How Four Chicago Artists Get Creative in the Kitchen

Chicago asked four local taste makers to share favorite recipes, cooking tips, and foraging tactics.

Photo: Heather Charles / Chicago Tribune 

Artist Jenny Kendler (right) works in her dining room, where she counts a foraged wild berry cocktail among her creations. 

Alberto Aguilar 

The Idea: Everything but the Kitchen Sink

Alberto Aguilar often includes a five-to-six-course meal with his domestic performance art salons, usually for twenty or more people. His interactive sculpture (non-food based) is on view now in the Homebodies exhibition at the MCA.

Tip for preparing a large meal: “I like white rice because it’s filling,” says Aguilar, whose dishes are mostly drawn from his Mexican heritage. In spite of his roots, Aguilar confesses that he loves the rice served at Chinese restaurants and recommends white rice made in a rice cooker for a large crowd. “It’s fool proof,” he says, and “a neutral base for the food.” 

Most ambitious dish: A 50-ingredient mole. The traditional sauce is famous for its complicated, open-ended recipe. “When I first made the 50-ingredient mole, my mom told me it wasn’t going to work,” says Aguilar, who learned to cook from being an inquisitive and hungry kid in her kitchen. “You can put anything in there as long as it’s bookended by chocolate and chilis,” he says. Once he used Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Mole sauce is often served on chicken, and is the national dish of Mexico. It even comes with its own creation myth. Aguilar says that an archbishop dropped in on a nun’s convent on evening, and they scrambled to prepare a meal by cooking up everything that was leftover in their cupboards. Aguilar calls this an “improvisational” method, and a perfect metaphor for community dining.

 

Jenny Kendler 

The Idea: Urban Foraging

“Tap into your inner treasure hunter,” says Jenny Kendler, an artist and environmentalist, who says you don’t have to leave the city to go foraging for wild, edible plants. Where some folks see weeds, others see free ingredients.

What about pollution? I asked Kender. “Pollution of all types [pesticides, lead content in soil, dog business] can be a concern when foraging in an urban setting,” says Kendler, but “according to research that I have read online, heavy metals don’t migrate into the fruiting or flowering parts of plants, so the only things I forage for and eat in quantity in Chicago are fruits and flowers.” She says that “getting in a car is thousands of times more dangerous for adults than foraging… and not nearly as fun.”

In season now, says Kendler, are service berries (or “saskatoons"), daylily flowers and buds, borage blossoms, yucca flowers, mulberries, and black raspberries. “Most of these grow all over the city,” she says, “and if you are very nice, I might tell you where ‘my’ black raspberry patch is.”

Jenny Kendler’s Wild Berry Cocktail

Jenny Kendler’s Wild Berry Cocktail:

  • 1 shot Leatherbee or North Shore No. 6 Gin
  • 1 cup sparkling water (from your eco-friendly rechargable soda bottle, right?)
  • 1 tbsp. Thai basil syrup, or 3 Thai basil leaves
  • Handful of fresh, local berries (can be made with either Mulberries or Service Berries…whichever you have in your neighborhood.)
  • Lemon
  • Dash St. Germaine (which is made with elderflowers!)

Muddle the berries in the bottom of the glass, reserving a few, with basil syrup or leaves. Add gin, St. Germaine, sparkling water and ice, then squeeze in lemon to taste. Serve over ice, garnished with the last of the berries and edible flowers, for extra credit.

Tip: Unlike agri-business crops, which have had all the personality bred out of them, wild foods can vary a lot from plant to plant. A service berry bush I found once produced bitter-ish fruits, and some mulberries lack the delicious acid-y taste found on the best trees. If you don’t like the first berry you try, don’t give up.

 

Dutes Miller

The Idea: On Taste and Desire

The head baker at Letizia’s Fiore, in Logan Square, also exhibits his queer-themed artwork at Western Exhibitions. He produced handmade artist books with butter wrappers for pages, and they smelled lovely. “I like the idea of substituting one appetite for an other; like the sexual appetite for the hunger for food,” says Miller.

Current food obsession: “I am freaking about rhubarb,” says Miller, who picked some up at the Logan Square farmers market. “There is nothing that new about rhubarb,” he says, “but I don’t believe everything needs to be new to be interesting.”

Recent baking project: A pastry shaped into a man (below), whose belly was stuffed with boiled eggs and salami. “It was fun cutting him up,” says Miller.

Ambitious baking project: Fantasy cakes for friends. “There is one that is a cake for Carl Baratta that I would love to translate into a birthday cake,” says Miller. It would be “full of chocolate, whiskey, glitter (eatable) and all things glam rock.”

A recent baking project in Dutes Miller’s kitchen. “It was fun cutting him up,” says Miller.

 

Eric May

The Idea: Cooking on the Go

Eric May runs the West Town non-profit Roots & Culture, and in summer is the head chef at Ox-Bow, a distinguished artists’ residency in Saugatuck, Michigan. May’s food truck, called E-Dogz, produces thematic, site-specific meals, often for art events. Recently he drove it up to the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.

Current food obsession: A recent apocalypse-themed menu (for UIC’s Gallery 400) got May thinking about what we’ll eat after the zombies attack, so rationing, foraging, cooking insects, and canned foods inspire his current cooking experiments. “Shitty stuff like Spam can potentially be all that’s left at the grocery store,” says May, but that doesn’t deter him from making it delicious.

Here he shares a recipe he learned from his students using canned meat. “Apparently it was a ration for Korean soldiers in the war,” says May. “It’s a very easy, satisfying lunch on the go.”

Eric May’s rice balls:

  • 1 can of tuna mixed with 2 tablespoons of mayo
  • 4 sheets laver, cracked into small pieces
  • 2 cups cooked short grain rice
  • In your hand make a 3-inch patty of rice about a half an inch thick. Spoon about a tablespoon of the tuna salad in the center. Form rice in a ball around tuna. Roll in seaweed flakes. Makes 5-6 balls.

Next up: May continues to work on a recipe book of classic and new dishes from the Ox-Bow artist residency.

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