Some things are truly lost. Bad diets generate little documentary evidence, just the fuzziness of the anecdotal; soup kitchens don’t keep comment books. But some artists have managed over the years to eat rather well, and so have left behind a paper trail of dinner invitations, menus, speeches, bills and letters thanking hosts. The Tate archive may forbid food and drink in its controlled environment, but there’s plenty of material deep inside Tate Britain to set the time traveller’s stomach rumbling.
A menu from 1928: the members of the Double Crown Club are having their sixteenth dinner at Kettner’s, and Edward Bawden has produced a beautiful cover illustration, together with bibliomarks inside. The booklet is letterpress printed, has been stitched, and is considerably more attractive aesthetically than most slim volumes of poetry published today. Is anybody alive to remember the meal that night – Bisque d’écrevisse, Filet de Sole Walewska – and did any diner rise from his chair to defy the warning that ‘nawther will speeches be countenanced lightly’? There’s a whiff of T.S. Eliot’s London, the smell of steaks in passageways. I’m definitely starting to feel hungry.
Fast forward to the 1980s, and Anthony D’Offay is throwing a celebratory dinner at the Café Royal for Andy Warhol. He’s called it the ‘Self-Portrait Supper’. Nobody present can know Warhol is in the final year of his life. The chef has gone to town and themed the menu around a Pop career:
Soupe Froide de Concombres Warhol
Saumon en Sauce Désastre
Pommes de Terre Renom et Fortune
Courgettes Ecran de Soie
Haricots Verts Nouveau Fabrique
Crème Brûlée Chaise Electrique
I want that Electric Chair Crème Brûlée to have entered into the culinary canon. Actually, I want it to enter my mouth, here in the arid stacks. I could do with a drink too, especially after reading how Jasper Johns, John Cage and Merce Cunningham got stuck into a few bottles of 1985 Château Ste. Michelle Fumé Blanc and 1983 Château du Glana, St.-Julien one evening at the V&A. And a bill for a meal at Bibendum doesn’t help either: one night in 1990, Francis Bacon spent just over £500, of an £800 total, on booze. You wonder about all those stories of Picasso never actually paying for anything much because his signature on a cheque was usually of far greater worth than the amount crossed. But what finally gets me coming up for air (and food) is an altogether more modest piece of menutiae.
Deep in the bowels of Tate, I’ve come across a menu for the Taj Mahal Indian restaurant in Exeter. It’s 1972, and a chicken biryani will set you back ten shillings, or 50p in the new money. (Outside a little later, I phone Exeter 58219 on a whim: the Taj is still there, but it won’t deliver to London SW1.) One November night that year, Fluxus were in town, and it seems nothing should be lost; that even the smallest quotidian things can and should be admitted. As well as exciting my appetite, the auto-archiving and everyday-object-honouring tendencies of Fluxus are inspiring. The verso lower half of the opened menu has some text rendered slightly illegible by curry stains. It seems some foodstuffs have in fact managed to make it into the archive after all.