In Pierre Bonnard’s 1920 painting Table Set in a Garden, several cups, a water bottle, and fruit await picnickers; apparently the guests and the main course have yet to arrive. “I used to wonder what would be on the table,” says Carol Eron, an editor at the National Gallery of Art. So she asked California chef Jeremiah Tower to respond to the painting with a recipe, and he sent her a luncheon menu of shellfish with saffron mayonnaise and a pear/apple/quince tart.
This menu and 11 others are collected in The Artist’s Table, a stylish cookbook pairing master chefs with the National Gallery’s master painters. “The idea was to concentrate on American cooking but to acknowledge the heritage of French and Italian cuisines,” explains Eron, who edited and compiled the volume. “The chefs were asked to write a few words about their responses to the paintings or their creative processes, and I was very surprised by the lyricism that resulted. There’s a deep affinity between the two arts.” That affinity often shows itself in the food’s colors and textures: Alice Waters’ roasted almonds, mesclun salad, and lemon sherbet echo the browns, greens, and yellows of van Gogh’s The Olive Orchard. Amateur cooks may hesitate to bring this glossy book into the kitchen, where olive oil might dribble onto its handsome pages; they might also balk at Julia Child’s recommended “lovely, very French luncheon…[with] a ramekin of fresh osetra caviar and biscuits, as well as an onion tart on puff pastry to accompany the Champagne.” Nevertheless, Eron says that she and her finicky 13-year-old daughter have successfully prepared some of these artful dishes. “Not only did she help me make it, but she ate it, too,” the editor insists.