(Happy birthday Amy!)
They started with a space, at the corner of Prince and Wooster in SoHo in New York City, and an idea: the restaurant would be run and staffed by artists, with the wages pegged not to the business but the lives of the artists working there. It was 1971, moving into the lean years, when rent was vanishingly cheap and arson was epidemic as landlords torched buildings for the insurance money. The city was depopulating – New York’s population declined by almost a million people between 1970 and 1980 – and decaying: Luc Sante recalled living in buildings whose heating and maintenance had been more or less abandoned through the winter, wearing every layer indoors and watching strong winds suck the panes of glass out of the rotten window frames. Downtown, the artists moved into the old iron buildings on Spring, Wooster, and Greene as though overwintering in ice-bound ships, in their drafty riveted bones. George Maciunas renovated the live-work Fluxhouse cooperative buildings to sell at cost for a kibbutz of weirdos and prophets; Marian Zazeela and LaMonte Young and their collaborators in the Theater of Eternal Music arranged environments in which they could play a single song for years in deep violet light; Laurie Anderson mounted discarded Christmas trees upside-down on her ceiling to live inside a forest as she built tape-bow violins. With nothing to lose, everything could become an experiment.
(Maciunas, strange radical as he was, abided carefully by fire and safety building codes but ignored zoning and sale-offer requirements, putting him in legal jeopardy. His solution was to wear elaborate disguises, including a gorilla mask; to go out only at night; to have friends send postcards from all over the world in his name to the Attorney General’s office, to trick them into thinking he was out of the country; and to build elaborate defensive machines including a deterrent front door mounted with four vertical blades from an industrial paper cutter.)
(One of the songs from the Theater of Eternal Music is titled: “The Tortoise Recalling the Drone of the Holy Numbers as they were Revealed in the Dreams of the Whirlwind and the Obsidian Gong, Illuminated by the Sawmill, the Green Sawtooth Ocelot and the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer.”)
In this time and this neighborhood Carol Gooddens set out to “nourish the community in the form of comestibles and finances.” The restaurant she created would pay $2.50 an hour, plus tips (about $13 today), calculated against the cost of living in the city so part-time employees could get by and still work on their art. Gooddens committed her inheritance to the project. With Tina Girouard, Suzy Harris, Rachel Lew, and Gordon Matta-Clark, she bought the only, struggling restaurant in SoHo out of their lease, and began the experiment they would call FOOD. (Girouard came up with the name, and the ad campaign – EAT FOOD – and the gumbos.) (Here’s Girouard, Gooddens, and Matta-Clark on the first day they got the keys.)
They renovated the space themselves, designing it like a stage, with an open kitchen and a long bank of windows so you could always see the action, inside and out. (On slow afternoons they opened the big windows and sold stalks of sugarcane to passers-by.) Everything looked great and worked terribly: the wood cabinets made it feel like home, and were much harder to clean than stainless steel; the tile floor they laid was gorgeous, and gave the place the brutal acoustics of an indoor swimming pool and wrecked their legs and backs as they worked on their feet all day; the open kitchen made every meal a performance, a ritual – an inefficient ritual, ill-suited to the dinner rush. They wanted a human dishwasher as part of the public kitchen – another job for another artist, not a machine, but that was both noisy and slow. (The musician Richard Peck, part of the Philip Glass Ensemble, had the gig awhile – he incorporated splashy-clonky audio from dishwashing into their performances – and reserved the right to break any “really disgustingly dirty” dishes: “since there wasn’t a station, everyone could hear it break!”) The menu was constantly changing, because the cooks didn’t want to be bored: so no efficiencies of prep, no economies of scale buying from suppliers.
The cooks! One night the whole Glass Ensemble cooked; another night was the Mabou Mines company cooking and the great dancer Barbara Dilley on salad; Robert Rauschenberg made epic Texas chilis. The opening night featured sopa de ajo, gumbo, chicken stew, and homemade bratwurst; a single menu from a single night a year later included borscht, ceviche, rabbit stew with prunes, and a fig and anchovy salad. (A slice of Syrian coffee cake for 45 cents, miso soup for 65 cents, duck gumbo for two dollars.) Bakers came down from the Mad Brook Farm commune in Vermont to make the bread. On Sunday nights, the artists could try anything: there were hard-boiled eggs, hollowed out into cups and filled with seawater swimming with live brine shrimp; luminous green pesto on red pasta and deep red marinara on green pasta; experiments with edible flowers and plans for meals to be served by crane and eaten with screwdrivers and chisels as a sculpture. Gordon cooked an all-bones dinner – oxtail soup, marrow bones, stuffed bones, frog legs, pot roast bones; after you’d eaten, Richard Peck would carefully scrub the bones clean, and Hisachika Takahashi would drill and string them so you could wear your leftovers home as jewelry. Carol, Tina, Suzy, and Rachel danced in the rainy street.
Matta-Clark and Robert Frank made a wonderful documentary of a day in the life of FOOD in 1972, starting with the 4am fish market and ending after midnight the following day with cleaning and baking bread; you can watch it here.
In 1972, Gooddens – who kept track of everything – took out an ad in the arts magazine Avalanche: Food’s Family Fiscal Facts, an inventory of the experiment to date. (They shut down in 1974.) 442 pounds of bell peppers, almost six thousand onions, seventeen thousand yards of spaghetti, five cubic feet of bay leaves, “47 dogs asked to leave,” three and half pounds of lost keys, “7 made up Social Security numbers,” two rebellions (“the Dishwasher Rebellion” and “the Radio Rebellion”), fifteen missing bottles of champagne, three “unfulfilled promises by good friends,” “213 people needed to get it together / keep it together” – and 3,082 free dinners given, and 300 artists supported.
“The joy is the idea,” Gooddens said, many years later. “The idea, as an idea, worked.”
(The space that was FOOD, 127 Prince, is now a Lululemon boutique. The staff have been very nice about letting me poke around inside, take pictures, square it with the archival stuff, and work out the geometry of the restaurant as it would have been – the nourishing hub, as Gooddens said, of “creative energy and piles of fresh parsley.” My thanks to them.)
This is what I imagine a good night at FOOD would have felt like – and they were mostly good nights: “Milk Man,” by Deerhoof, off the album of the same name.
Kebu’s meticulous, delighted, live recreation of “Crockett’s Theme” from Miami Vice is just so much fun
Fox squirrels and cognitive nut chunking
(Thanks for reading, as ever.)
You just read issue #35 of twelves. You can also browse the full archives of this newsletter.