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Journey through the life and eating habits of artist Vincent Van Gogh in four courses: potatoes, bread, absinthe, and a decent meal. For a more thorough exploration of his work:

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- Stewed Potatoes, reprinted in Food in Motion: The Migration of Foodstuffs and Cookery Techniques
- Pain Noir from Bernard Clayton's New Complete Book of Breads
- How to Serve Absinthe Correctly:
- Stewed Chicken with Mustard Cream Sauce from Van Gogh's Table: At the Auberge Ravoux

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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.  We've explored some pretty elaborate and ambitious intersections of food and art, but this time, our focus will be a little quieter, a little humbler, as we delve into the life, interests, and habits of an artist we all know, or at least think we know.

Today we're gonna be working from the book Van Gogh's Table, notably not titled Van Gogh's Kitchen, because the man didn't cook, but he did spend a tremendous amount of time in inns and cafes, which we know from his letters to his brother Theo and also from his art.  This book shares history of his daily life, friendships, and his health, culminating in his time just North of Paris in Auvers Sur Oise, at the Auberge Raboux, the last place he lived and took his meals.

Using this text and others, we're gonna make a few dishes as a way to step through different stages of his life, starting with potatoes.  So the Dutch are known for eating a lot of potatoes and yes, Van Gogh was Dutch, but that's not our only connection, as the first painting he made that he considered successful is this work from 1885, an indoor scene of peasants sharing their daily meal titled helpfully "The Potato Eaters" or in Dutch, "De Aardappeleters", 'aardappel' meaning 'earth apple'.

We're gonna follow a recipe for stewed potatoes from the New National Art of Cookery from 1794, which was reprinted in the wildly popular Dutch cookbook, Alltje: The Perfect and Economical Cook, multiple editions of which were released throughout the 1800s.

Now, the painting is rendered in very dark tones, which Vincent describes as something like the color of a really dusty potato, unpeeled, of course.  From my research, it appears the Dutch back then liked to peel their potatoes before cooking, which pains because I love the skin and it's nutritious, but let's give it a go in the name of accuracy.  

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While we're peeling, a little potato history.  Spanish explorers brought the potato back to Europe from South America during the Columbian exchange, and while people were suspicious of them at first and mostly just fed them to cattle, by the late 1700s, potatoes were a part of most Dutch diets.  In 1767, the mayor of (?~2:19) in Normandy remarked in his treatise on the potato, "The poor eat them from necessity.  The rich do so for their taste."  

Now, our man Vincent was not poor.  He was raised by a father who was a minister and a mother who came from a well-to-do family.  Between the church and his mom's family, they lived rather well.  As a young man, he earned his keep working with art dealers in the Hague, then scrapped around thinking he, too, wanted to do religious work before committing himself to becoming an artist.  By the way, be sure you're putting the peeled potatoes directly into water.  Otherwise, they will oxidize and turn unappetizing colors.

(Off-screen (?~2:57)): Sorry!

Sarah: But for much of Vincent's adult life, his brother Theo supported him, sending along a regular stipend for lodging, food, and art supplies.  Vincent lived simply because of his Protestant ethic and also because that's what he preferred, but it was mostly because he spent all of his money on painting supplies and also paying models to sit for portraits. 

When our peeling is done and they're all submerged in a large pot of salted water, put it on to boil.  But back to "The Potato Eaters".  This was an ambitious painting for him.  At the time, he was living with his mom and dad in Nuenen in the Netherlands and spent months making preparatory studies and sketches of heads and hands.  He wanted to show the harsh reality of peasant life, giving them purposefully rough looking faces and bony hands.  

Vincent wrote he wanted to show that these people "have tilled the Earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish.  That they have thus honestly earned their food," and while I cannot claim that we have earned this food when the potates are halfway to tender, you'll drain them and return them to the pot.  Add some broth, I'm using chicken broth here.  Surely you could buy it by the four cup carton, then, and then a knob of butter, some pepper, and give it a stir, adding in more broth so that they're mostly covered.  

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When they've simmered for a while and are cooked through, pull them out and present them on the platter you have that most closely resembles the one in the painting, appreciating all the while this foodstuff that Van Gogh considered the essence of susteinance.  

Later in life, he cursed the cafes and inns of Arles, where he famously painted his bedroom and also sunflowers, mostly because they cooked everything in grease and refused to make some simple boiled potatoes for him, so we're gonna spoon over a bit of the simmering liquid, top it all with salt and add a bit of parsley because I can't help myself and need color contrast.  Then gather everyone who is hungry around the platter and dig in.

Next up, bread.  To commemorate the next stage of Vincent's life when he lived on is own, painted a lot, and often forgot to eat, we're going to make a loaf of black bread or pain noir as it is in French, and we're using a recipe from Bernard Clayton's New Complete Book of Bread.  Let's start with a half a cup of boiling water, to which we'll add a quarter cup of cornmeal, stirring until smooth.  Then we'll add a third of a cup of cold water to bring the temp down to slightly warm and then stir in a packet of dry yeast.

Set that aside and then put one ounce of unsweetened chocolate into a small saucepan with a half a tablespoon of butter and melt that over low heat and allow it to cool.  Then get your completely period appropriate mixer and to it add your bubbling cornmeal yeast mixture, your cooled chocolate, and give that a mix.  Into that goes half a cup of molasses, two teaspoons salt, two teaspoons caraway seeds, and then surprise ingredient, half a cup of mashed potatoes.  Not sure where I was able to rassle up some of those.

Then we're to beat until smooth, after which we add in 2/3 a cup of whole wheat flour and then beat for another two minutes.  Cover it in plastic wrap, most certainly what they did in the olden days, and set it aside to rest and ferment for an hour.  After moving out of his parents' place, Vincent was singularly focused on his art and let's say, did not prioritize his health.  

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In 1885, he confessed to Theo, "When I receive money, my greatest hunger even if I've fasted, isn't for food but is even stronger for painting, and I set out hunting models right away and I carry on until it's gone.  Meanwhile, the lifeline I cling to is my breakfast with the people where I live and a cup of coffee and bread in the cremerie in the evening, supplemented when I have it by a second cup of coffee and bread in the cremerie for my dinner and otherwise some rye bread that I have in my case."  Ding!  

An hour has passed, so we're adding in half a cup of rye flower and stirring it to form a shaggy ball.  Then turn it onto a work surface, well floured with all-purpose flour, and use a dough blade to fold, turn, and knead the dough, which is supposed to be extremely sticky, I swear the recipe says it.  For eight minutes total, adding "liberal amounts of flour as you go".  So what we're doing here is trying to roughly recreate the rye bread that Vincent would have had in his case. 

At the time, what kind of bread you ate was really a mark of your socioeconomic status.  The rich ate soft white bread made from expensive wheat and the poor ate course black bread made from rye.  In his more religious days, Vincent wrote to Theo, "When one eats a crust of black rye bread, it's certainly good to think of the words," and I'll just translate the Latin here, "Then shall the righteous shine forth as the Sun and the kingdom of their father or also when one very often has muddy boots or wet dirty clothes."  So for Vincent, eating black bread was not only necessary because he was always spending money on other things, but he also considered it "true and healthy", connecting him to the working class he so admired and assuaging his constant guilt for not earning his own bread, as it were.

Phew.  This mess goes into a greased bowl, gets covered and put aside to rise for about an hour and 15 minutes or until doubled in volume.  Ding!  That went fast.  While you weren't looking, I punched down the dough and let it rest for 15 minutes more and now I'm trying to shape it into a round loaf. 

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I don't know what I'm doing, and then I put it on a baking sheet with a silicone liner.  Also not period appropriate, but at least made in France.  That goes off for another 45 minute rise and no wonder Vincent didn't cook, this takes forever.  Ding!  When it has doubled in volume or you tire of waiting, brush the top with the beaten egg mixed with a bit of water.  Sprinkle it with course salt and send it into the oven for 10 minutes at 375 and then 35 minutes at 350.  

We pull it from the oven when the bottom of the crust sounds hollow when tapped and allow it to cool.  Thankfully, we shoot from overhead, because this puppy is not only underbaked but also super flat.  Apologies, Mary Berry, but it is actually incredibly tasty and hearty.  While in Arles, Vincent wrote his sister saying, "Every day, I take the remedy that the incomparable Dickens prescribes against suicide.  It consists of a glass of wine, a piece of bread and cheese, and a pipe of tobacco."  Now, we're certainly missing the wine and the cheese and the tobacco, but this bread seems a perfectly acceptable part of the Dickens equation and if I lived in hotels all the time, I would definitely keep a loaf of this stuff in my case.

Next up, absinthe.  When Vincent lived in Paris from 1886 to '88, he enjoyed his fair share of absinthe.  His friend Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec made a portrait of him with a glass of the stuff in front of him.  Another artist friend, Paul Signac, reported on Vincent that he spent every evening in the bar where, "The absinthes and brandies would follow each other in quick succession."  Nicknamed La Fee Verte, or the "the green fairy", absinthe was all the rage in Paris and there was a very particular way to serve it, which is in an absinthe glass like this, over which you place a lump of sugar on a special spoon, although a fork will really do the trick, and then you slowly, slowly add drips of ice cold water to eventually reach a ratio of one parts absinthe to 4-6 parts water.  You do this slowly to admire the way it changes color from green to a more milky hue as it louches, or what happens when the essential oils precipitate out of the solution and release their aromas.

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This is an anise-flavored spirit, by the way, derived from wormwood, green anise, fennel, and other herbs.  If you like that anise licorice flavor, you'll like this, and if you don't, well, you'll still feel the effects.  Contrary to popular belief, it is not hallucinogenic, but it is high proof, and if you haven't seen this painting by Edgar Degas of a woman completely spaced out sitting in front of her absinthe glass, it is great.  

But Vincent admitted that he was almost an alcoholic by the time he left for the South of France and while he didn't stop drinking, his paintings clear evidence that a bottle was often close by, he did flee "that damned dirty Paris wine and those filthy greasy steaks" and commit himself to a healthier life.  

After making a go of it in Arles, Vincent found his style as a painter but after the infamous ear fiasco and repeated failed attempts at a stable and healthy life, he headed back North to Auvers (?~11:03), where he lived at the Auberge Ravoux and finally got a decent meal.  We're making stewed chicken with mustard cream sauce from Van Gogh's Table based on a recipe from Louise (?~11:141890 Kitchen which has us quarter two onions, cut two carrots into thirds, cut two celery stalks into thirds, and peel one celery root and divide it into eighths and it wouldn't be an art cooking without a leek, which you'll cut lengthwise and divide into thirds.  Pull out some fresh thyme and you're prepped to add it all into a big pot with a 3-4 pound chicken.

Tuck in a third of a pound of slab bacon, toss in a tablespoon of salt and a teaspoon of whole black peppercorns and then cover this all with water.  Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and keep it there for about an hour.  While in Auvers, Vincent was under the care of Dr. Paul Gachet who emphasized to him that good food in large quantities was necessary for good health.  For one franc a day, he had a little room at the Auberge and took his meals there for 2.50 a day.  

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He mostly kept to himself, setting out every day to paint in the village or fields and returned in the evening to write letters and sometimes hang out with the family that owned the place.  When it's done, you'll pull the chicken and strain the vegetables from the broth and melt two tablespoons of butter in a saucepan.  Whisk in two tablespoons of flour, then add in some of the reserved warm stock, whisking until it thickens.  Then add in half a cup of heavy cream and then pull out the enormous jar of (?~12:33), a classic grainy French mustard which you ordered online and should have noticed contained 17 ounces.  Whisk in one and a half tablespoons and season with salt and pepper.

Now, while I'm slicing the bird into pieces, I'll tell you that there are many theories about the nature of Vincent's health struggles, including but not limited to syphilis, schizophrenia, alcoholism, turpentine poisoning, and sunstroke.  None of this can be proved, but what we do know is that in his life, doctors did diagnose him with a form of epilepsy and we have a close knowledge from the many letters he wrote of his sour stomach, bad teeth, and persistent struggle with depression.  

We transfer this all to a platter, top with some of the sauce, add our obligatory bits of color, and consider ourselves victorious.  We're not gonna stand on ceremony, as Vincent certainly wouldn't have, and we're just gonna enjoy this right here.  

Now, if you were looking for a good summary of Van Gogh's career and life, you will not find it here.  I encourage you to watch our recent video "Better Know the Starry Night" though, but what I do hope this journey through his life in four courses did provide you is a window into the actual life of one of the most well-known artists of all time.  During his brief career and life, he gave the world some tremendously beautiful paintings but he was also just a person like me and you who struggled with what to eat and puzzled, like we all do, about how it is we're supposed to lead good and successful lives.  

The Dickens prescription didn't work for him forever, but it did work for a time.

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This one's for you, Vincent.  Thanks.

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