The Art of the Cookbook

The late artist Martha Murphy’s culinary labour of love celebrates the housewifely and the matrilineal.

by Rosalyn D`MelloPublished on : Feb 05, 2022

Given that my preferred portal for entering the German language was via the kitchen, through the medium of recipes, I remain drawn to cookbooks, either in their published forms or as the family heirlooms that occupy pride of place in many German households. Having had the privilege of surveying a small selection through friends and family, one can find clear traces of how the housewifely art constitutes a genre. The recipes are usually handwritten, often in cursive, or are collaged from magazines or newspapers. They are alphabetised, like a telephone diary, and the book, more often than not, is expandable through a kind of spiral binding. Inserted, usually ad hoc, are contributions from friends or relatives, evidenced by the change in the handwriting and ink. One can always surmise the more regularly made preparations, considering those pages are dog-eared or seem to be falling apart. My ongoing investigations into the recipe book genre, another form of Femmage that was proliferated by housewives, has made me more attuned to its cross-cultural manifestations, for instance, how in more oral cultures, recipes perpetuate through embodied gestures rather than through the written word, and how that might speculatively constitute a form of feminist citation.

The dedication page of Kochbuch Keiner Hausfrau celebrates the mother-daughter tradition of recipe exchange| Rosalyn D’Mello| STIRworld
The dedication page of Kochbuch Keiner Hausfrau celebrates the mother-daughter tradition of recipe exchange Image: Rosalyn D’Mello

The ‘art cookbook’ is its own considered and continually evolving genre, bolstered by the many stellar contributions made to it by male and female artists, from Salvador Dalí with his quirky, surrealist treat, Dinners with Gala (1973) to Georgia O’Keeffe, who didn’t herself write a cookbook, but whose recipes were compiled by her assistant, Margaret Wood and are available to us today in the form of A Painter’s Kitchen: Recipes from the Kitchen of Georgia O’Keeffe. Art historian Andrea Gyorody has a fabulously informative piece cataloguing the different sub-genres within this tradition, titled, Inside the world of Art Cookbooks. Antonia Lageman, too, has a well-researched list of 10 must-read artist cookbooks and a subsidiary list that includes Frida’s Fiestas, a collection of over 100 of (Frida) Kahlo’s recipes by her stepdaughter, Guadalupe Rivera, The Bastard Cookbook by Rirkrit Tiravanija and Antto Melasniemi, and Studio Olafur Eliasson: The Kitchen. A month ago, I came across a heftily-sized ‘cookbook’ by an artist unknown to me, Martha Murphy (1929-2013), which had a title that leapt out at me—Kochbuch Keiner Hausfrau, which translates, roughly, to, Cookbook of No Housewife, though the use of the genitive case with the negating ‘kein’ really enunciates a sense of non-belonging. For weeks I wondered what the title was hoping to suggest. Was it establishing its provenance in opposition to the housewife? If yes, then why? And who was this Martha Murphy who seemed keen not to be immediately identified as a housewife?

One of the many wondrous pages of Kochbuch Keiner Hausfrau| Rosalyn D’Mello| STIRworld
One of the many wondrous pages of Kochbuch Keiner Hausfrau Image: Rosalyn D’Mello

Only about two or three weeks ago did I have the opportunity to demystify the intrigue around the title, when I received a copy of the book. My tactile first encounter with it revealed that although it weighed easily around three-to-five kilos, its aesthetic and artistic weight far exceeded this estimate. This was and wasn’t a cookbook. It was an artistic undertaking and its manifestation was within the realm of an art work. Apart from the introduction by the editor, Bianca Moser, and other important literary contributions from the late artist’s daughter, an art historian, and an interview with Murphy from 1993, which appear ‘in print’, the rest of the book is a facsimile of the original artwork, much like the artist Dorothy Ionnone’s 1969, A Cookbook.

It follows the alphabetised ordering system for recipes, but each page unfolds a universe unto itself, merging the private with the public, the domestic with the political, unfurling to the audience a fertile artistic imagination. The book was the result of Murphy’s decade-long dedication to the subject, from 1989 to 1999. Bianca Moser, the book’s editor, came across the original manuscript in 2014, in an exhibition titled Vogelsbergeriana in the Galerie der Stadt Schwaz, in Schwaz, Austria, which was celebrating its 20th anniversary with a retrospective dedicated to the labours of its founding director, Vera Vogelsberger. Moser was fascinated by the contents of Kochbuch Keiner Hausfrau, by the collagic use of illustrations, drawings, commentaries that were positioned fluidly alongside recipes. Moser, however, reiterates that Murphy’s book is not simply another cookbook. It is an art work, but it also has a matrilineal context… it was specifically made by the artist for her daughter, Ruth Murphy. It is a family treasury of archived recipes, and each page is a surprise and an invitation. “Dies zeigt Murphys Blick auf die Welt, lädt uns aber auch Seite um Seite ein, eigene Sichtweisen zu entwickeln,” she writes. (This shows Murphy’s view of the world, but also invites us to evolve our individual perspectives page by page.)

01 min watch Von 1989 bis 1999 arbeitete die Schwazer Künstlerin Martha Murphy am “Kochbuch keiner Hausfrau” | Berenkamp Verlag Buch- & Kunstverlag| STIRworld
Von 1989 bis 1999 arbeitete die Schwazer Künstlerin Martha Murphy am "Kochbuch keiner Hausfrau” Video: Courtesy of Berenkamp Verlag Buch- & Kunstverlag

The note from Ruth, the recipient of this art book is precious. I was drawn to instantly because it validated my ongoing research about matrilineal artistic gestures, part of my evolving thesis, In the Name of the Mother. Ruth wrestles with the title and the open-ended question it throws up—why did her mother make such a cookbook? She informs the reader-viewer about the ‘complex’ her mother suffered from—On account of being an artist and nursing a career as an art teacher, she felt she spent too little time on household work when her daughter was little. It would seem as though Murphy was distancing herself from the title of housewife because she didn’t think she was entitled to identify as one. She isn’t dismissive of the housewifely vocation so much as aware of the patriarchal circumstances that still pit career women in opposition to the realm of the domestic. According to Ruth Murphy, beyond this felt complex and insecurity, her mother was also concertedly referencing and working within an established inter-generational matrilineal tradition. “...Es gibt ein handgeschriebenes Kochbuch, ein bescheidenes Heft mit teils raffinierten Rezepten, das sie von ihrer Mutter bekam,” she writes. “Auch dieses Kochbuch meiner Großmutter, der Frau Mitzi Scheucher, habe ich nach wie vor in Verwendung.” (There is a handwritten cookbook, a modest notebook with partially intricate recipes she got from her mother.  And I still continue to use this cookbook of my grandmother, Mrs. Mitzi Scheucher.) Intriguingly, accompanying her written response to one of the queries in the questionnaire by Rosemarie Sternagl she had answered in 1993 as part of the interviewer’s diploma thesis on female artists in Tirol, Martha Murphy spoke about how, as a female artist with a husband and a child, she didn’t have enough time to work, which meant she felt she had to be accountable to herself for every minute she managed to salvage in order to make art, which contributed to her complex about being an inadequate housewife—"Jedoch habe ich heute noch eine Art Komplex, wenn mir ein Bild nicht so gelungen ist, mir zu sagen, du hättest lieber einen Kuchen gebacken.” (However, if a painting didn’t come out well, till date I have some sort of complex to tell myself, you should have rather baked a cake.) The interview is filled with such sparkling revelations about what it meant for Murphy to grow up in conservative Austria, and to assert her presence within institutions, like the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, and other organisations, when the cult of male genius was held in reverence and female artists often vanished into obscurity once they left the academy and got married. She confesses that it was only when she reached the age of about 50 that she became more conscious of how patriarchy functioned within the art world, and the various challenges it had thrown at her as a female artist. “Wir wollten an der Akademie so gut sein wie die Männer, wir wollten sein wie Männer… Ich hatte nicht das Selbstbewußtein, mich als Frau zu setzen. Das dauerte, bis ich 50 Jahre alt wurde. Mit diesem Bewußtsein sind mir dann viele Schuppen von den Augen gefallen. Heute bin ich hellsichtig und hellhörig: Mannliche Sprache regt mich auf. Unsere Generation hat das Frauesein nicht so kultiviert. Ich finde das gut an der neuen Frauengeneration. (At the academy, we wanted to be as good as the men, we wanted to be like men… I didn’t have the confidence to position myself as a woman. That took time, until I was 50-years-old. With this consciousness the veil was lifted. Nowadays I have a high awareness: male language bothers me. Our generation didn’t cultivate womanhood. I like that about the new generation of women.)

One of the many wondrous pages of Kochbuch Keiner Hausfrau| Rosalyn D’Mello| STIRworld
One of the many wondrous pages of Kochbuch Keiner Hausfrau Image: Rosalyn D’Mello

As an art book that relies on the cookbook genre, Kochbuch keiner Hausfrau is a profoundly generous addition with enough recipes to ensure you can cook something new for at least two years. The meticulous index at the back of the book ensures accessibility and usability. But it is also wonderful in how it fuses an artistic sensibility into what is increasingly perceived as the mundane business of everyday cooking, how it infringes upon any notion of a kitchen idyll by reminding the reader-viewer-user of the political realities that plague the world. Page 244, for example, has an image of an Iraqi refuge alongside a mosaic fresco of two men in a boat that reminded me of the frescoes underneath the exterior corridors of Saint Mark’s cathedral in Venice. On the left is a cut-out of a painting by Modigliani, underneath which is a recipe for Reis Auflauf. The very quotidian materials used, like ball-point pen, glue, scissors, and sketch pens enhance the accessible ‘kitchen-table’ nature of each page’s composition. The book is at once encyclopedic, but also feels like the output of an artist-collector who is invested in the boundaries between the deeply personal and the overtly political. The book will undoubtedly circulate as an invaluable example of maternal artistic legacy. 

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)

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