleen is able to take my wild conceptual conceits and bring them to ground in the most exquisite ways. Mostly our conversations start with my saying, “ok so no pressure but if we can make this it will embody the sensual history of a people” and she does me the great favor of not laughing but instead smilingly accepts the challenge and produces something both beautiful and unexpected. One of the things I have so enjoyed has been working with someone who is as serious about their practice as I am mine. We have both expressed how the worlds we inhabit are all consuming and sometimes the people outside of them don’t seem to understand why she spends 12 hr days in the kitchen or why I spend every available minute I have making art, including weekends and into the wee hours of the morning. I have made food and used food a lot in my various projects but this collaboration with Colleen has taken that work to new heights. It has been my infinite pleasure working with her and I will be sorry when the project is over. Especially since I won’t be receiving anymore-tasting parcels in the post.
Interview with Colleen Stillwell:
Working with Lynne has been fun in that it has provided me with an opportunity to think about food in ways that I don’t always get to. As cooks and chefs, we’re often planning menus and dishes and of course they need to be thoughtful and properly composed and hopefully exciting. A good cook doesn’t underestimate this. However, we’re not always thinking about how the meal or dish or even single ingredient was relevant to a particular space in time, culture, or movement and growth throughout a city. Working with Lynne has brought me back to a more thoughtful place that I have been missing for awhile. It has been fun and very refreshing.
What are your dreams for Buffalo’s food future?
My hopes are that soon there will be lots of options for high quality, well prepared food, not just a select few. My hope is, and I think it is beginning to happen, that more people will have a better understanding of what food can and should be like. The level of quality and craftsmanship that is required to produce something wonderful will have a better understanding.
What about Buffalo are you hoping to show off that is happening now?
I’d love to make noise for others that are helping to re-educate the taste-buds of this area. This project is truly a collaboration in every sense and I’d like to extend that collaboration to as many craftsman as possible. There are so many talented cooks, farmers and specialty food makers/providers in this region, many little known, and we’re hoping to highlight as many as possible.
Each CSA Dinner subscription is $500. Edition 10.
• Three dinners for 2 people (or 6 dinners)
• Two Dinners for pick-up (Thurs, Oct. 10 & Nov. 7)
• One Pop-Up Dinner with alcohol (Sat. Dec. 14)
Pus, an artist designed box and three menus
To sign up (or with questions) contact CS1 Founder Claire Schneider at 716-884-3971 or firstname.lastname@example.org.