David Driskell on the Art of Cooking and Chowder
David C. Driskell’s approach to cooking and gardening is no different from that of creating art. “Cooking and gardening are like assembling a collage. It is a conversation and a continual improvisation, never the same, always dynamic and always so very good.” An international artist, a dedicated educator and a fine scholar, Driskell’s legacy is celebrated in the form of The David C. Driskell Center for the Study of Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and African Diaspora at the University of Maryland.
Born to sharecropper parents from Georgia more than eight decades ago, Driskell embodies a life of hard work, creativity, exploration and a profound appreciation of his dynamic African and African-American cultural heritage. In the field of black American art, Driskell is a pioneer. He continues to produce paintings, prints, woodcuts and collages. Read Driskell’s biography for a summary of his numerous awards and distinctions.
What I want to focus on is his passion for gardening and cooking. David and his wife, Thelma, fell in love with Maine in his early days as a student and later as a teacher at the renowned Skowhegan painting school in Skowhegan, Maine. So much so that they bought a house and land in Falmouth, Maine, more than 30 years ago.
In the past five years, I have visited David at his summer home in Maine on several occasions. I have wandered his annual garden in full bloom (it is situated in a unique microclimate, where he is able to grow collards) and listened to his stories of growing up with sharecropping parents and how he would make brilliant purple pokeberry paint as a child. During one stroll, David pointed out the pokeberries’ young leaves that they would collect and eat (though older leaves are considered toxic), mullein used for coughs, tansy for stomach disorders, nutritious purslane and stinging nettles to reduce inflammation. All the while he revealed that much of his food and healing knowledge he learned from his mother, Mary Lou Cloud Driskell, who was of Native American and African heritage. She possessed a vast store of ethnobotanical knowledge of the Carolinas, where he grew up.
Yearly, David journeys to Falmouth in the early spring and prepares the garden and then returns for the long summer, splitting his time between Maryland and Falmouth. In Falmouth, he slips into a slower pace, an unhurried rhythm that allows him to work in his studio, cultivate his annual summer garden, cook and host family and friends. When I visited, he exhibited his local knowledge about some Maine foodways and made a visitor like me some Maine-inspired fish chowder laced with his homegrown garden herbs on a perfectly lazy and breezy July afternoon.
David Driskell’s Seafood Chowder
1 to 2 tablespoons cooking oil (olive or safflower)
½ to 1 cup chopped onion
½ to 1 cup chopped celery
¾ pounds any type of white fish (haddock, pollock or cod), cut into small chunks
2 pounds Quahog clams (optional)
6 small potatoes peeled, lightly boiled and diced. Save the potato stock to thicken the chowder later.
2 cups fish head broth with bay leaf (optional), vegetable broth or water
2 cups light cream
¼ cup of flour for thickening
Pinch of sugar
Red pepper, salt and black pepper for seasoning
A sprinkle of finely chopped fresh parsley, tarragon or thyme
1. Add oil to a pan on medium heat.
2. Sauté onions until translucent, then add chopped celery and saute for another 1-2 minutes.
3. Add fish, clams, potatoes, broth, light cream and flour. Bring to a boil and simmer for 20-30 minutes.
4. Add a pinch of sugar and then season with red pepper, salt and black pepper.
5. Plate and sprinkle freshly chopped herbs of your choice.
Top photo: Artist and scholar David Driskell in the garden at his home in Falmouth, Maine. Credit: Sarah Khan