Dinner With Jackson Pollock

The artist is world famous as a genius of abstract painting. But, as photographer Robyn Lea discovered, it turns out Pollock also had true culinary talent.

Alone on the banks of Accabonac Creek, on Long Island, with my camera on a cool and quiet postwinter evening, I tried to imagine how Jackson Pollock might have perceived the scene when he stood there 60 years before. Naked trees appeared like dark, sharpened fingers reaching to the dusk sky, framing Jackson’s studio off to the right and the shingled house at center. It was here, in the East Hampton hamlet of Springs, that Jackson lived with his wife, artist Lee Krasner, from 1945 until his premature death, in 1956. This is where he created the masterpieces of modern art that propelled him into the global spotlight. It’s also where I found a side of the artists I never knew existed, them as cooks. 
I learned of their recipes only after I had visited the house and studio many times to photograph the interiors and surrounding landscapes. The evidence of daily life was everywhere—the stove, a family of wooden spoons, an eggbeater, tarnished silver cutlery, and even the kitchen sink.

In October 2012, the director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, Helen Harrison, told me the foundation had some of Lee and Jackson’s recipes, 16 in total. On further investigation, we found dozens more, stuffed inside the front and back covers of their recipe books and inside the pockets of a small New York Times recipe file from 1942. Jackson’s were written in almost perfect script on unlined paper, with ingredients and methods clearly noted.

The recipes help us see beyond the image of Jackson as a narcissistic action-painter, fueled to alcoholic self-destruction, to a quieter domestic portrait, informed by the rhythms of the day-to-day. Jackson loved nothing more than to make a batch of fluffy pancakes for friends. Food preparation for the couple was not a tiresome daily chore but an extension of their creative outlook, an interest that stemmed from childhood and blossomed into a shared passion beginning in 1942, when they began living together in New York City.

Jackson’s interest originated on the family ranch in Phoenix, where his father, LeRoy Pollock, farmed vast fields of vegetables and fruit to sell at market. His mother Stella’s domain was the kitchen. Her culinary talents extended beyond the preparation of exceptional meals for her family to working at times as a professional cook to supplement the family income.

No doubt inspired by his parents, Jackson would take up cooking and plant a garden. Keen to introduce his city friends to the wonders of Springs and its magnificent bounty, Jackson would often baptize them with a clamming expedition, urging them to follo whim across the back lawn to the salt marshes to help gather clams for dinner. Soon afterward, Lee would be cooking up a chowder or clams with garlic and dry vermouth.

Both were active in the kitchen. “He loved to bake,” Lee said, later describing the division of roles: “I did the cooking, but he did the baking.... He was very fastidious about his baking—marvelous bread, cake, and apple pies. He also made a great spaghetti sauce.”

Lee combined her culinary skills with her determination to promote Jackson’s art. She quickly understood the power of the dinner party to capture the attention of important people in the art world. For one of their first dinner parties, Lee invited Peggy Guggenheim’s assistant, Howard Putzel. She served a sophisticated menu, and Howard’s thank-you note to Jackson included compliments to his “Cordon Bleu Chef.”

Planting, gathering, fishing connected Jackson to nature, which fed his inner creative terrain and in turn influenced many of his greatest works. From his paintings Enchanted Forest and The Nest to the Sounds in the Grass series, there was a fluid interconnection between art, food, and nature—the three pillars of their lives in Springs.

The above was excerpted from the just-published Dinner With Jackson Pollock, from Assouline. Visits to the Pollock- Krasner House are by appointment only; 830 Springs- Fireplace Road, East Hampton, New York; 631-324-4929; sb.cc.stonybrook.edu/pkhouse.

Jackson's Prize-Winning Apple Pie

His apple pie was not only loved by his family and friends, it also became famous in Springs, Long Island, when it won first prize at the local Fisherman's Fair.

For the Filling:

4 pounds Granny Smith apples (or any combination of tart apples)
1/4 cup water
1 cup sugar (or less if desired)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon all-purpose flour

For the Piecrust:

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 level teaspoon baking powder
1 level teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups cold butter
2 egg yolks, plus 1 whole egg for the egg wash
1/2 cup cold milk, plus more as needed

1.To prepare the filling: Peel, core, and thinly slice the apples. Stew the apples in a pot with enough water to cover the fruit, plus the sugar and spices, until just cooked. Then chill the apples in a little of the juice. When cold, sift the flour over the apples and stir gently to combine.

2. Preheat oven to 450° F. To make the piecrust: Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the butter and cut in until the mixture is crumbly. Add the egg yolks and mix with enough milk to make a dough. Roll out the dough lightly. Place the pastry in a greased 10-inch round pie dish, allowing the pastry to overhang the edge of the pan by about 1 inch; trim away excess dough, roll it into a ball, and set aside to make the top crust. Be sure there are no cracks in the bottom crust; seal them by pressing the edges together with your fingers. Pour the apple mixture into the pie shell and distribute evenly.

3. For a simple top crust, roll out the remaining dough, slide the pastry sheet onto the rolling pin, and unroll it on top of the pie filling. Allow the top crust to overhang the edge of the pan by about 1 inch; trim away excess dough, then pinch the top and bottom crusts together all around the rim to seal the pie. Prick the top crust with a fork in about a dozen places or slice a few small openings with a knife to allow steam to escape. Brush the top with the egg wash and sprinkle lightly with a pinch of sugar.

4. For a more elaborate lattice-style top, roll out the remaining dough, cut into 12-inch strips, and weave the strips across the top of the filling. Brush the lattice strips with the egg wash and lightly sprinkle with a pinch or two of sugar.

5. Place the pie in the center of oven and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 325° F and bake for 25 to 30 minutes more.

Image Credit: Martha Holmes/ The Life Picture Collection/ Getty Images