Grief and Donuts
Writer Nora Becker interviews culinary artist Carolyn Tillie about her show “Mixed Emotions,” opening March 2, 2023 at ACCI in Berkeley
Carolyn Tillie collects culinary treasures. The treasures find their way into her artwork, into her food history research, and into her conversation with me, which took place via video, due to her location on the coast near Half Moon Bay.
First, she pulls a stone persimmon into the frame. It belonged to Alice Waters and is complete with delicate modeled bruises. Then Tillie unveils more of what must be waiting just off-screen: a set of ceramic donuts, a silver cocktail shaker long ago gifted to a famous New York restaurateur by a Nazi art thief, a moon-faced bachelor teapot, the most beautifully rugged nutcracker I’ve ever seen.
She speaks to me from a small writing desk marooned in the middle of her kitchen. Behind her are mounted wire racks of clay cookware and hanging copper pots and pans. She tells me these were gifts from her friend Paula Wolfert, the cookbook chef who wrote extensively on clay pot and Mediterranean cooking. She points to the micaceous clay pot in her background: “That’s the one I just leave by the stove, so it’s ready for soups and stews.” When I tell her that my mom has a Romertopf clay pot tucked away somewhere, she just about jumps from her seat: “Find that pot and go out and buy a chicken.”
I get the sense that Tillie lives earnestly and with a sense of humor, especially when it comes to food. She calls herself the “Fried Dough Ho” and offers several opinions on donuts near and far. There’s the Caramel De Sel donut from Dynamo Donut + Coffee in San Francisco, and the apple fritter from Randy’s Donuts in LA, which she calls, “the platonic ideal of an apple fritter.” But the Fried Dough Ho is not picky: “You can throw any type of batter or dough into hot fat and I’ll eat it.” She pauses, laughs. “Now I want a donut.”
Much of Tillie’s food art is similarly jovial. She makes food jewelry: earrings, rings, and brooches starring tiny food look-alikes. Among this collection are the real-bean earrings she makes for the heirloom bean company Rancho Gordo. The “Christmas Lima beans are an inch-and-a-half big, so those are pretty big earrings,” Tillie says.
But her new exhibition moves in a different direction. In it she reckons with loss that she and her loved ones endured over the past few years, much of it related to the pandemic. Loss inevitably changes the way one eats, how one engages with others and with the world, how it feels to sit at the dinner table with fewer people than sat there before.
“It started off with grandmothers,” Tillie tells me. It started with old, yellowed cookbooks that had lost their bindings through the years; it started with passed-along antique silver serving ware doomed to languish in modern kitchens; it started with the deaths of “grandmothers who didn’t get the chance to share their favorite recipes anymore.”
But last year her project struck home more personally. Her demeanor changes as she speaks: “My 20-year-old stepson died in a tragic accident, and then four months later, one of my two sisters, and then a month after that, two of my four pets died, so it was like this whole year of death and grief and coping with it, and I threw myself into creating pieces that were more emotive.”
Unlike the pieces she had worked on with the grandmothers in mind, Tillie now says, “I was invoking these conversations with my stepson and my sister over meals that we were never going to be able to share, and [the project] grew in import and emotion. And then I lost another friend right before Christmas this past year, so I am trying to frame the year 2022 as the year of death.” The emotions, though, are not bounded by the calendar year.
During our February interview, Tillie said she would continue “cutting and pasting and cutting and pasting and cutting and pasting” until the finished show opens at ACCI Gallery in Berkeley on March 2. She describes Mixed Emotions: Death, Dialogue, and Dinner as a complete dinner party set—the table laid, a sideboard covered in checkered oilcloth, a window suspended just off to the side. I expect it to feel rather haunting, walking into this dinner diorama, as if the family or friends getting ready to sit down together had just been called off, the feast forfeited to other demands of living and losing.
Mixed Emotions: Reflections on Death, Dialogue, and Dinner during COVID-19
A Culinary Art Installation by Carolyn Tillie
March 2 through April 8, 2023
Opening Reception: Saturday March 4, 4-6pm
1652 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley
More info here.