The Art of Eating Well; Sculptor David Smith was an Artist in the Kitchen as well as the Studio
By Jean Freas
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Ours was an improbable romance between a college girl and a giant of 20th century American art. We met at Sarah Lawrence College in 1948. I was a 19-year-old English major and a friend of one of his students; he was David Smith, 42 and married. By the end of my junior year we had imprudently fallen in love.
The winter after my graduation, I visited David one weekend at his home near Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains. In 1930 he had bought a farm in the lakeside hamlet of Bolton Landing and had been living there intermittently ever since ( he welded or forged his iron sculptures in a cinder-block studio by the road and later set up some of them in the fields around his home). I was working as an editorial assistant on a syndicated newspaper column called “A Woman’s New York”. The first bus I could get after work on that Friday left at eight o’clock at night, and it took five hours to reach Lake George Village, where David was waiting to pick me up. By then, my hunger pangs might have subsided, but not my interest in the food awaiting me. David was as much an artist in the kitchen as in life. For dinner that night he made me chicken breast speckled with tender morsels of apricot. For dessert, eaten at five in the morning, we shared a pomegranate, a marvelous treat for lovers because it takes so long to eat. We peeled away the waxy yellow walls to expose the succulent crimson seeds and relished every mouthful. After we finished our meal, David opened the kitchen door and tossed the dirty dishes into a snowbank, where they stayed until the spring thaw.
David loved to cook no less than he loved the pleasure I took in food. Every visit began with a new menu. Would he serve me a bowl of the homemade pea soup he’d been eating all week? No, no matter what the hour of my arrival, he would instead surprise me with a plate of tiny blini, say, drenched in tangerine sauce, splashed with brandy and then set aflame. Throughout dinner we would sip the sparkling rhubarb wine he had made the previous summer, served in stemmed glasses that he had once filched from the Plaza Hotel.
The urge to cook could seize David anywhere. Once, after he gave a two-day lecture at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, in Maine, we took a detour to the seashore. Having been raised in landlocked Ohio, David could not pass up the novelty of cooking fresh seafood. He dug a pit in the sand and gathered driftwood for a fire; then we both plucked mussels from the water for steaming. Whenever he was on the road, David carried a head of garlic in his breast pocket – as some would a book of matches – so even our impromptu feasts were full of flavor.
Five years after we first met, David became a visiting professor at the University of Arkansas, and during my first trip there we decided to elope ( he had gotten a divorce in December 1952). He handed me a map of Arkansas and asked me to pick a place for us to get married; I arbitrarily chose a town called Eureka Springs. The wedding was conducted by a justice of the peace who also operated a seed-feed-and-grain store; the sign on the window said FUL-O-PEP. In place of a reception, we hurried to a bakery and picked out two slices of pie. “Is the crust leaf lard?” David asked the woman at the counter. She beamed. What other bridegroom would have known what leaf lard is, let alone how miraculous it is in pastry? But David was from the Midwest, where pie was the apogee of local culinary achievement.
A few days later, David invited the entire art department of the University of Arkansas for a wedding feast , which he prepared. Our apartment had no kitchen – only a two-burner hot plate – but he managed to make 12 courses, every one a chinese dish. His ability to whip up Chinese fare came from his frequent visits to New York City’s Chinatown, where the food was cheap and delicious. There he feasted on bias-cut vegetables quickly stir-fried with finely sliced ginger and garlic – the opposite of the kind of cooking he had grown up with.
Between 1954 and 1955 we had two daughters, and David continued to take visiting- professor assignments at other state universities far from New York, courtesy of the Rockefeller brothers, who were his patrons. Teaching stole time from his art making, but his discovery of regional food specialties made the classroom a bit easier for him to bear. In Bloomington, Indiana, David filled his truck with watermelons for 50 cents a load and then passed them out to students, friends, even perfect strangers. What a bonanza! In Fayetteville we would drive to the bakery before dawn so that we could be the first customers in line for just-baked salt-rising bread. In Mississippi it was all about hush puppies. In truth, we didn’t like them that much, but they were local and thus not to be missed.
Each time we returned to Bolton Landing, David would resume gardening; he was a serious gardener. One spring he decided to sow watercress in a nearby stream. Today, in the summer, years after his death (in a car accident in 1965), you can still find the vibrantly green vegetable growing where he planted it along Potter Hill Road. But there was more than watercress in David’s gardening legacy; he planted rhubarb and horseradish below the patio, rimmed with sculptures; and he put in stawberries to mimic his grandmother’s berry patch. David would take the fresh-picked berries and line them up on the windowsill so that they could dry in the sun – his grandmother’s method of preserving them.
After saving enough money, David had built a steel-and-cinder-block house (practically fireproof!) with a welded staircase that led to the roof. The metal roof was too hot for sunbathing but was great for cooking. When a group of visitors came for dinner, David would slow-roast a turkey atop the chimney, which was heated by a fire set in a Franklin stove below. He painted the bird with a thrown-together blend of maple syrup, herbs, and a mystery liquid, which in due time gave the skin a deep, iridescent hue.
His culinary skills and creations were much admired, yet there was one exception: a game-pie dinner for a group of visiting art world friends. The ingredients, most of which were gathered on the property, included three or four types of game, among them skunk. I made the pastry (with leaf lard, of course), threw in a handful of chestnuts with the meat, doused it with some of David’s homemade wine, and baked the whole thing in a ceramic casserole. It was lovely to look at, but one guest, the art critic Clement Greenberg, ran from the table after valiantly laboring to finish his portion.
Cooking was David’s way of redirecting his creativity to another realm. He was an intuitive cook who never followed a recipe or made the same thing twice. Creating meals for friends was what he liked. His sculptures are in museums and private collections around the world, to be shared by everyone. But his cooking was a reflection of a part of his nature known to few. It is what I remember when I think of him.
Jean Freas, who died in 2008, was a pioneering TV journalist and writer who married sculptor David Smith in 1953 and moved to Bolton Landing, where the couple had two daughters, Rebecca and Candida. This essay originally appeared in the April 2006 Saveur under the title, “Expressionist Meets Girl: A love affair with a famous artist led to some unforgettable meals;” it was reprinted in the Lake George Mirror with permission of Saveur and Jean Freas and is republished with the permission of her family.