“Can you imagine …” he said, his eyes widening, his hands holding an invisible globe, “a cook with an understanding about art, literature, communication, psychology, anthropology?! … Food is just the pretext! You understand?” -- Alessandro Porcelli
Four men took turns digging with a shovel into the red earth They spoke Mayan with eachother. One wore a straw hat and held a walking stick. The others wore baseball caps. Ears of corn, now cooked, were uncovered. They had buried them the day before.
All around was jungle, a chaos of twisting rubbery leaves and vines. The ground was damp.
To extract order from the chaos, the Mayan men prayed, a photographer snapped photos, a cameraman shot footage, the chefs took note of the corn, and I sketched furiously.
This was our first morning in the Yucatán. 4:30 in the morning to be exact. A two-hour bus ride in the dark brought us to Xocen, a village outside of Valladolid, and a thirty minute hike brought us to this jungle enclave whose periphery was strewn with plastic Coke bottles.
This was a weeklong gathering - no, an event. A session? An experience … all of the above … I never knew what to call it. Seven internationally recognized chefs came together to learn about Yucatecan cuisine and to share ideas under the aegis of Cook It Raw, the brainchild of a 51 year-old visionary chef from Trieste named Alessandro with a passion for food and cooking … and life. I was there to document it with my sketchbook.
The photographers had already snapped a hundred photos while I had only drawn a rough outline. I asked myself how I could keep up. But then I realized I was doing something different. “Free yourself!” Alessandro told me when we first met in Brooklyn in August.
One chef was from Vancouver. One was from DC. Another was from Baltimore and two were from New York. One was from Barcelona and another was from Ireland. On the bus they discussed flavors and cooking methods. Just as illustrators might discuss inks and watercolors. Or as photographers might discuss lenses and shutter speeds.
Portraits of Samuel Beckett and James Joyce were inked on the arms of the Irish chef. He and I talked literature, James Joyce’s Ulysses in particular. The kind of creativity that produced Ulysses, I thought, might be inspiring to a chef in a kitchen keen on creating new forms of food.
We talked about language and I asked if the Irish word for salt might resemble my last name which is Hall. I had been told that Hall in Germany (from whence my ancestors came) refers to the salt mined there by ancient Celtic tribes. The Irish word for salt, alas, does not resemble my last name. But the Welsh word (halen) does!
While we mined the ruins of ancient languages, Mayan architectural ruins were not far away.
Later we visited Cocina Arte, the cooking school in Mérida. The students wore chef hats and aprons and identical black & white checkered pants. The chefs wore whatever they wanted. Blood spilled on a white plastic cutting board as a student sliced into a slab of beef. Across the room a vegetarian chef gathered greens and squash.
At a restaurant that night, where our group was being feted and fawned over, various Oaxacan and Yucatecan specialties were served. I sipped a margarita and wondered if I should be drawing. Sitting next to me was a Oaxacan painter who mentioned he was part owner of a New York restaurant - the very same Mexican restaurant I frequent in my neighborhood!
The next morning we arrived at the Tikul cacao plantation, a vast jungle tract whose wooden structures, lush greenery, and manicured wood-chip paths were a refreshing oasis from the rural squalor we witnessed on the ride there.
The fruit, or “cacao pod,” resembles a cross between an avocado and a squash and it hangs directly on the trunk or branches of the tree. As we stood amongst the trees and on a bed of fallen leaves, our guide took a machete to one of the fruits and invited us to taste the seeds. Slippery and the size of a brussel sprout, they had a sweet milky taste.
Later, under a thatched-roofed hut (like on Gilligan’s Island), a man brewed a cocoa drink for us which was delicious – especially as many of us had not yet had breakfast. We also had some tortillas. Then we hiked to a beehive where we tasted honey and to a garden where we tasted a familiar herb whose name escapes me at the moment. The chefs who were interested were permitted some of the produce to take with them.
That afternoon we stopped at a market in the town of Oxcutcab. Trucks, trikes, bikes, pedi-cabs, and motorbikes all flew in a manic rush (for it was rush hour) around the square block that housed the market. Everywhere were stacked sun-drenched fruits and vegetables. Flies circled chicken corpses hanging by their necks on hooks. Cow, goat, and pig flesh dangled in adjacent stalls and dogs roamed the floors gnawing cardboard boxes. The activity and color captivated me as I tried to get some of it down on paper.
On the third day we rose again, but not as early as we had on the first two days. I strolled the streets of Mérida with my sketchbook and obtained, as the cameraman says, some “B-roll.” I bought a cappuccino for 33 pesos at a gringo coffee shop and pastries from a Mexican bakery. Crowds gathered in the main square on this Dia de Muertos (the Day of the Dead) to watch parades and visit shrines.
I went to the market and was enraptured by the stream of faces entering and exiting. I planted myself in a corner and drew surreptitiously, one face after another.
“Have you been to Sisal?” Alessandro asked me.
“Come on, you must go!”
Me, the guys from Vice, and the Mezcal rep rode in one car. Alessandro, a photographer, and the chefs from Baltimore and DC rode in another. Night was coming as we descended upon a fishing village on the Gulf of Mexico. “Muchos gringos!” a young girl shouted when we got out of our cars. A round-headed man in shorts and a fishing hat wih a walrus mustache hauled buckets of dead, glistening, pearl-gray octopi, each the size of a wet t-shirt, onto land from a boat. One bucket after another he poured the slop into plastic bins.
A Cuban man was our guide and explained that the fishermen lower crabs into the sea which are grabbed by the octopi who are then hauled onto the boats.
That night I missed the parade in Mérida because we were still making our way back from Sisal. When we returned, though, the streets were filled with people. Children’s faces were painted white to resemble skulls and street vendors sold food. A band played. Families erected shrines with flowers and fruit to honor the dead.
I have never loved Halloween, so being in the Yucatán was a welcome change for me. There were no trick-or-treat bags, brand name candy, drunken college kids, or slutty nurse costumes like we have in the States. With the exception of the nurse costumes, I missed none of it. Here in Mérida there was a wonderful calm in the streets that felt both festive and sacred.
The next day I strolled again the street-grid of Mérida, odd numbered streets running one way and even numbered streets running the other. I nearly wept watching white-clad, Panama hatted youths squire flower-bedecked maidens around a makeshift dance floor in the main square to traditional music played by an orchestra. So proud and earnest were the citizens who watched and applauded.
Later at an arts foundation cocktail gathering, well-heeled patrons gathered and tasted the chefs’ creations.
I overheard a middle-aged man use the word “there” at the end of a sentence (as in “how’s it going, there?“) and I suspected immediately his having lived in one of the midwestern United States. Later, when we were introduced, he explained that he had once lived in Minnesota! An architect, he had not only designed both a popular Minneapolis museum and the library renovation at my alma mater, but he knew my uncle when they both taught at the University of Minnesota in the 1970s! The world is small.
“Let’s blow this popsicle stand,” John said. He and Josh, our gracious hosts (bestofyucatan.com), took us to a bar which would not have been out of place in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Onstage a bearded youth with an accordion made gutteral Waitsian ejaculations to the accompaniment of a drummer and a small tuba player (the tuba was small; not the player). And just like when a Hasidic man enters a Williamsburg bar (as the Hasidim are sometimes wont to do), a Mennonite man walked into this one! With a straw cowboy hat and overalls and looking like he stepped out of Grant Wood’s American Gothic, he couldn’t help but attract our attention.
John conversed a bit with the man who was perhaps in his seventies and sipped mezcal from a shot glass. The Mennonites, the man explained, immigrated to Mexico several generations ago by way of the U.S. and Germany. It struck me that the Hasidim of Brooklyn and the Mennonites both speak a dialect of German. Except for their cult-like outsiderism though, the similarities probaby end there.
Since the photographers were capturing an objective truth, it was up to me to capture a subjective truth. But what constitutes subjective truth?
There were things I could have drawn, but didn’t. And things I did draw, but didn’t have to. Basically I drew the things to which I was drawn. Being that this was a food event and that I was drawing people rather than food, one might draw the conclusion that I am drawn to drawing people more than I am drawn to drawing food, for example, and that I might, in fact, have a distaste for food. I do have a distaste for drawing food, but I don’t have a distaste for food itself. There are times, in fact, when the taste of food gives me, as I’m sure it does for many people, great pleasure.
There are artists with a predilection for depicting food (some old Dutch painters come to mind) and others who get off drawing buildings. I am neither of these types. I like to draw people.
A chef combines elements to make new forms. And so do I. Except a chef’s art is consumed and gone before long. Mine lasts longer, hopefully. Is the chef more pure? More existentialist?
Sitting outdoors at a restaurant over breakfast at a plastic table with a plastic table cloth, I made a drawing of the scene while eating huevos divorciados (Two eggs in different sauces separated by beans). The proprietors noticed me drawing. Laughing aloud, one of them said in English “That is the reality! That is the truth!”
The event’s last supper took place at the Arts Foundation on the final day. The kitchen resembled a beehive as the chefs prepared their dishes. I decorated 50 photocopied menus with gestural dabs of gouache indicating leaves and flowers. Each dish was greeted with a chorus of “oohs” by the diners who were made up of participants, hangers-on, VIPs, and peripherals (and so on and so forth).
I made drawings using an oil stick transfer method, hoping to achieve an atmospheric effect. Later I added watercolor paint. With a few toasts and presentations the evening finally came to a close. One by one we flew back the next day to our respective homes and promised eachother to stay in touch.
LIST OF PARTICIPANTS
J P McMahon
PHOTOGRAPHERS & MEDIA
Shedar A. Cardenas Madeis