Breakfast cereal with mealworms featured on page 28 of Comestible 7-Day Meal Plan: Food as Text Credit: Courtesy Pat Badani

Pat Badani’s seven-day meal plan includes a recipe for greens that calls for “a measure of moral evaluation.” She recommends that, on day two, readers serve a particular protein when “the wriggling stops.” On Tuesday, when it’s time for “Cultures and Ferments,” the directions read: 

“1. Forsake the moldy drama cultivating in the shower curtain.
2. Brine your sauerkraut on a sea voyage.
3. Consume with a glass of ocean.” 

Badani is an Argentinian-born artist who makes her home in Rogers Park, where her kitchen doesn’t serve as her studio but it’s certainly her muse. When I reached her by phone she’d just been making a “huge” salad for lunch that she planned to eat with some lentils cooked in homemade vegetable stock. 

“My kitchen is important,” she says. “That is, in fact, where I get all my ideas.” Comestible 7-Day Meal Plan: Food as Text, an “ecological manifesto” she published in July, is the latest permutation of a project she began 2010—in her kitchen.

A still from a video interview at Pat Badani Studio with the <i>Comestible</i> process wall in the background
A still from a video interview at Pat Badani Studio with the Comestible process wall in the backgroundCredit: Courtesy Pat Badani

She connects her attraction to the most popular room in the house to her childhood growing up in a large Italian family in Buenos Aires that gathered each Sunday after church when she and her two brothers helped their Nonna roll out and shape the gnocchi before lunch. “We talked and talked, and drank and drank, and everything went on until very late, and everybody went home and started their Monday-to-Friday ritual.”

At 15 when she left behind the similarly communal Argentine meatfests known as asados (and quit eating beef), her father was transferred to Peru. She studied art at the University of Alberta—lots of oil money allowed students to work with holograms in the 70s—and embarked upon a career that took her around the world during which her work frequently employed food as both subject and material.

She was down and out in Paris in the 90s when inspiration struck for her best known work. “I was depressed, angry,” she says. “I was an immigrant. I was feeding a child. She was going to school. I didn’t know the language well. I couldn’t help her. I was making a pizza one day and I don’t know what took over me.”

She draped the raw dough she’d been rolling over one of the wide bowls the French drink coffee from and put it in the oven on medium-high. “There was no explanation for it.” But when she took it out, “the whole experience was sensual,” she says. “The smell of it, holding this bowl in my hand. I compulsively started doing this every day.”

Over a couple months she began stacking the bowls and photographing them, building towers until she could envision a cityscape of bread. Her tiny Parisian oven couldn’t meet the demand, so she walked over to the neighborhood boulangerie and asked to use the oven. 

The bakery, as it turned out, was the legendary Poilâne, then under its second generation master baker Lionel Poilâne, who’d famously collaborated with Dali to sculpt an entire bedroom suite out of sourdough. “He said, ‘I love the idea. You have my bread. You have my ovens. You have my bakers. The only rule is you have to get along with my bakers.’ He probably thought I would be there for what? A month?”

Over three years Badani and five of Poilâne’s bakers created thousands of bread bowls, cups, and platters that she went on to exhibit in the form of sculptures of interlocking pieces, sprawling skylines, and notably, long snaking ropes placed as figurative borders in lonely outdoor landscapes that would eventually be eaten by animals and degraded in the elements. 

Badani came to Chicago 20 years ago to earn her MFA at the School of the Art Institute, and she’s been based here ever since. And it was here, in 2010, at the dawn of the Camera Eats First age, that she began posting photographs of her food to her year-old Facebook account.

She’d recently adopted a raw food diet to help tackle some health issues and began plating her meals in accordance with the freestyle method she prepared them with. “You put colors and textures together because intuitively you understand that these things are gonna be good for you. So it’s not following a recipe. It’s following what your body is telling you.”

<i>Comestible</i> began as a project in 2010 with Badani posting images of her food creations on social media.
Comestible began as a project in 2010 with Badani posting images of her food creations on social media.Credit: Courtesy Pat Badani

Vivid, meticulously composed arrangements of sprouted lentils, shredded carrots, and rice noodles, or stripes of mung bean jelly and vegetables sprinkled with baked green pepper seeds began to solicit recipe requests from her Facebook community and demands for a book.

She had no intention of writing a cookbook, but she did start thinking about the way artists have used food to promote political and social movements, particularly in the case of The Manifesto of Futurist Cooking by noted Italian proto-fascist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.

“I wanted to go in another direction and say, ‘This is food. This is how it affects us socially, and this is what you can do through food to change the present and affect the future.’” The book took shape in a few iterations over the years, but eventually Badani wanted to produce something affordable (the paperback goes for $24.99 on Amazon).

Badani calls <i>Comestible</i> an "ecological manifesto."
Badani calls Comestible an “ecological manifesto.”Credit: Courtesy Pat Badani

It’s seven chapters over 86 pages in which her manipulated food photos take the form of celestial representatives of the days of the week. The aforementioned mung bean arrangement is Mercury—Thursday—which is titled “Liberalized Trade.” The dish’s straight stripes of brightly colored vegetables also assume the form of an antiflag with “no recognized constitution” that is forbidden to be printed on the side of a coffee mug. At the end of the week a bloody smear of pomegranate (Saturn, Saturday) stands in for every food neuroses humans have suffered since Adam choked on the apple Eve gave him.

 A breakfast of crunchy mealworms with almonds, cherries, and pumpkin seeds (Moon, Monday) accompanies a list of insects eaten around the world, assigned to contemporary chefs who’ve dabbled in edible arthropods. “You have these new chefs creating these yummy looking recipes for the contemporary foodie, whereas in most cultures these ways of eating have been incorporated for millennia.”

Badani raises a lot of issues in the book: sustainability, accessibility, food safety and insecurity, and culture, but it’s peppered with absurdities; a Marinetti for the natural world. Not to give too much away, but “Icky Miss Muffet” ends up eating the spider, and “lost lovers use rooftop-grown greens to detox their livers of failed relationships.” 

“Most manifestos are dead serious,” she says. “Recipe books have a very authoritative tone, too. I’m not redoing Marinetti because I’m absolutely not promoting what he’s promoting. But he was outrageous. They were all outrageous. They used humor to shock people into action. And that is something I really do enjoy.”  v