A Fine Pairing

F or Joan Fitzsimmons, it began with a shirt box—the shallow, rectangular kind you might get from a department store. Only this one was full of food. Her mother “had scraps of hand-written recipes, snippets from newspapers,” Fitzsimmons recalls. “That was the system of organization. You’d open this shirt box, and you’d thumb through looking for that recipe you want.”

For Jeanne Criscola, it began with a collection of her mother’s books that she left her own mark on at an early age. “I found all these pages where I had written, as a child, ‘Jeannie is great,’” she says, laughing. “And I must have been in those books quite a bit ’cause there was a lot [of my writing]!”

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These were their first cookbooks. Now the two New Haven artists have published their own, A Mouth Full: The Re-Cookbook, a delightful walk through more than 60 of their favorite recipes along with the stories, memories and improvisations that go with them. QR codes even geolocate the travels of the recipes from one place and one cook to another.

Longtime acquaintances, Criscola and Fitzsimmons first teamed up at Fitzsimmons’s dining room table over a 2014 project for CT (un)Bound, a book art exhibition at Artspace. Fitzsimmons and Criscola’s own book art focused, of course, on cookbooks. They collected beloved recipes from family and friends found on index cards, an office memo, a receipt, a bridge score pad. They gathered family photographs, newspaper clippings, vintage advertisements, tattered recipe books. They reproduced these treasures as sturdier archival documents and stored them in an orange file box, recreating the sense of that shirt box cookbook from Fitzsimmons’s childhood.

Around the same time, they undertook a performance piece for City-Wide Open Studios set in the Goffe Street Armory kitchen—Fitzsimmons still looks overwhelmed when she talks about cleaning it for the event—where they served food to passersby and invited them to talk about it as they ate together. “We wanted people to come and taste the food and start a conversation about family recipes,” Criscola explains. Other performances and events followed. A cookbook was the next logical step.

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A Mouth Full—called a “re-cookbook” because it offers a fresh take on their family cookbooks and the very idea of a cookbook itself—offers up homey recipes from soup to nuts: a Peter Rabbit cocktail (garnished with pickled carrot), Guacamole (as first introduced to Fitzsimmons by her Californian husband in the 1970s), Chicken Averna (as served at Criscola’s wedding), Hot Fudge Sauce (served over whatever you want, but especially Criscola’s mother’s cream puffs), traditional Easter Bread, Midwestern-style Beef Brisket, Fitzsimmons’s Great Aunt Mar’s Praline Cookies.

Recipes are accompanied by their origin stories, like the one for Fitzsimmons’s Lace Oatmeal Cookies, her mother’s favorite, which “came from my father’s mother, whom we called Granny to distinguish her from Grandma. My Aunt Joan told me that Granny (her mother) had an operatic voice and that she had designs on singing professionally, but gave it up when she married my grandfather.” Their wedding photograph—bride in a tea-length dress with a veil trailing on the floor, groom in a suit and tie with a rose in his buttonhole—appears next to a photograph of a single cookie on a Wedgewood plate.

The history of cookbooks was one of the drivers for the project, Fitzsimmons says. At one time, recipes were mostly taught and remembered or handwritten and passed from cook to cook. Then came the 20th-century phenomenon of formal, published cookbooks. Today, it’s common practice to search the internet for a dinner recipe. And the range of what Americans cook has evolved as well. Back in the day, Criscola’s grandmother and mother went to the store once a week, got what they needed and didn’t improvise much, she says. Today, Fitzsimmons points out, you can buy sushi in nearly every grocery store. “The palate of the ordinary American and the food experience reflects this cultural shift,” she says.

Even though A Mouth Full is a cookbook, it’s also—maybe even foremost—“about what a cookbook represents,” Fitzsimmons says. Readers are invited not only to “hybridize” the recipes, as Criscola puts it, but also to submit their iterations, images and stories to A Mouth Full’s online version. Some of the entries in the hard copy cookbook are about that hybridization process, like a roast chicken recipe from a friend that’s traced back to its origins and forward to Criscola’s variations.

Criscola cooked professionally once upon a time and now carefully documents everything, sometimes hoping to trace her way back to a family dish she remembers that has no written recipe. “If you made a memory with certain food, you’re always going to be trying to remake that memory,” she says. Fitzsimmons didn’t cook until adulthood and prefers to improvise every time. “I just like making things,” she says. “That’s why I like to cook.”

The two seem well-matched. And they share one other food connection. The Hamden art studio Fitzsimmons shares with her husband, Alan Neider, used to be an Italian grocery—one of the places where Criscola’s family would shop before bringing the ingredients home to cook.

A Mouth Full: The Re-Cookbook
by Jeanne Criscola and Joan Fitzsimmons
www.criscoladesign.com/books/a-mouth-full-the-re-cookbook

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1, featuring Jeanne Criscola and Joan Fitzsimmons, photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 2-4 photographed by Dan Mims.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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