One of my problems with museums is that I can't eat popcorn while I look around. Because without food, everything bores me pretty fast. Maite Gomez-Rejón, a classically trained private chef who has cooked for bands like Aerosmith and KISS, has discovered that there are a lot of people like me. People who can appreciate art in both a historical and a social contextif you show us how wonderful or weird the food was back then, and afterward, teach us how to make it.
"I don't even remember high-school history. I skipped school a lot," says Gomez-Rejón, 40. Despite the missed classes, she went on to earn an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and later worked in the education departments of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Getty Villa in L.A. I meet up with her outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, waiting for the 12 people who have each paid $100 for her museum tour and cooking class on Mesoamerican art. Through the company she founded three years ago, ArtBites, Gomez-Rejón runs tours like this in L.A. and, most recently, Philadelphia and New York. She has taught a class on baking 19th-century Parisian pastries after a tour of French Impressionist paintings, and another on making recipes inspired by ancient Greek dishes after checking out Greek and Roman antiquities. She has led classes in a compact kitchen near the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and made do with hot plates and toaster ovens in an art studioturnedcooking space at the Getty Villa, calling the building's engineers every time she blew a fuse.
Gomez-Rejón at the Met in NYC. © Cary Conover.
This class on Mesoamerican art is made up of mostly women, including two who have brought their teenage kids. We head upstairs to the permanent collection Art from the Ancient Americas, where Gomez-Rejón stops in front of a case holding a small Aztec sculpture of a mana priest for the god of springtime and the renewal of vegetationmade between 1400 and 1521. She asks us to examine it, which I pretend to do, as on every art tour I've ever been on. She points out the deep-set eyes and mouth, the floppy hand and the decorative stripes on the back, which, she explains, are due to the fact that this priest is robed in the flayed skin of a dude he sacrificed. Skin he might wear for up to 20 days. Also, worshippers would stew the thighs of the human sacrifice and eat them. I do not know about the other people on the tour, but this is not making me hungry.
Things get a little more appetizing after that, as we look at ceramic Mayan chocolate-drinking cups. One from between 200 and 400 AD depicts the god of maize with silk hair; another from between 650 and 850 AD is covered with incredibly detailed hieroglyphic-like drawings. Gomez-Rejón reaches into her bag, where she has stashed laminated reproductions from the Florentine Codex (a 16th-century encyclopedic account of Aztec society) as well as manuscripts and images, explaining how wealthy Aztec men would mix cacao beans, water, vanilla and masabut no sugar or milkto make a really pathetic-sounding version of hot chocolate. Then she points out an ornate drinking cup carved from what looks like it could be a cacao pod but is really a small coconut. We all are embarrassed that we have no idea where chocolate comes from. Gomez-Rejón passes around a container of cacao nibs made from the seedsdark, slightly bitter, crunchy bits.
We look at five more pieces of artwater vessels carved in the shape of squash, an elaborate grinding stone for maize with a bird head at the endbefore finally stopping at Folding Screen with Indian Wedding and Flying Pole, a huge painting of a wedding celebration. On the right, the newlyweds are shown leaving a church; costumed dancers imitate the dance of the Aztec king. In the center, figures dangle from ropes attached to a pole. On the left, a man juggles a log with his feet. The painting, by an unknown artist, is from 1690, about 170 years after the Spanish conquered the Aztecs and ended the flayed-skin parties. The depiction of Aztecs partaking in the most Christian sacrament, marriage, references Spain's religious dominance. Gomez-Rejón notes that the marriage feast would have featured foods brought over by the Spanish, like beef, cheese, rice and all the other things we now associate with Mexican cooking, as well as indigenous ingredients like corn, squash, beans and tomatoes. Everything sounds far more appealing than stewed human thigh.
Folding screen with indian wedding and flying pole. © Cary Conover.
In addition to food and religion, the Folding Screen painting reveals how the Europeans influenced indigenous art. In those 170 years, Mesoamerican art had gone from blocky to realist, and, as Gomez-Rejón points out, the background of the painting is reminiscent of Dutch landscapes, which were popular in the 17th century. "European influence is also evident in the attention to detail in the people's costumesthe lace they are wearing is Flemish," she says. "Mexican artists were looking at European art, and European artists were looking at each other, and these techniques made their way into the artistic pantheon of the Americas."
After an hour, which is the right amount of time for any museum tour, we drive three miles to Surfas, an amazing restaurant and specialty-food store with a test kitchen. We are greeted with glasses of tequila and guava juice and two tiny bowls, one holding dried worms, the other fried grasshopper headssurprisingly popular on the Mesoamerican menu and still widely consumed, mainly in Oaxaca. The worm lives in the maguey plant, from which the Aztecs produced everything from medicine to textiles. (There's even a maguey plant in a corner of Folding Screen to show that the ceremony took place in Mexico.) Before any of us sit down, my fellow art lovers go straight for the insect bowls. These are my kind of people. They are not, however, my kind of wormstasteless, a little nutty, and not nearly delicious enough to make it worth eating a worm. The grasshopper heads, however, have a satisfying meatiness. Besides, anything tastes great fried.
We each pick a station to help cook Gomez-Rejón's Mesoamerican menu. Two of the women make tortillas with a press; another slices a cactus leaf and throws the pieces in boiling water. I head to the main table to help prepare chiles en nogada, a classic Mexican dish served in September, the month of Mexican independence, and at weddings. The dish features the colors of the Mexican flaggreen, red and whiteand, much like the painting, crams in all of Mexican history: poblano peppers (a symbol of indigenous culture) stuffed with ground beef (representing the Spanish) that's been mixed with dried fruit and nuts (sold by Arab traders who influenced Spanish cuisine) and topped with a French-inspired walnut-cream sauce (inspired by the Creoles and the Mexican aristocracy's Francophilia). It turns out I can retain a lot from a history lesson if you just feed me.
I char the chiles on the stove, then hand them off to two women so I can watch them suffer through the hand- and eye-burning process of deseeding. Nathan Yao, 16, carefully cuts kernels off a cob as if he were doing brain surgery while his mom looks on proudly. "This is something I would like to get my son involved in. Both the art and the food," Sabrina Yao says. "I like the food part better," Nathan says.
We sit down at a long table set with sunflower bouquets and bottles of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Sicilian Nero d'Avola, chosen because they go well with the flavors of the food and also because Mexican wine is hard to find. We eat corn, zucchini and avocado salad; cactus and jicama salad; beans and rice; tortillas and quesadillas; and the chiles en nogada. I'm normally against mixing meat and fruit, but the chiles are excellent: the peppers just spicy enough, the meat stuffing less sweet than bright, the room-temperature walnut-cream sauce surprisingly subtle and smooth. And the meal really does help all the art make sensethe deification of corn before the colonists introduced other foods; the sudden and vast changes in art, food and religion that occurred when the Spanish arrived.
Then we eat chocolate-amaranth cookies that have the sole effect of teaching us about the earthy, nutty flavor of amaranth, a traditional Mexican grain. Finally, we drink super-frothy Mexican hot chocolatesweetened, with milk. You can let history inform your meal only so much.
Where to Take an ArtBites Class
ArtBites founder Maite Gomez-Rejón teaches her art-and-food classes in a growing number of locations. For more details on these and other classes, go to artbites.net.
Thomas Jefferson's tastes were largely shaped by his tenure as minister to France. ArtBites' "A Jeffersonian Feast" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art explores how his Francophilia influenced early American art, food and architecture. Recipes from the 18th century inspire the cooking class. Nov. 16; $130.
The "Latin American Art and Gastronomy" class that writer Joel Stein took will be repeated at the San Antonio Museum of Art. January 2011.
"Let Us Eat Cake" at the Blanton Museum of Art tours the Impressionist exhibit and explores the role of sugar in Europe; participants create French confections and petit fours. Dec. 18.
"A Taste of Art: The Gilded Age" examines the Huntington Library's American art from the 1870s to World War Ithe decadent period known as the Gilded Age. The cooking focuses on recipes fit for a 19th-century socialite. Nov. 6; $90.
"The King's Table: A Culinary Workshop" tours the Getty Center's "Imagining the Past in France, 1250-1500" exhibit. Later, participants cook traditional recipes from the medieval French court. Dec. 9 and 11 and Jan. 11; $75.
Joel Stein is a columnist for Time magazine. His book about trying to finally become a man at 39 years old, tentatively titled Man Up, will be published in 2012.