Robyn Lea

1 Story

Cooking with the Pollocks

a journey into America’s culinary and creative heritage

Photo © Robyn Lea_Paint Pigments Saved from the WPA projec-2

Australian photographer, writer and director Robyn Lea’s new book DINNER WITH JACKSON POLLOCK -­‐ Recipes, Art & Nature (Assouline, 2015) took her on a journey deep into America’s culinary and creative heritage. After finding the unpublished, handwritten recipes of Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner in their former home in Springs, Long Island, Robyn began developing a different perspective of Pollock, the man, beyond the one-sided perspective of the iconic artist. Jackson’s niece, Francesca Pollock became a key supporter of the project, and the friendship that developed between Francesca and Robyn has been a wonderful byproduct of this delicious project. Here they discuss some of their favorite subjects.


Robyn Lea: Francesca, I am thrilled that Dinner with Jackson Pollock is being launched almost simultaneously with the first globally significant museum exhibition of your father Charles Pollock’s work at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. It is fitting that Charles’s work will sit alongside his youngest brother Jackson’s at the museum for the first time and that their brother Sanford’s work will also be included.


I hope the exhibition and the book will encourage more discourse about the Pollock brothers including Charles’s influence on Jackson, which was so important, both artistically and in other ways. I have this happy vision of people cooking the Johnny Cake recipe from the book that Charles and Jackson shared on their road trips across America, and drizzling these tasty morsels with maple syrup. Then, with a full and happy stomach I imagine them talking about some of the lesser-­‐known aspects of this industrious and talented family.


Francesca Pollock: Yes the simultaneity with which all this is happening is astonishing! My father used to say that he was not of his time…I guess maybe his time has come. It is an exciting moment and, in a couple of weeks, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, which is a beautiful museum, will be the home for all this excitement: the Charles Pollock Retrospective, a Jackson Pollock exhibition centered around the masterpiece Mural and your book launch.


Robyn Lea: After researching and tasting all the recipes from Jackson and Lee’s collection I have grown very attached to them. I was initially surprised to learn that Jackson was a baker and that his apple pie had won the first prize at the local fair on a number of occasions. In Springs, Jackson and Lee lived in tune with the rhythms of nature, and Pollock loved to fish, forage, plant and clam, while Lee poached and pickled any oversupply of produce. There is something deeply personal about these handwritten recipes, they have so much character and give us clues to Jackson’s domestic life, as well as show the influence of his family. They are both simple and powerful. From the Syrian picnic that Jackson shared with his friend Roger Wilcox on the Montauk beach, to the Blueberry Blintzes recipe that was scrawled by Lee on an envelope in red pencil, every dish has a story. I know why I am attached to these dishes, which I have shared with friends at many wonderful dinner parties at home. What do they mean to you?

Photo © Robyn Lea_Blueberry Blintzes. Props styling - Shan

Blueberry Blintzes

Francesca Pollock: On a personal level, your book is like a gift! But what is important to me is the way you went into this project without preconceived ideas about what you were going to find. That is precisely why your book draws a new portrait of the man and the artist. Interestingly enough a very important work by Jackson Pollock, Alchemy, which is at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, has just been restored in Florence, Italy. What they discovered is groundbreaking. First, and this will amuse you, they discovered that the painting had not been painted on canvas but rather on tablecloth and then stretched on a loom belonging to Stella, his mother. Then they discovered that, contrary to common belief, Pollock had painted this work using a grid. It was a sort of composition, not simply an unconscious projection. All these discoveries are only possible if one has open eyes, and no preconceptions. So I am grateful to you for that!


Robyn Lea: I think the grid composition of his paintings reinforces the idea that Jackson approached his work with precision and discipline. In the same way that he was with his baking which is a science that requires absolute precision, patience and planning. You are a baker or you are not. And that he was a baker says a lot about his approach to other aspects of his life.

Photo © Robyn Lea_Jackson's Prize Winning Apple Pie. Props

Jackson’s Prize-Winning Apple Pie.

I loved all your informative emails during the course of this project, laden with important information and thoughtful insights about the Pollock family. I feel like you are my pen pal. Sadly letter writing has almost disappeared but your weekly and sometimes daily emails remind me of the beauty of honest exchanges and how meaningful this sharing is. But despite the fact we communicate via email, I think we both have a passion for primary source material and respect for the power of letters and handwritten documents to provide deep understanding of a subject. It is these documents -­‐ these handwritten recipes, that brought us together, and your guidance has been invaluable.

Photo © Robyn Lea Recipe_Jackson's_Bread recipe, detail

Detail of one of Jackson’s handwritten bread recipes.

Francesca Pollock: We really had a coup de foudre. I was immediately taken by the way you discovered these recipes. I myself had discovered family letters in similar circumstances and published a selection of those letters (Jackson Pollock & Family, American Letters, Polity Press, 2010). So I was touched when we met and you told me about the project. Then I helped you find grandma Pollock’s recipe album. Everyone in the family remembered it or had heard about it but no one knew where it was. Finally, I heard it was with Charles’s granddaughter Jacqueline in California and you went there to photograph it.


Robyn Lea: Meeting Jacqueline in California and photographing Stella Pollock’s handwritten recipe book added another layer of understanding to my book project. I am so grateful that you found it and that Jacqueline opened her home to me so I could go and photograph it. She also seems to have the Pollock gene for culinary and creative talent, and cooked that day the most magnificent lunch, and afterwards showed me her equally magnificent drawings. Stella’s cookbook is absolutely loaded with important information, and includes notes she wrote to herself such as “Raw Food and Dynamic Breath Control for Health, Success, and Happiness,” which was underlined as a heading inside the first page of the book. The following four pages detail a juice fast diet that included doses of black cherry juice, grape juice and sauerkraut juice.


Stella’s recipe book also has almost 100 recipes for cakes, puddings, candy, frosting, sweet sauces, creams, pies, tortes, and cookies, and she was known for using large quantities of butter and eggs even during the Depression and wartime rationing. Favorites included Delicious Cream Fudge, Frozen Apple Snow, A Perfect Shortcake, Cranberry Fluff, Apple Eggnog Pie, Rhubarb Wine, Lady Baltimore, Italian Chocolate Pudding and Heavenly Hash.

Photo © Robyn Lea_Breads_Section_Cross-Country Johnny Cake

Cross Country Johnny Cakes

Dinner with Jackson Pollock is to me a collection of not only Jackson and Lee’s recipes, but also heirloom recipes from Stella Pollock and other members of your family such as Arloie McCoy. It is also a visual story, documenting the evocative natural beauty of the tiny East Hampton hamlet of Springs, and the beachscapes and landscapes that surrounded Pollock and Krasner’s home.


Francesca Pollock: I think it says it all. The words that come to mind are style, beauty, simplicity, modesty, humility and generosity. I see all that in these recipes and also in the accompanying photographs. You manage to capture it all. The other reason I feel this book is important is that over the years my uncle has become a myth and one has somehow forgotten that he was also a man.


This book portrays him not only as the artist/genius he was but also as a human being who loved to cook and enjoy the simple pleasures of life.

Photo © Robyn Lea_Pollock and Krasner's kitchen_Springs Lo-2

Jackson and Lee’s kitchen, Springs, Long Island

Robyn Lea: You provided me with various quotes for Dinner with Jackson Pollock including one from your father Charles who described his own father, LeRoy, as a ‘craftsman on the soil’. It seems clear that LeRoy’s adoration for nature influenced both Pollock brothers, and their subsequent connection with nature helped feed their inner creative terrain.


Francesca Pollock: Of course it did. Both parents were strong influences on their boys. One sees that clearly in the letters we published. The boys admired their parents and it was reciprocal. Can you imagine what it must have been like in the 1920s to have your eldest son, Charles, announce that he wants to become an artist? And then a second son and then a third one! They were tolerant and proud. Anything their boys wanted to do was good for them. I remember this advice LeRoy wrote in a letter to Jackson, who was 16 at the time: “The secret of success is concentrating interest in life, interest in sports and good times, interest in your studies, interest in your fellow students, interest in the small things of nature, insects, birds, flowers, leaves, etc.”. How beautiful is that?


Robyn Lea: LeRoy’s advice to Jackson still resonates today, perhaps more than ever. A deep respect for, and delight in the form, colors and bounty of nature is a great way to find a simple peace in our often crazy city lives. Nature can also be a powerful source of inspiration, as it was for Jackson. He found nature very healing, and loved working the soil in his vegetable garden in Springs, then showing off the color of his eggplants to his friends, or gifting produce to fellow food lovers. There is no doubt that this passion was ignited in Jackson from his father’s love of nature and good ingredients. There is a wonderful photo in the book of two-year-old Jackson holding a slice of the watermelon that had won LeRoy first prize at the local fair. The whole family is gathered for the photo. It is a proud moment and very endearing. In another historic photo Jackson sits next to his own vegetable garden on the grass in Springs, very comfortable and connected with the land he loved so much.


Francesca Pollock: I guess, in the end, this is all about transmission. My father used to say “Let’s keep the record straight,” I guess that is what he was talking about. So now that that work is done, all I can say is “Bon Appetit!”

Photo © Robyn Lea_Painting shoes and stool_Pollock Studio

Shoes and paint detail in the studio
Food preparation: Chef Kira Jacobs
Props Styling: Shane Klein