This year, as in all years past, my family will sit down for Christmas dinner at my Grandma’s house in Virginia to feast on honey-baked ham, green beans with bacon, mashed potatoes, buttered rolls, and mac and cheese. Last year, I asked my aunt for a recipe for the mac and cheese and she looked at me incredulously before recounting a process that involved throwing together cooked pasta, butter, milk and a “Hokie cup of grated cheese” (referring to the Virginia Tech football tumblers everyone in my family owns). You put it in the oven and “cook it until it’s done.” Over Thanksgiving this year, she wrote that recipe down on a piece of paper for me.
Suffice to say, Salvador Dalí’s sumptuous celebratory dinners looked nothing like my family’s–or likely yours for that matter. If you had been a guest at the lavish dinner parties Dalí threw with his wife, Gala, you would have enjoyed meals comprised of piles of shellfish, eggs, and caviar in table arrangements every bit as elaborate and erotic as his paintings. He collected the recipes for those meals, illustrated by paintings and drawings of his parties, in the cookbook Les Dîners de Gala, originally published in 1973 and recently re-released by Taschen.
A flip through Dalí’s cookbook will reveal decadent dishes like calf’s brain with bacon and pig’s ear stew. The average recipe has about 14 ingredients—including, for example, 10 oz of prawns tails, crushed; or six slices of conger eel—but, like my aunt’s, the instructions are arranged in a loose narrative; they assume you have a base knowledge of how to cook, say, “Conger of the rising sun.” There’s also a familiar distaste for too much precision or calculation when it comes to meal-making.
In fact, the book includes this disclaimer:
We intend to ignore those charts and tables in which chemistry takes the place of gastronomy. If you are a disciple of one of those calorie-counters who turn the joys of eating into a form of punishment, close this book at once; it is too lively, too aggressive and far too impertinent for you.
For Dalí, putting together a meal was a creative act as innate as composing one of the eerie dreamscapes in his surrealistic paintings. All sorts of artists, intellectuals and interesting characters would attend his dinner parties, where Gala might don a unicorn head, and where the table’s centerpiece could be a mountain of cascading prawns one night and the next, some sort of game that looked as though it was cooked as it was mating. Cooking, for Dalí, was hedonistic; eating was all about the “pleasures of Taste.” An example of his “gastronomical ethics,” as described in the book’s introduction by Pierre Roumeguere, an associate of Dalí’s, could be summed up in the artist’s quote: “One can choose not to eat, one cannot accept to eat poorly.” And he definitely didn’t tolerate spinach (“If I hate that detestable degrading vegetable called spinach, it is because it is shapeless, like Liberty.”).
The thing is, even as Dalí tended to gravitate toward the sensuous, ornate, and exotic, all of the recipes in his cookbook can be actually cooked–and were. Dalí, who wanted to be a cook by the age of six, drew his recipes from famed French chefs, then dressed them up, Dalí-style. “In gastronomy it is the fabulous famous menus of Maxim’s, La Tour d’Argent, of Lasserre, of the Buffet de la Gare de Lyon, which are here sumptuously presented and ornamented by Dalí,” writes Roumeguere, listing the top restaurants in Paris at the time. If “Calf kidney in a shell” and “Jellied cod fish” no longer seem appetizing, it’s because our tastes have changed over time, not because Dalí was trying to create something eclectic and inedible. His recipe for “Round of lamb with peppers” actually sounds delicious and simple enough to be categorized as a “easy workday recipe” in today’s parlance.
This is not to say Dalí was not an artist of gastronomy—flip through the slide show above and you’ll see that he definitely was. But much of the appeal of this book and these dishes is the way he designed the meal, the theatrics of his dinner parties, and the absurdity of his “plating.” As Jon Shook, the chef who co-runs the extravagant L.A. restaurant Animal, remarked recently in an NPR interview about Dalí’s cookbook, his pig’s ear stew is basically pork and beans. Perhaps Dalí’s Christmas dinner wouldn’t have been so different from mine after all.
[All Images: via Taschen]