“At the age of six, I wanted to be a cook.” So begins the introduction to the new edition of Les Diners de Gala, but the quote is not completed. It’s from his autobiography The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, and it continues: “At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily since.” Nevertheless, aged 68, Dali returned to cooking with this book, which collects his paintings, drawings and recipes. For a long time, the book was only for very serious Dali fans – a signed first edition, if you could track one down, went for as much as $25,000 – but it has now been republished by Taschen, allowing anyone to hold a Dali dinner.
The question is, do you want to?
Food was clearly important to Dali, and not just when he was hungry. He said that the melting timepieces of his most famous painting, The Persistence of Memory, were inspired by a Camembert melting in the sun. Lobsters, too, were an important symbolic device, most notably in his Lobster Telephone, but also in live events and photographs, in which he covered the genitals of naked female models with crustaceans. “I do not understand why,” he wrote in his Secret Life, “when I ask for a grilled lobster in a restaurant, I am never served a cooked telephone.”
There are no recipes for telephones in Les Diners de Gala. It’s a queasy, meaty read, interspersing visceral paintings and collages with recipes for frog pasties and veal with snails. The paintings are horrific, mixing religious iconography with distended and mutilated forms. Almost as unappetising is the food photography, which, in the tradition of 1970s food photography, looks like the kind of thing you’d find in the window of an elderly kebab shop. The chapter on eggs and seafood, Les Cannibalismes d’Automne, opens with a painting of an armless Joan of Arc in a dress made of crayfish, hosing a pile of corpses with her own blood while what look like kidneys rain from the night sky. It’s not exactly At Home With Mary Berry.
The gastronomic challenge of Les Diners de Gala is not in the technical difficulty of the cooking, then, but in maintaining an appetite amid the pictures of self-carving limbs and priapic dwarves. This was clearly not a problem for Dali, who found something powerfully stimulating about the sight of blood. Brian Sewell’s first encounter with Dali, recalled in his documentary Dirty Dali, was outside a butcher’s shop in Catalonia, where Brian was making the most of his beach holiday by slicing up “the windpipe and lungs of some wretched animal” to feed to some stray dogs he had befriended.
For my own Dali dinner, I made no attempt to recreate the first hour of Sewell’s first visit to Dali’s Catalan home, during which he, Dali and Dali’s wife and muse, Gala, sat separately in three huge white eggshells in the garden, shouting at each other. Nor did I have the resources to recreate what followed. After a few drinks in the eggshells – perhaps the Casanova Cocktail, the spiced brandy recipe that is the only drink to be found in Les Diners de Gala – Dali led Sewell to an olive grove, where the critic was induced to climb naked into the armpit of a 70-foot-long statue of Christ that Dali had built from trash, its ribcage formed from the rotting hulk of a fishing boat, and to masturbate while Dali took photographs.
It is certainly true that there is an unacceptable amount of fly tipping outside my flat, but it’s not enough to construct 70 feet of iconography. Also, it’s probably a lot easier to masturbate al fresco on a summer’s evening on the Catalan coast than it is on an November in south London. None of my guests offered to try.
The problem of resources extended also to ingredients. The Penge branch of Sainsbury’s didn’t have the dozen larks necessary for recipe number 73, steamed and stuffed larks, so I opted for number two: Oasis leek pie. It’s a nice leek and bacon pie which Dali sends on a whacky journey eastwards by adding three teaspoons of curry powder and a pastry island, complete with a palm tree made from a leek. It looks, one of my guests offered, like the sort of thing that would get you kicked off Bake Off in the first round. The curry powder may have been enough, 40 years ago, to make a dish taste foreign, but to modern, globalised palates the leeks, bacon and cheese are the overwhelming flavours.
The chapter on “aphrodisiacs” includes the Casanova Cocktail – which, with six tablespoons of brandy per glass, would no doubt have been grist to Brian Sewell’s erotic mill. It also contains a recipe for Aphrodite’s Puree, which is less of a collar-loosener: you would need to be a committed surrealist for instructions such as “crush the head of the cod” and “the fish is rather difficult to mash” to create any stirrings below pan level. That’s not to say that it’s horrible. Once cooked, Aphrodite’s puree is a salty, Catalan-style brandade that is great on toast. The photo in Les Diners makes it look like a pile of wet cement.
I didn’t ask anyone to stay for brunch the next day to try Dali’s Avocado Toasts. These sound innocuous until you read the ingredients, which include a lamb’s brain and three tablespoons of tequila. If anything can end the Instagram community’s pathological obsession with avocados for brunch, the surprise of finding oneself chewing on an insufficiently mashed sheep’s amygdala ought to do it.
Most of the recipes in Les Diners assume a certain familiarity with techniques – number 122, The Breast of Venus, gives the ingredients but not the technique for making a Genoise sponge cake – and many have the feel not of recipes designed to be cooked by the reader, but by the reader’s cook. Many are in fact not actually Dali’s recipes, but recipes donated by his favourite Paris restaurants, Maxim’s and Lasserre. There are also some classic menus from other restaurants, including perhaps the famous crazy-times menu of all time — the night in 1870 when the restaurant Voisin, lacking access to conventional meats because Paris was under seige by the Prussians, turned the animals of the city zoo into a tasting menu that included consommee of elephant, haunch of wolf and bear chops. Dali would no doubt have loved to have been there.
But perhaps the most revealing of Dali’s recipes are the least surreal. Here and there are hints of the person Dali might actually have been, in his own time. His public image — in person, the celebrity surrealist who introduced himself to the actress Lillian Gish by throwing an anteater at her, and on canvas, the fearless illustrator of his own nightmares – must have been exhausting to uphold. Are the homely recipes for Gratin of Provence and Toffee with Pine Cones (a classic Catalan candy of pine nuts) Dali’s night off from being Dali? They’re almost certainly nicer to cook and eat than Frog Cream or Peacock a l’Imperiale Dressed and Surrounded by Its Court.
After cooking a number of his recipes, I came to realise that while Dali’s art will always have the power to shock and appal, what surrealism existed in his food has been now overtaken by the modern world. My local One-Stop convenience store, for example, sells a product called Teddy Bear Sausage. Even Dali’s most outlandish confections of frogs and snails look pedestrian compared with a product made from the mechanically reclaimed meat of thousands of pigs, pureed, mixed with sodium diphosphate and shaped into a sandwich-ready meat-toy. The world of food has become dizzyingly unreal in the 43 years since Les Diners de Gala was first published. Perhaps, were he around today, Dali would have been a cook after all.