TO MEASURE is not macho.
To improvise is sometimes divine.
A hundred dishes will prove that on Sunday when men who paint, men who dance and men who run the city become "Men Who Cook." That's what the Miya Gallery of African arts, part of Lansburgh's Cultural Center, is calling its giant potluck benefit feast.
These once-in-a-lifetime caterers are not necessarily meat-and-potatoes men; they are men who say they cook by "vibration." Men who cook for a challenge, who say their female friends hate to cook, who say that cooking is a creative experience "if you're a liberated man."
"I hate being led by the nose by anything, let alone cooking," says Peter Marzio, outgoing director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, adding that when he follows recipes they never work.
Experimentation in cooking, as in any art, takes many forms.
According to Melvin Deal, director of the African Heritage Dancers and Drummers, living in western Africa inspired him to mix the fish and fruits available in Africa with traditional American soul food. Thus he began serving his black beans with smoked fish instead of pork, adding bananas to his corn muffins, and chopped apple and pineapple to his sweet potatoes. As he puts it, "If you're an artistic person, cooking is part of your life style."
When it comes to fried potatoes, arts consultant Vantile Whitfield likes to "play around." He's figured out that they don't really have to be peeled before frying, and adds thick slices of onion ("thinly sliced disappear") at the last minute to the skillet.
Ron Truitt, technical director of Howard University's Cramton Auditorium, says he scans three or four recipes and combines ideas from all of them when preparing a dish.
Understandably, attractive food is a common goal among these cooks. U'gene Greene believes you can "make something look palatable just by presentation." Not surprising for a jewelry designer, Greene, a vegetarian, is prone to sculpt lemons in the Japanese style. He suggests, "Color plays an important part on our senses," and accents platters with reds like tomatoes and yellows like squash.
Carving out the insides of purple cabbages and filling them with spicy sour cream dip is an artsy touch that Zachary-Glenn Gallery co-owner Fred Zachary uses for entertaining.
And artistic passions transfer to food: "Whoever murdered the tomato should be put away," declares the Corcoran's Marzio as he speaks of today's tasteless versions of that fruit. As for farm-fresh eggs versus the supermarket variety, he says the big event of his morning is seeing "if the yolk stays together in the supermarket kinds."
For Marzio, cooking is a hobby that "really gets me to relax." For others, like bachelor father Whitfield, cooking has become a necessity. When his son's rock group was practicing in the basement, he "couldn't call him up to dinner without inviting the whole group." Whitfield is still involved in "group cooking" -- he frequently stages impromptu meals with friends.
For many of these artists, cooking is an expansive activity. Dancer Greg Reynolds claims that he learned how to cook by feeding New York. At the time, Reynolds was with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, and would prepare dinner for people he met on the subway or street. "I had a regular restaurant in my home," says Reynolds. And as director of a dance company, Melvin Deal says it's his responsibility as "a symbol of solidarity" to invite company members over to eat.
The Miya Gallery's benefit may be the largest party any of these men has cooked for, considering that coordinator Vernard Gray expects more than 1,000 guests. For interested eaters who want to help celebrate, the benefit is scheduled for Sunday, July 11, from 3 to 7 p.m., at The Market Five Gallery, 7th Street and North Carolina Avenue SE. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12.50 the day of the dinner.(Call 638-6048 for information.)
Here are some previews of the food to come.
HARD TIMES BARBECUED BEEF RIBS IN SAUCE MOTOJICHO (Vantile Whitfield) (4 servings)
In the course of his career, Whitfield says, he's "been around a lot of guys who can really whip up a nice meal" -- his acting teacher, for one. This recipe is one that Whitfield developed "over the years." For the sauce: 1 medium onion, diced 1/2 green pepper, diced 2 stalks celery, diced 2 tablespoons butter 1/4 cup red wine 3/4 cup tomato sauce 1/4 cup hot pepper sauce or less to taste 1/4 cup worcestershire sauce 2 1/2 teaspoons brown sugar 1 tablespoon lemon juice 3/4 teaspoon mixed herbs such as basil, thyme and rosemary Salt and pepper to taste 1/4 cup bourbon 1/2 cup beer For the ribs: 4 pounds beef ribs 1/4 cup bourbon
To make the sauce, saute onion, green pepper and celery in the butter until soft. Add wine and mix to coat vegetables. Add tomato, hot pepper and worcestershire sauces and allow to simmer for 10 minutes. Add sugar, lemon juice, herbs and salt and pepper and continue simmering for about 10 minutes. Add the first 1/4 cup bourbon and the beer, and simmer for another 5 minutes, being careful not to let it boil. This will make about 2 cups of sauce.
Before the sauce is done, place ribs in a large pot, cover with water and add bourbon. Parboil for 5 to 10 minutes. Drain meat. Spread ribs in large pan and cover ribs with half of the sauce. Remove from pan and barbecue over grill with low heat, basting with remaining sauce. LEMON-LIME CURRIED CHICKEN SALAD (Vernard Gray) (4 servings)
Executive director of the Miya Gallery and the mastermind behind the benefit, Gray says he's "not a cook in a heavy way." But this chicken salad proves him wrong.
1 medium onion, quartered
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1/3 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1 cup mayonnaise
Curry powder to taste
1/4 cup canned pineapple chunks (about 8 chunks)
Stuff the cavity of the chicken with the quartered onion. Thinly slice one of the lemons and one of the limes and place inside cavity. Rub skin with crushed garlic and place chicken in a large pot. Squeeze the juice of the remaining lemon and lime over the chicken, and add water to cover the chicken. Bring to a boil, then lower flame and cook until meat is tender, about 40 minutes to an hour.
After cooking, allow chicken to cool. Refrigerate overnight in pot, allowing chicken to marinate in its own juices.
Remove chicken from pot the next day. Remove skin, fat and bones. Cut meat into chunks approximately 1/2-inch square. Add almonds, walnuts and shredded coconut.
Place mayonnaise in a blender or food processor, adding curry powder to taste and pineapple chunks. Process until pineapple chunks are pureed.Mix with chicken, being careful not to over-moisten (you will probably have more mayonnaise than you need). Chill until ready to serve.
HOT FRIED COLLARDS (Greg Reynolds) (6 to 8 servings)
Most people boil collards, but daneer Reynolds says he always fries them.
1 pound bacon
1 large onion, diced
1 pound fresh collards, washed and cut in small pieces
Salt, black pepper and crushed red pepper to taste
This recipe will have to be done in two shifts or in two skillets since the amount of collards will not fit in one skillet.
Cook half the bacon in a skillet until crisp, but do not drain fat. Remove bacon from skillet and drain on paper towels. Pour off half the bacon fat and reserve.
Saute half of the diced onion in the bacon fat remaining in the skillet. Cook until deep brown. Add 1/2 pound of the collards to the onions. Stir to mix. Crush drained bacon into small bits. Add to collards. Sprinkle with salt and black pepper to taste. Stir collards for even seasoning. Add crushed red pepper to taste and stir.
Cover and lower flame, cooking for about 10 minutes and adding additional bacon fat if greens seem dry Collards should appear lightly browned and crunchy. Repeat process with second batch.
MAMA TRUITTS HOT MASHED POTATO SALAD (Ron Truitt) (6 to 8 servings)
Every Sunday, there was fried chicken, fresh spinach, iced tea with mint and lemon, and Mama's hot mashed potato salad for dinner at the Truitt house. 8 potatoes 1 red onion, chopped 2 stalks celery, chopped 1/4 cup pimiento, diced 1/4 cup sweet pickle, diced 1/2 green pepper, diced Mayonnaise to taste 1 1/2 tablespoons sweet mustard, approximately Salt and freshly ground pepper
Boil potatoes, drain and mash or put through food mill. Fold in combined chopped vegetables. Add enough mayonnaise to achieve a smooth consistency and enough sweet mustard to achieve pale yellow color. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Keep warm in a slow oven or on a tableside food warmer until serving. Finish a couple of hours before serving so that flavors will have a chance to blend.
ROYAL YAMS AND FRIENDS (Melvin Deal) (4 to 6 servings)
An Afro-American combination inspired by Deal's travels in western Africa. 2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped 2 apples, peeled and chopped 1/4 cup honey or brown sugar or less to taste
1 tablespoon butter 10 ounces canned pineapple chunks 1 tablespoon allspice 2 cups apple juice
Place sweet potatoes and apples in a large saucepan or small pot. Add remaining ingredients and place over medium flame. Cook about 1 hour and 10 minutes or until liquid evaporates.
EPZ STEW (U'gene Greene) (4 servings)
Jewelry designer Green, who says that "creative men do their own cooking," invented this vegetarian dish. The E stands for eggplant, P for peppers and Z for zucchini. 1 eggplant Sea salt 1 tablespoon corn oil 3 tomatoes, peeled and chopped 1 red pepper, sliced into strips 1 green pepper, sliced into strips 2 to 3 zucchini, sliced into rounds 1 cup parsley, chopped Chopped coriander to taste 3 medium garlic cloves, minced 1 teaspoon oregano 1 teaspoon cumin Pinch of cayenne or more to taste 1/4 cup water 1 teaspoon sesame oil Pita bread and melted cheese for serving (optional)
Cut eggplant into rounds and sprinkle with sea salt. Let stand for 5 minutes. Drain off liquid and cut rounds into chunks.
Heat corn oil in work. Add vegetables and seasonings. Stir fry until lightly browned. Add 1/4 cup water and sesame oil, stirring thoroughly. Cover and steam until vegetables are just softened. This can be served hot or cold, as a main course or as an appetizer, and can be stuffed into pita bread with or without melted cheese.