Functional Experimentality: Family Meal at the MFA of the Americas

Jared Alan Smith

Tracie Morris spoke at our residency this year of how the first utterances of language may indeed have been poetic rather than purely communicative, of how “ooh” and “aah” far preceded what we know today as “I.” When it comes to art, I will always think of food as coming first. Before there were cave paintings (or writing of any kind, for that matter), there was meat on a spit, art consumed to inspire nothing more than survival.

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One giant introduces another: Jena Osman and Tracie Morris. (Photo Credit: Jared Smith)

The most inspiring words I found at The MFA of the Americas’ latest residency came from poet Amaranth Borsuk, during her lecture on Material Intermedial Poetics (something that sounds awfully food-related to me): she opened the talk with a definition of teks, a word of ancient Indo-European descent found most often today at the root of the word technology. It means “to weave or fabricate, especially with an axe,” a definition that implies both creation and destruction. The definition spoke to me as a practitioner of the culinary arts before the rest of Borsuk’s presentation (an experience I can only define as the lovechild of Navi of Hyrule and Zordon of Eltar) informed me that teks had literary applications as well. There was also a poem about charcuterie in the shape of a pig, which tickled my inner chef in a way I still cannot fully describe.

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Amaranth Borsuk reads from Between Page and Screen (Photo Credit: Jared Smith)

The chef responsible for our meals at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, Sue, was kind enough to give me the run of the kitchen for our last night at the ACA so that I could prepare dinner for the students and faculty, much as I had done with breakfast the year before. Last year there were twelve of us, faculty included. Our number has since grown to twenty-something. Sue offered me the chance to cook again regardless, and the only thought running through my head as it nodded up and down at her offer was “challenge accepted.” Last year, Patricia Engel told me that “you have to test yourself,” and I failed my self-imposed challenge of going full vegan, my beer and banana hocakes coming out a rather unsexy shade of grey. I also hid rendered caramel bacon under Engel’s french toast not knowing that she was a vegetarian. The other person at the table, Mark Powell, was more than happy to eat it for her, and she still signed my copy of Vida, so I guess that counts as a form of forgiveness. Whatever.

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(Photo Credit: Nikki Barnes)

I was a cook for twelve years before I became a writer and a teacher, so those failures stuck with me for the intervening twelve months between the first meal I made at ACA and the last. Engel asserted before she left us in 2015 that “as a society, we are conditioned not to tell each other of the profound effect we’ve had on one another.” I’m trying to write a memoir based around that concept, and at the moment the manuscript looks to be simultaneously raw as f*** and burnt to sh*t, which I don’t have to tell you isn’t the most appetizing combo (unless you are from Pittsburgh and happen to also be a fine cut of red meat). I usually tell people how profoundly they’ve affected me with food to get around Engel’s unfortunate truism; I cook so that no words are necessary.

One of this year’s visiting writers, Jessica Lee Richardson, was unequivocal in telling us during her lecture that “it’s really hard to move away from something that you’re really good at, that your identity has become entangled in.” She left a career in theatre to become a writer, and her practice in and talent for acting came across clearly in the indelible exuberance displayed during her craft talk. I like to think that like her, my identity will forever be linked to the time I spent in commercial kitchens across the sunshine state.

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Jessica Lee Richardson. (Photo Credit: Jared Smith)

While the sun has set on my cooking career, the experience of our latest residency tells me that the skills I gained there still rise with me in the morning. As I whipped avocado and chocolate chips for dessert after serving the first three courses of our residency’s final meal, I basked unabashedly in a sound I have gotten too far away from in the last six months: clinking silverware and . . . nothing. No laughter, no talking, just the low hum of a bunch of people really enjoying the food in front of them. There was something ineffably poetic about that silence. One of my fellow students approached me later and told me she could taste the love in her meal, and all I could do was smile back at her. Preparing food for everyone was an act of catharsis for me, and as Richardson had recently informed us, there is risk in catharsis. I took a risk in attempting dinner for twenty-plus after six months out of the commercial kitchen, and it makes me very happy to think that my risk paid off on the taste buds of all the friends I’ve made at the MFA of the Americas.

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“Kitchen Sink Salad,” from Tomazin Farms. (Photo Credit: Nikki Barnes)

Another bit of Richardson wisdom was that “art is a gift economy,” and it was my privilege to provide the gift of flavor to the group of people who have given me so many gifts over the course of the last year. They are all artists, and part of being an artist is being finicky with one’s tastes; there were vegetarian, vegan, gluten-allergic and lactose intolerant restraints sprinkled throughout the dining room, but I’ll quote Richardson again in saying that “constraints become generative through interpretation.” My interpretation, in this case, was pasta. Lots and lots of pasta. There was even gluten free pasta, which up until the moment I served it, I wasn’t sure actually even existed.

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“Lots and lots of pasta.” (Photo Credit: Nikki Barnes)

Amaranth Borsuk ended her lecture with us in saying that “a really good book both creates an experience for and a relationship with the reader;” and as I meditated over the dirty dishes, alone in the kitchen while the rest of my colleagues slept away the final night of our residency, I knew that a really good cook is capable of doing just the same.

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Jared Alan Smith was born in Orlando and  lives in Tampa, Florida, where he teaches Exceptional Student Education English Language Arts. His nonfiction has appeared in Burrow Press’ Fantastic Floridas series and his fiction in Issue 19 of Hinchas de Poesia.

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