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Surrealist artist Salvador Dali is well known for his distinctive mustache and melting clocks, but what about his 1973 cookbook? Come along with us as we attempt a Bush of Crayfish in Viking Herbs from Les Diners de Gala, and also explore Dali's life and art.

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Throughout history, food has served as subject matter, inspiration, and of course, sustenance for artists.  Food has also been the art on a number of occasions.  Today, we are exploring the gastronomic adventures of a most distinctive, distinguished, and delightfully deranged artist known round the world by just two syllables: Dali.  

We're working with a reprint of Dali's 1973 cookbook, Le Diners de Gala, named after the extravagant dinner parties he would host with his wife and muse, Gala.  There's an introduction to this approach to eating and entertaining or Dalinian gastro esthetics by Dali's associate and hypeman, Pierre (?~0:51)  There follows a caution that the book is, "Uniquely devoted to the pleasures of taste.  If you are a disciple of one of those calorie counters who turn the joys of eating into a form of punishment," it says, "Close this book at once."  

It features ten chapters of elaborate menus and recipes, drawn from the leading French chefs of the famed Paris restaurants of the day, such as Maxine's, La Cer, and La (?~1:14).  It's chock-full of sumptiously 70s food photography and fantastical illustrations by Dali.  While many of the recipes are mighty difficult for a home cook to attempt or contain hard to source ingredients, we found one recipe that seemed to capture the right level of Dalinian excess while also being within the realm of possibility: bush of crayfish in viking herbs, from famed Paris restaurant (?~1:38), open since 1582. 

Not without its challenges to be sure.  They explain in small print above that, "After giving us this recipe, the chef decided that he wanted to keep the exact ingredients a secret.  We present the recipe anyway for its reading pleasure."  So we're gonna piece this together as best we can.  The recipe asks us to prepare a fumet, the French term for fish stock, but gives no amount, so we're also using this quick and easy fish stock recipe from Daniel Gritzer that's posted on Serious Eats.  

 (02:00) to (04:00)


We're to start with two pounds of fish bones and heads of lean, white-fleshed fish like snapper or bass, which I called a local fish market to request.  They said they could get grouper for me, which I accepted, but after unwrapping it, I realized quickly it wasn't bones so much, mostly skin and grouper flish with little tiny pin bones in it, not ideal, but since they didn't charge me and we live nowhere near the ocean, I can't really complain.

So let's pretend these are fish bones and cover them with cold water as we're asked, stirring in two tablespoons of kosher salt and letting them stand for an hour to rinse away any areas of blood in our hypothetical bones.  As our fish bits soak unnecessarily, we're gonna prep our veg, upping the amounts from the recipe so we yield more stock and try to make up for a lack of bones.  

First, we dice a yellow onion.  Then, a large fennel bulb.  Followed by three leeks, which we halved lengthwise and gave a good rinse before mincing.  Next up, four stalks of celery, diced, and then four cloves of garlic, which we give a good whack, remove the little green sprout since they're supposedly bitter but it probably doesn't matter, and then roughly chop.  

We're gonna go ahead and drain and rinse our fish parts, since there are no bones really from which to remove blood and then head over to the range to heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a large stock pot.  In go all of the veggies, which we'll stir until they begin to soften.  After that, in goes our fish, which we stir around a bit, and then add in two cups of dry white wine.  

After this, we move back to the original Dali non-recipe recipe, which along with white wine calls for vermouth.  We add half a cup and cognac, which we don't have, so we're gonna sub in some less fancy brancy.  This might be an excessive amount of alcohol for a stock, but it seems Dalinian and is gonna cook off anyway.  When it begins to steam, we add in water to cover it all and then in goes parsley, tarragon, dill.  This is the Viking part and then salt and precisely ten peppercorns.  

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The whole thing is gonna be ruined if it's not exactly ten.  As we bring this all to a bare simmer and let it cook for about 20 minutes, it's time to get to the why of all of this and learn a bit about its instigator.   Dali was born in (?~4:17), Spain in 1904 with this really long name that I'm going to share on screen rather than mispronounce in Catalan.  After his expulsion from the Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid where he befriended Luis Bunel and Federico Garcia Lorca, young Dali escaped to Paris, met Picasso, and also the founder of dada, Tristan Tzara.  There, he contributed to surrealist publications and was welcomed into the surrealist ranks by Andre Breton after the success of his shocking 1928 film "Un Chien Andalou".  

Dali made the film in collaboration with Bunuel, basing it on images from their dreams, a hand crawling with ants from Dali's and from Bunuel's, a cloud slicing the moon in half like a razorblade slicing through an eye.  Informed by Freud's then-new psychoanalytic theories, the surrealists were attempting to explore the depths of subconscious through writing and visual art, rejecting the rational and tapping into the powerful thoughts and desires and dreams that lie beneath.  We know some people who made a cool video about it that you should check out.

Dali's name became synonymous with surrealism, although they would give him the boot by 1934 and he contributed some of the group's most memorable images and concepts, including his (?~5:30) critical method, a process he used to systematize confusion, deliberately disorienting his state of mind in order to look at the world in a new way, bringing together disparate images that he would later paint, calling them his hand-painted dream photographs and disparate objects as well.

In the summer of 1929, Dali had met Gala, the then Russian-born wife of artist Paul (?~5:54) and within a year, the two were inseparable and married by 1934.  Without Gala, Dali said later in life, he would be at the bottom of a pit full of lice and drops of melted wax.  

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The couple moved to New York to escape World War II, and there, Dali's notoriety ballooned to even greater proportions.  In 1948, they returned to Port Lligat, Spain, where they spent most of the next 30 years, except for winters spent in fine hotels in Paris and in New York City.  The couple was known for their opulent, imaginative dinner parties, attended by many celebrity guests and Dali's work continued all the while, expanding from painting to jewelry, fashion, furniture, and a dream sequence for a Hitchcock film.  

By the time of the cookbook, he was a household name, as well known for his antics as his art.  Now that it's simmered long enough, we're asked to skim the scum off the surface of the stock, which I presume you might have more of if you actually have bones in your broth.  After scum skimming, you'll pour the whole thing through a fine mesh strainer and push through to make sure you're extracting as much flavor as possible.  You can now discard everything but the stock, or do as I did and pull out the fish to feed to your dog.

We're gonna pour the stock through the strainer one more time as we put it back in the stockpot to make sure we got out any stray bits, which it turns we do have.  Now that that's ready, it's time for a new segment on art cooking, and for it, you're going to need a very special kitchen implement: a box cutter, because a mystery box has arrived, folks, and I am going to unbox it.  Oh, and make sure you've got your stock simmering, which I had forgotten.

But back to the box, which I've carefully opened to find no messages or instructions.  There is a bag, but I can't seem to find where it originates.  A wise person would have maybe made a cut in the bag, but I did not.  I just sort of slid the contents out and soon realized my folly.  Oh.  There's the opening.  

It's the live crayfish, of course, which were no mystery to me really, since I ordered them in advance from a crawfish farmer in Louisiana and times this whole shebang around their availability and arrival.  But while the contents were not a mystery, they were nonetheless surprising, not only in the way they so dramatically unfurl from the box, but also how lively they are, no doubt because I just shocked them out of their cold slumber.  

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As we attempt to get this situation under control, I start to feel a tremendous amount of guilt for what I'm about to do, which reminds me that Dali was raised by a devoutly Catholic mother and one blamed the religion for his feelings of guilt surrounding sex.  He initially followed in the footsteps of his atheist father, shocking many with his scandalous portrayal of corrupt priests in (?~8:32), and because of another 1929 work he so delicately titled "Sometimes I Spit With Pleasure on the Portrait of My Mother (The Sacred Heart)" but by 1949, Dali had drifted back to the church, even having a private audience with Pope Pius XII in 1949, who blessed his recent painting depicting Gala as the Virgin Mary.  

Dali considered himself a religious mystic, reinterpreting Christianty through the lens of modern science.  His paintings from the 50s explore this position, which he called nuclear mysticism and follow a classical style influenced by Italian Renaissance masters.  I'm distracting, of course, from the matter at hand, which is the terrible reality that I have to dispatch these crayfish as quickly as possible, releasing them into the Indiana winter would not be wise. 

I am reminded of David Foster Wallace's brilliant 2004 essay "Consider the Lobster" in which he confronts the brutal reality of lobster death and while these are not lobsters, they're freshwater cousins, and while I eat animals all the time, I nonetheless feel sorry and seek repentance for my sins.  Dali's recipe has us poach the crayfish in the broth for 20 minutes, but to make this faster, we set up additional pots of boiling water and accomplished our feat in batches.

Then we pull our cooked crayfish and allow them to cool.  We're instructed to chill them overnight, so we wrap them up, put them in the fridge, and break for the day.  

24 hours later, our crayfish are cool, we're feeling chipper, and we're ready to assemble this sucker.  We're gonna start with the topper, and you'll need a nice ripe December tomato, a lemon, and a truffle.  

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First we cut the lemon across the middle in a zig-zag pattern like the picture and then do the same, a little less successfully, to remove the stem portion of the tomato.  We ordered some whole black truffles preserved in salt because the price was right and they were the best reviewed truffles that weren't insanely expensive.  We picked out the largest one, threaded it onto a metal skewer.  We didn't have one with a fancy silver (?~10:26) like the picture, followed by the tomato and then the lemon.  Now we set that aside and put on our serious face to figure out the engineering of our crayfish bush, starting with the platter, followed by a bowl.  At (?~10:40) in Paris, all of this would be silver, of course, and then I weighed down the bottom with a bag of raw rice, one bowl facing down and then another facing up.  Into that one, I put a styrofoam topiary cone, which I've wrapped in plastic, something I'm positive did not happen at (?~10:56), but heck.

I then filled the base of the bowl with the smaller crayfish and then when I reach the lips, start to use the bigger guys and let their claws hang over the side as in the picture.  I stack and stack, following the picture to the best of my ability.  Phew.  This is hard work, guys.  I'm getting warm.  It's a good thing I have on my "All Art Was Once Contemporary" Art Assignment t-shirt, available for purchase at dftba.com.  

But back to work.  I add in some curly parsley and continue my stacking, then use toothpicks to affix the crayfish to the cone.  I'm deeply curious how they accomplish this at the restaurant in a way that would be pleasant for the eating process.  Anyway, Dali is quoted in the cookbook as saying, "In fact, I only like to eat what has a clear and intelligible form.  If I hate that detestable, degrading vegetable called spinach, it's because it is shapeless, like liberty.  The opposite of spinach is armor.  I love eating suits of arms.  In fact, I love all shellfish, food that only a battle to peel makes it vulnerable to the conquest of our palate."

The book is rife with such descriptions of Dali's approach to gastronomy, which he considers a high art and calls "the most delicate symbol of true civilization."

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With this cookbook, Dali hoped to present to us not the usual drab work of cookery, that field earmarked by mediocrity and characterized by having been reduced until now to its bare physiological attributes, but instead, a new world, revealed to us in a witty shower of intellectual exhuberance and Dionysiac jubilation.  For as ridiculous as this crayfish tower might seem, as I constructed it, my feelings of guilt for these creatures lift.  Instead of being dumped on table covered in newspaper, which has its merits to be sure, these crayfish are being presented in a grand and celebratory manner, showing off their magnificent suits of armor. 

This is food taken very seriously.  Dali is quoted in the book as saying, "I know with ferocious exactitude what I want to eat."  Gastronomy takes on this spiritual dimension for Dali.  The book compares the creation of this high cuisine to a ritual that "sublimes and transcends the profane into the sacred, events into rituals, ingestion, digestion, assimilation, into lithargy, trans-substantiation, fully communion and mass," it goes on, but is perhaps best summarized by this statement by the aritst: "The sensual intelligence housed in the tabernacle of my palate beckons me to pay the greatest attention to food."  

This process and this object are truly ridiculous.  It's not necessary to boil your crayfish in fish broth and construct them in a bush with a truffle on top in order to enjoy them, but I did enjoy them, and I enjoyed this process tremendously.  Dali was 68 when he published this book and a larger than life figure, a master of self-promotion, a courter of controversy, derided by his critics as having peaked in his youth and descending into commercialism and greed, but the mythos of Dali and the reality of Dali are presented in this cookbook as one.  Here, we are granted access into his world.  

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We paid the greatest attention to food and the results are triumphant, transcendent, and positively Dali-nesque.  

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