The Art of the (Free) Meal
We are fortunate to live in a time when art and food are intertwined, the distinction often blurred. Judy Chicago gave us The Dinner Party; Adrianne Herman turns birdseed (millet and sunflower seeds – perfectly edible for humans) and gelatin into baggage; children still decorate cupcakes; and the Slow Food movement has put forth artisanal peanut butter.
While the effect of this art on the mind and spirit is elusive, the nourishment it gives the body is quantifiable. As my taste in art has devolved into what I can afford (used paperbacks, library videos, and objects trouvé), my culinary tastes have followed suit, which is why First Friday is the most important day of the month. For agoraphobics and Netflix subscribers, First Friday is the monthly art walk and collective vernissage in Portland, when galleries stay open late and serve food and drink. With good planning and a brisk pace, one can usually eke out dinner and a drunken buzz on First Friday.
As a general guide, the more serious or venerable an institution considers itself to be, the less likely it is to serve free drinks and decent food. For example, thePortland Museum of Art (7 Congress Square) doesn’t serve food on First Fridays – though when they do receptions, like the one for the most recent Biennial exhibition, they can feed Scarborough.
The ICA at MECA – officially, The Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art – can surprise you. (It seems every town without a museum of contemporary art gets an ICA as a consolation prize.) Its lofty name is a lot to live up to, but happily, the ICA (522 Congress St.) often distinguishes itself as an Institute of Culinary Arts, as well, offering chips, salsa, aged gruyere, fig loaf, gouda, imported salami and other dried sausages, rice crackers, fruit salad and petite-fours. If you own a blue blazer and khakis, or an L.L. Bean dress and a string of pearls, show up for one of the MECA trustee events, which feature cheese from the shop in the Public Market House.
Across the MECA lobby is a June Fitzpatrick Gallery that seems to be contractually obligated to provide good food to art students who, while not yet starving, are hungry nevertheless.
Galleries that occupy the margins of the art world – like cafes, dentist offices, and paint-a-pot ceramics studios – are more likely to try to win your attention through your esophagus. On First Fridays, Sanctuary Tattoo and Art Gallery (31 Forest Ave.) shows true devotion to corpulence: chips, salsa, hummus, yogurt pretzels, pepperoni, cookies, baby carrots (which are actually regular carrots that have been cut and sanded), and a selection of wines and beers.
Next door to Sanctuary is Susan Maasch Fine Art (29 Forest Ave.), which used to be a quiet place to enjoy a first-rate selection of cheeses, cookies, chips and dips away from the din of First Friday crowds. Recently SMFA has been having group shows, thus bigger turnouts and a scaled-back snack table. I’m hoping for a retrenchment.
Those willing to leave the Arts District proper will be well compensated for the walk. Up on Munjoy Hill, at Filament Gallery (181 Congress St.), the proprietors take their libations seriously, as they do at the nearby Laura Fuller Glass Studio (129 Congress St.). Nielsen Smith Metalworks (102 Portland St.) offers above-average cheese and imported beer (Heineken) in a workshop setting.
Townsend Real Estate is home to the Spring & Park Gallery (132 Spring St.) and, the first Friday of most months, some fabulous cheeses, including ripe Taleggio; a firm but creamy, grape-leaf-wrapped blue; and a pleasantly sharp Mahon. (Like the houses they sell, the cheeses here have little yard signs to identify them.) In addition to cheese, this gallery/realtor offers what appears to be homemade garlic toast. The best aspect of these receptions: early birds tend to weasel out the soft cheese from its flavorful rinds, allowing low-tasting reception vultures (or seagulls) to swoop in and scarf the carrion. The one disappointment: a bit too rustic $5 “Sicilian Chardonnay” purchased from Whole Foods.
The potato salad and chicken at Percy Cycles on a recent First Friday.
Percy Cycles (9 Deering Ave.) is a bike shop/gallery whose offerings vary. One month it might be leftover Reuben wraps from Vaughn Street Variety; the next month, processed but filling cheese cubes and crackers from the catering section of Shaw’s, and jug wine.
Percy’s recently hosted an exhibit/event in which graffiti writers from around the region did “throw ups” (an unfortunate slang term) on plywood sheets outside the shop to benefit the effort to build a new skate park in Portland. The fare was perfectly suited to the occasion: mayonnaise white potato salad and jerk chicken that looked menacingly spicy, but wasn’t. Some pieces were slightly raw at the center – reflective of the un-refinement, and underdeveloped potential, of youth. The repast was washed down with corporately underwritten Red Bull and a few deep inhalations of aerosol propellant.
Whitney Art Works, with galleries at 45 York Street and, more recently, 492 Congress Street, doesn’t do much for food, but they do see to it that no one dies of thirst.
Aucocisco Gallery (613 Congress St.) leans in the “venerable” direction, perhaps because they show work by dead artists as well as live locals. Whatever the case, they deem it fit to post a sentry at the beverage table who will tilt the jug to dribble a few cap-fulls of red into your trembling clear-plastic cup. Sometimes there is no wine at all, but a large glass jug containing pink liquid. Whether this beverage is some kind of tea, compote (the juice leftover from stewed fruit), or dissolved JELL-O is a mystery. What I can tell you is the mixture is so dilute that the flavoring actually makes it more unpleasant than either full-strength Hawaiian Punch or plain tap water.
Next door, Nine Hands Gallery (615A Congress St.) gets points for serving a peach salsa that tastes like peach pie with tomatoes and onions, or perhaps like spaghetti-and-peach sauce. Also on offer recently was a block of Cracker Barrel cheddar that had been sliced and reassembled in the manner of a Scots-smoked salmon or a Damien Hurst. I always feel a little undignified slicing cheese at art openings, but the articulated block saves trouble and remains fresher than cheese squares arrayed on a platter. The cheese was served with round rice crackers, thus forming the simple monochromatic tableau of a square circumscribed within a circle – evocative of a Kazimir Malevich, or perhaps a Robert Mangold. Wash a few down with a White (actually pink) Zinfandel and tonic spritzer, and one feels bright and fresh and ready for summer.
Some find art openings distressing. They think it’s not considered cool to look at the art – you’re supposed to be checking out the people. As an eater, I don’t look at either, and I always have an appetite for more.
— Zachary Barowitz