Thanks to museums, books and the performing arts, we are often given a glimpse into the art and culture of centuries past. But what about the food? Former museum educator turned private chef Maite Gomez-Rejón is looking to bring the flavors of the past into the future, blending cooking and art into a historical time-traveling tour.
Gomez-Rejón scours cookbooks that are hundreds of years old to create dinners, classes and food-related events for art museums around the country. This Sunday, Oct. 18, she is hosting Eat Like a Pharoah as part of the current Natural History Museum exhibit “Mummies: New Secrets From the Tombs.”
The event starts out like most of Gomez-Rejón's: a tour of the exhibit, followed by a presentation on the history of food and drink during the era being explored. But then the group will do something different. They'll head to the Natural History Museum's kitchen garden to pick the same vegetables and herbs once used by pharaohs, which will be used in a salad-making workshop that culminates in a family-style feast.
Gomez-Rejón, a culinary school graduate, first came to L.A. in 2005 to work in the education department at the Getty Museum, but she has been combing food and history since 2000. She had what she calls her “aha!” moment in New York, when she came across a group of medieval cookbooks at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
She then began a journey through time, immersing herself in the cookbook and culinary history collection at the New York Public Library and designing a way to bring it to classes, parties and food-related events at places such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, LACMA, the Norton Simon Museum and the Huntington Library and Gardens.
“I came across that medieval cookbook and realized that everyone always ate,” she says. “Then I couldn’t walk through the museum without wondering what every single person in every single portrait was eating.”
She taught a class through the 92nd Street YMCA that traced the history of food through art at the Met, and in 2003 she went to Europe to travel and work at a restaurant in Brittany, France. Returning home to Laredo, Texas, she taught cooking classes and art history for a few years at the local community college, incorporating food into her art lectures and noticing the increase in student engagement when she did. The idea for ArtBites, her company that cooks art history, was born.
At the Getty, she developed classes on ancient Greek and Roman cuisine, but after a couple of years she broke out on her own and officially formed ArtBites, which museums now seek out to develop events based on their exhibitions.
“I normally start researching the art as one would when planning a regular art history lesson. Then I research cookbooks from the time period, look for any interesting food stories, and choose recipes that can be easily adapted to our modern palates,” Gomez-Rejón says of her methods. “I always use seasonal ingredients, keep it simple and never neglect the fact that we live in 2015 — no one wants to eat dormice.”
Inspired by The History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage, she explored beer, wine and spirits (plus coffee and tea) through art, with each then being used as an ingredient in the class. When she does Mexican themes, she uses molinillos (an aerator for chocolate), tortilla presses and molcajetes (volcanic stone mortar and pestle), which were used in the past as they are today.
She also takes her mix of art history and cookery fun into inner-city schools in L.A.
No matter where her events take place, Gomez-Rejón has a specific thing she wants her students — young and old — to take home with them:
“I want people to learn in a nonconventional way and find a new appreciation of art while giving the participants a new set of recipes, stories and nuggets of information they can share. The cooking part is always fun and chaotic, and everyone is always really proud of the food that they made.”