by Cari Borja
He wrote me: I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining. We do not remember, we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten. How can one remember thirst? — Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil , 1983
How do we remember? Whether a place, a person, a meal, or a moment … ordinary, ethereal, transcendent? From Calvin Klein’s Eternity and my Grammy Gladys’s ricotta gnocchi in high school, jerk chicken and escovitch fish in Kingston during anthropological fieldwork, risotto con seppie at Harry’s Bar in Venice, to an Henri Germaine Meursault at Willi’s Wine bar in Paris, and a Pierre Peters Champagne at Park Tavern in San Francisco—these are all “terroir” for me. They bring me back instantly and irrevocably to that moment and conjure a seemingly lost past, and place.
When I got my copy of Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune cookbook in the mail, I knew what it was before I even opened it. It was the weight, the color, and the elastic journal-like bookmark that held it all precisely together; and then the sighting of the razor clams with hominy recipe that I ate over a decade ago, confused, inexperienced. The pages that went on and on in the most telling voice—the voice of a chef to her line cooks (the same voice of her wonderfully provocative first book, Blood, Bones & Butter )—unfolded into a poignant experience of storytelling that ends in “Garbage,” one of my favorite chapters. As a complete story of Hamilton’s vision over the past 15 years of Prune’s existence, it also encompasses the East Village in the ’90s. Leafing through the pages, I was visiting a formative place in my life again, and I was reminded how much I have changed in those 15 years. Prune makes sense to me now, in retrospect—for it was what I thought of that sweet East Village space, and my apartment across the way, before Prune was even itself. It was what was in the air when I lived at First and First—raw, experiential, sensual, juxtaposing and provocative. That is Gabrielle’s food, and what the book conveys to me, but how? A cookbook has to capture the essence of a place, its chef, its food. That’s the goal.
Of course it’s conveyed through the writing, voice, and design of the book itself, but I’m a visual person, and images speak loudly and powerfully. They circumscribe the vision, hold it tight and tell her story—a story that is intimate and personal, but also shared. A particular moment of time, encapsulated. Things in that little block of First and First were also tiny and intimate, hot and sweaty—full of flavor, fever and ferocity. It was the ’90s and these moments formed the me I am now—the Baudelairian flaneur who roamed lower Manhattan post-Jackie 60‘s Tuesdays, and its web that sprawled outwards, to the back ways of Venice, London, Paris, Kingston, all entwined in my present Bay Area life. Opening Prune was like opening a significant moment in my past.
Walking into Camino in Oakland for Gabrielle’s book-signing, I realized it was my third cookbook dinner there, and how each time I am there for this more communal of gatherings, my raison d’etre of the evening has changed. David Tanis’s One Good Dish was a return to an original inspiration that happened at his dinner parties in Paris, which led to my salon dinners in Berkeley; David Leibovitz’s My Paris Kitchen was a matter of understanding the translation of blog and personality to cookbook; and Prune conjured for me a past that no longer exists. But it’s more than that … for me these dinners are little moments of anticipation. They are “waku-doki,” which is a term that I had to think about that very week for the Toyota Innovation Hub dinner at my Berkeley studio. It’s a feeling of excitement, thrill, anticipation.
Entering Camino in Oakland, you have no idea who will be at the dinner, or where you will sit. The friends I went with work in the wine business and brought a few bottles, including a favorite Meursault, to go with the unknown Prune meal translated through Russ Moore’s hands. I left with signed book in hand and powerful memories from the evening—the taste of pork, sweet scent of fennel, the texture of radishes, and the familiarity of cardoons from my apprenticeship at Chez Panisse. And it is this that I find compelling—how images, taste and texture have the possibility of conveying an idea, a place, a vision.
I met Eric Wolfinger, the photographer for Prune— as well as Tartine , Manresa and Flour and Water —at my friend Hidemi Ena’s “Kit and Ace” supper club at Central Kitchen in San Francisco two months ago. I knew Eric’s work, but not him. Since then, we’ve conversed, cooked and eaten together. We’ve talked about what inspires us to do the work we do, and how what we do—whether cook, photograph, or make clothes—is a reflection of our past, our own personal terroir. Below, Eric contemplates his role as collaborator and cook, writer and photographer, and ultimately an interpreter of such varied visions and cuisines that show his intimacy with and profound understanding of place, taste and memory.
On “personal terroir”:
“Cooking is my passion—as long as I can remember it’s the first thing I use to relate to people—and it was also my profession. I was a line cook and a baker for six years before working behind the lens, so I come at things a little differently than someone who studied photography.
While I was still a baker at Tartine, my mentor Chad Robertson had the idea that his apprentice might do a better job photographing his bread book than a professional ‘food photographer.’ Five years and ten more cookbooks later I have become exactly that—but I still feel more like a restless, enthusiastic cook dressed up as a photographer.
People familiar with my work often report to me they ‘can just tell’ if a photo is mine. I hope that’s less because I have some kind of rigid aesthetic, and more proof the camera points both ways; at the subject of the photograph and at the photographer himself. What’s in the photographer’s heart and mind, and his relationship with the subject directs the way he sees and captures it.”
On formative cooks, cookbooks and restaurant experience:
“Jacques Pepin was my childhood hero. I learned how to make crepes from La Technique when I was ten—the first cookbook to really teach with photos!—and I still read the introductions of his books for inspiration. He is so gentle and sincere in the way he teaches his readers.
The best lesson from working in professional kitchens is that you can always find a way to be useful. When someone hands you a broom, you sweep. I wanted to work at Tartine Bakery but I was a line cook with no baking experience; what I did have were knife skills and kitchen sense, so I cheerfully cut fruit for a few weeks to prove I could be helpful. Five years of baking culminated with Tartine Bread .”
“A great cookbook conveys a feeling and a personality as much as it teaches you to prepare food. I listen intently to the chefs I’m working with, cook their food on my own time, and do everything I can to figure out who they are and what they’re all about. I approach each new project as if I were an apprentice cook and I try to make each book its own body of work. Manresa looks nothing like Tartine because the vision for each was so different. Tartine Bread had to be timeless and utterly useful, whereas Manresa needed to be esoteric bordering on fine art.
Regardless of the project, I want to be like a slimming mirror—in front of my lens, my chefs should say ‘Damn, I never knew my food looked this good.'”
“I fell in love with the restaurant the moment I walked in. I was in New York for the 2010 James Beard awards—Tartine Bread was nominated for the photography—and I invited my mom to be my date. The night before, she took me to her ‘favorite restaurant’ in the city. It was a tiny spot where thirty people eat shoulder to shoulder. It felt so warm and real, and the menu reads like a poem for passionate gluttonous cooks on their day off. Roasted marrow bones, fried sweet breads, whole grilled fish, simple green leaf salad, and calvados omelettes for dessert.
Before then I had never heard of Gabrielle Hamilton, and the very next day she won ‘Best Chef, New York’ ahead of a bunch of molecular gastronomy guys whose names I did recognize. Her acceptance speech was short, self-deprecating, and really funny. I just remember thinking, ‘Who the hell is this awesome woman?’ I went back the next day for lunch. She hadn’t been out partying after the awards (I was completely hung over) and that very next day was in her restaurant whipping everyone into shape during a surprise health inspection. Bad. Ass.
A little while later I sent her a letter and a copy of the bread book.”
On “Prune,” the book
“When Gabrielle and I started discussing photo production for her cookbook—a project she had been ‘avoiding for more than a decade’—she was so self-effacing about her restaurant that I tried suggesting fun production scenarios outside her kitchen. She gave herself about ten seconds to let the idea of shooting in a Hamptons beach rental play out in her head:
That would be fun, but it would be a complete lie. This book has to be truth. I want to show the work that we do in this dark, cramped, little box – shitty pans and all. It may not be fun – and you can leave now – but I challenge you to find beauty in this little shit hole that we call a restaurant.’
What else could I learn from my apprenticeship with Gabrielle than the importance of having a voice—first finding it and then staying true to it.”
And finally, on film:
“The opening scene of Eat Drink Man Woman is my favorite cooking scene in film. It’s a father—a professional chef—who is cooking a weekly meal for his three grown daughters. Cooking is his livelihood, but making this weekly dinner is the clearest way he can express his love for his kids. It’s love, longing, tradition, culture, and of course beautiful imagery. That scene has everything I strive for.”
A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence. Like a wood fire in a room, photographs—especially those of people, of distant landscapes and faraway cities, of the vanished past—are incitements to reverie. The sense of the unattainable that can be evoked by photographs feeds directly into the erotic feelings of those for whom desirability is enhanced by distance. — Susan Sontag
When I wanted to find out more about that opening sequence of Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman , after having watched it repeatedly last week, I sent a note to James Schamus, associate producer and co-writer of the film. He responded, saying, “It was wholly Ang’s creation … I was pretty amazed when we started planning the production to realize that the credit sequence was by far the biggest production number of the whole film and that it ate up days of shooting; we’d already experienced what it was like wrangling food on The Wedding Banquet , but that was nothing compared to what Ang ended up doing in what turned out to be essentially a Busby Berkeley dance number, only with an old guy and food.”
And that old guy, it turns out, was Ang himself. I found a beautiful interview where he talks about his experience of returning “home” to Taipei to shoot the film, but more poignantly about communicating (especially with his own family) through food, as well as creating desire. “In order to get the audience’s saliva going for the food … you have to show the making of the food. The process is really stimulating for the taste buds … but the trick is nobody is eating it. Nobody touches the food; so you’re really going to work the audience up … I think cooking had become one of my substitutes of my affection (towards my children and my wife) … In most films they talk about sex to get your instinctive reactions but not in a lot of movies (do) they use food. Like watching sex scenes you get aroused, so why not food? We overuse sex in the movies, and not enough food … Food and sex—one is to sustain life and the other to motivate life….”
Whether photography or film, still or moving image, we capture that which we know because of our deep personal relationship to it. That intimacy of a past experience is what is potent, and what comes through and speaks to us—the viewer, reader and translator of any creative vision. Whether Ang’s Eat Drink Man Woman , Gabrielle’s very personal memoir and cookbook, Eric’s photographs and cooking, or my own constant vigilance at attempting to understand my own past and relationship to people and place, the role of food— whether cooking and feeding, or being fed—is about a relationship not only to others but to one’s body, one’s self. And the reflective beauty of opening up Prune and re-watching Eat Drink Man Woman is seeing how much one has changed, grown, lived, and how we then translate those experiences into our own visual and verbal narratives, those stories we choose to tell.
Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. — Soren Kierkegaard
For more about Eric Wolfinger, go to ericwolfinger.com.
Other food photography by Eric:
Cari Borja began her career as a clothing designer while earning her PhD in anthropology and film at UC Berkeley in 2001. Since then she has created collections inspired by film and food and has become known for her salon dinners in her Berkeley atelier, where she weaves together people from different disciplines and professions. Cari is currently writing a book of interviews, and she also consults with start-ups and other companies curating dinners and connecting people. Visit Cari’s FashionFilmFood blog to read about foraging with Angelo Garro, an in-depth portrait of Garro, and book-signing dinners at Camino. Click here to read about Cari’s salon dinners in Berkeley.