Pasta Peculiar

by

01/20/2002

704 Broadway, New York, NY 10003

Neighborhood: SoHo

The elevator doors open and all I see is pasta drying on cardboard tubes. Multi-colored striped pasta, as if the most important costume from a prep school’s production of Sondheim’s Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat had been passed through some improbably large papershredder.

Lasagne sheets from the kitchen of Mimi Oka and Doug Fitch, co-founders of OrphiCorp, co-creators and co-hosts of The Orphic Hootenany, the Orphic Open Studio, the Second Orphic Feast: La Baguette Enorme en Gala, and several other Orphic events. They call them Brushstrokes because they make paintings with them: pinned in frames, the colored pasta strips function like 3D brush strokes. So here I am, standing in front of the closing elevator doors in Mimi’s loft, ready to help her and Doug prepare for a New York Times photoshoot of their “product,” said product being both the painting and the event of its consumption. They’ve 44 hours to make the biggest pasta painting they’ve ever made (and God knows what else they’ve planned) so I want to help, though I don’t know how, and I’m also not really sure what they’re doing.

So I say my hellos and put my bag down out of the way alongside a sideboard and have to move it immediately because I’ve put it right in front of the pasta machine toward which Mimi, by day a writer on matters gastronomic, is bringing a Stage Two Pasta Brushstroke (there are, after all, stages in making Pasta Brushstrokes) draped delicately over her two upturned palms and I’ve confounded her fastidious manoeuvers.

I walk around the high-ceilinged loft, crunching discarded dried pasta underfoot, trying to stay out of their way and feeling the time is not yet ripe to issue my: “So what can I do? How can I help?”

By the north wall (it is fairly easy, in a spacious loft on the east side of lower Broadway, to identify walls as being perpendicular to a given compass point, thanks more to the cartographic grid rather than to magnetic intuition), I see the framed canvas onto which the completed (Stage Four) brushstrokes will be pinned. It seems to be about eight feet by ten feet and it’s wood of course, not canvas, and it’s painted Tiffany blue. I offer: “It’s Tiffany blue.”

It’s 11:30pm on a Friday night and I was supposed to be here two hours ago. They’ve been up til three or four in the morning for the past week though, so I think it’s OK for me to arrive so late. They both say it’s fine, not to worry, but I don’t know Mimi well so she could be just being polite—a Japanese woman who lived in England would be good at that—and I do know Doug well and he is always charmingly full-steam-ahead-and-damn-the-torpedoes.

Six months ago I’d helped with another project also involving Pasta Paintings, that one in a loft in Tribeca. There, the pasta paintings were cooked by Daniel Boulod—after the brushstrokes had been removed from the wooden frames. Dinner was accompanied by an Orpheus-and-Eurydice marionette show. And three months ago, in this loft, food was baked inside clay sculptures (of turkeys, fax machines, feet) which were smashed open to reveal peanuts, bread, pound cake, chicken. I watched my girlfriend giggle while she took a hammer to a clay fax machine from the rubble of which could be scooped a South American chicken stew. And nine years ago sixteen undergraduates (myself included) performed in a play Doug called The Sweating Door Alarm, created while he was a Visiting Artist at my college. Doug’s created a great many events, both with Mimi and on his own, and you want to be a part of them so you can have a part of them. So that even if you don’t know what exactly what’s going on, you’re in it, so it’ll always be going on inside you.

There are events I’ve not been at. Ile Flotant, for example, took place in the middle of a pond in rural south-west France—the menu being crawfish drizzled with pond soup, frogs’ legs served in empty eggshells, sauted eel, and the dessert known as ile flotant, delivered on a verdant floating artificial island to the 24 guests seated at the donut-shaped floating table. The meal was cooked by the chef from the Plaza Hotal in New York and the table was designed by a flotation engineer. I think often what it would have been like to be there. Then I think: I can’t swim. I think: I can’t swim.

This is what I know about tonight: this coming Sunday there’s a New York Times photoshoot of a dinner/event that incorporates (or in some way simply is) the food art that he and Mimi make. This event will be at 704 Broadway and it will be very well lit—the lights have already been set up—and I won’t be there. It’s a photoshoot. There are two types of event in New York City and this is the choreographed sort, not the one in which anyone can join in. There is a cast and a crew and a script and there are no auditions. “So what can I do? How can I help?”

And I can.

“There’s going to be a hydroponic garden and it needs to be lit by Gro-Lites“,” Doug tells me.

I assemble seven clip lights, replace the regular bulbs with Gro-Lites“ and attach them all to white household extension cords. So as to prevent them from becoming entangled I lay them on the ground and separate the wires. They look like some kind of monstrous plant: seven wires snaking out of the central extension cord sequence, each with a cliplight at the end. As I arrange them to clarify this metaphor for myself, I imagine them rising up into the air, as if charmed by a Farsi in turban, their central eye seeking human flesh to feed on. I hope maybe Doug will notice the artistic effect.

“Thank you so much. Now let’s hang them up.”

He disappears in the direction of the other end of the loft and thirty seconds later I see the enormous green wire scaffolding that hangs above the 16 foot long oval dining table begin to fall slowly down, accompanied by the tinkle of the hundred of so variously shaped wine glasses hanging upside down from various clips on the scaffolding, and then, with a melodious shudder, come to stop two feet short of the table. We sit the clip lights on top of the scaffolding and run the extension cord to a socket in the ceiling. Then we attach two long bamboo sticks together and hang them from the scaffolding. Individually grown and wrapped hydroponic salads will be suspended from the bamboo sticks, which in turn will be suspended from the scaffolding, in turn suspended from a pulley system attached to the ceiling.

“A ‘salad bar’!’” Doug exclaims.

We‘re discussing the disappointing degree of luminosity from the Gro-Lites“ when Doug beckons me to whisper:

“Mimi’s taking a nap in the corner.”

She has to be up at 6 am to prepare her kids for school.

“I’m making coffee. Would you like a cup? And a cookie!? I just baked some cookies.”

When did he manage to bake cookies?

I think we should be working, working to get things ready, but instead we’re going to sit down and eat his oatmeal cookies.

When you try to find a healthy (by which I mean: creative) pattern of living, you find that the world around you makes demands on your sense of self: am I my own self when alone, or do I make my self by establishing myself as a node in a given network of relationships to people, objects, institutions? Cookies taste different when eaten alone (sitting at my computer, say, writing about a given personal experience) from how they taste when eaten alongside the man who has made the cookies as a break from the activity of making salads, pasta, bread into art objects and of planning their consumption as art experiences. And if I knew what that difference in taste were, I would be that much closer to understanding happiness.

While I’m drinking my coffee Mimi appears, groggy.

“So where are we, Doug?”

They start to discuss what remains to be done. They decide they need more colors in the painting.

“More greens, yellows, and poison greens,” Doug sums up and fetches a container of food dyes. After cracking two eggs into each of four creme brulee dishes, he takes a tiny dollop of dye from the little bottles with the tip of a small knife and mixes the dye into the eggs; thus formulating an egg-dye fluid. Mimi combines it in a blender with semolina flour and removes a lump of a toxic green pasta dough: Stage One Pasta Brushstroke.

“So what can I do?” I ask.

“Light the model!”

Doug leads me back into the dining area. Sitting nine feet up, on top of the roof of the office he had designed for the loft (he is also an interior designer and architect and designed the loft for and with Mimi), but beneath the ceiling of the loft proper, there is a cardboard villa. I recognize it as the prototype for a gingerbread house Doug designed for his first Orphic collaboration with Mimi: a curving construction with exaggerated columns and missing sections, as if Frank Gehry had rendered an Alice in Wonderland palace for Disney World but never built it because it could clearly never be built. Doug gives me a little halogen light which has been attached to thick aluminum wire (“sculptors’ armature,” or something to that effect); this is my tool. I busy myself with my task for quite a while, exploring angles of light, manipulating both lamp and model so that no one can see the lamp and so that the model be lit as if dawn were breaking across the Tuscan landscape of some other planet, finally finding satisfactory (by which somehow I always seem to mean satisfying) positions for model and light.

“Doug! How is it?”

He is quite pleased—”Oh that’s greeey-ate”— and Mimi, though she seems to be on the verge of falling asleep on her feet, smiles beatifically. You make things all the time but here, here you notice what you’ve made.

As I hoist my belongings onto my shoulder Doug is working on Stage Two Pasta Brushstrokes: rolling small pieces of different colors into strips, as if he were making long Playdoh worms, “gluing” them together with water and glazing them with a spritz of more water. Mimi is taking the Brushstroke and running it through the pasta machine over and over again, flattening it, the different colors distending, the entire brushstroke growing to a length of five, six feet. I will never see the completed work, except in The New York Times sometime in late April 2001, and I don’t know if I am pleased or disappointed.

“Mimi, I’ve got a whole new way of doing this that I want to try!”

“Why?”

“Well, I think it might be faster.”

“Why do we need to do it faster?”

“I thought you were tired?!”

“I’m not tired,” she says, as she vigorously cranks the pasta machine with her left hand and lets the Brushstroke drape and fold gently over her right arm.

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