Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Sunday Dinner Questionnaire: Bari Ziperstein

Bari Ziperstein (center) arranges a mandala of plates at LACMA, November 2010.
I first heard about Bari Ziperstein when she circulated a "Call for Plates" through the newsletter of a local arts organization.  Bari was in the process of collecting 1, 095 plates-- the number of plates that one person would use in a year if they ate three meals a day-- each off a different plate.  On a specified day, Bari planned to take the collected plates to LACMA to create a plate mandala as part of the ongoing exhibition EATLACMA.   I'd already seen the show at LACMA and loved it, mostly because it brought together so many artists and artists' collectives who worked with ideas about food, art, and community.  Bari's project was called "1,095: One Year's Worth of Other People's Plates" and it was billed as "part swap meet, part sculpture".  I loved the idea of collecting plates from hundreds of people and gathering those people together to watch the stacking up of the plates into a mandala.  The best part was that participants could select a new plate to take home in exchange for each plate they contributed.  It played on the human need to connect with others, as well as the desire to collect pretty objects.

My own artistic practice has taken a back seat to my television career, marriage, teaching, and motherhood, but I figured I could certainly take the time to help a fellow artist.  Especially an artist who focused on the complexities of domesticity, a topic that's been rolling around in my brain quite a bit lately.  I immediately sent Bari an e-mail asking if she needed more plates.  She did.

A few days later, I rounded up my daughters in full Halloween regalia and descended on Bari's studio with a stack of plates.  Entering Bari's studio felt like home, but I was now a stroller-wheeling mother of two, trying to steer a tiara-wearing toddler over a series of power cords while keeping a death-grip on an overly curious four-year old in a pink princess costume.  My life as a working artist seemed very long ago.  I turned over my plates and tried not to show my dismay when Bari asked if she could photograph me and the girls with our plates.  I'd eagerly volunteered to help and this was part of the deal, no matter how out of place we appeared.   Photograph taken, we left in a whirlwind of chiffon that seemed to amuse Bari and her studio-mates.

On the day of the event, I was excited to see Bari's project come together and find a few new plates to bring home as souvenirs.  The event was energetic and somewhat chaotic, as art events tend to be.  When we got home I contemplated how to use my new plates and where to display them.  They are a nice reminder of the day and I think of Bari when I serve my children vegetables in the tiny corn plate I selected.  But the best part of the project was meeting Bari.  I asked her to participate in the Sunday Dinner Questionnaire and now that the dust of the LACMA event has settled, she's sent in her response.  I look forward to reporting back on Bari's future projects and her investigations in the world of food and beyond.  Thanks, Bari!

The Official Sunday Dinner Questionnaire: Bari Ziperstein

1.   What is your favorite food to eat?  Why?
I love to nosh here and there through out the day, convenience is key but with out compromising healthy vegetarian choices.  You might find me stuck in LA traffic or at the studio pleasantly enjoying one of my favorite snacks: sliced gala apples with creamy peanut butter; celery with TJ’s tahini sauce; Mary’s Gone Crackers with hummus; shredded diakon with homemade miso dressing or Greek yogurt with homemade granola.  The combination of these textures sets the tone for me: crunchy and crisp slathered with the smooth, sweet, and tart. Having been vegan for 7 years, in 2010 I made the transition back to being a pescatarian to add more protein to my diet and well frankly my hair was falling out.

What is your favorite food to cook?  How often and under what circumstances do you make it?
Is assembling a sandwich cooking? I adore gathering the perfect ingredients to assemble a tasty lavash wrap. On my assembly line I’ll combine homemade babaganoush, parsley, sharp Irish cheese, arugala, tofurky and top if off with horseradish honey mustard from the Minnesota State Fair.  I’ve spent more time picking out mustard than jeans, if only there was a food group for mustard!

Who or what is your greatest culinary influence?  Why is he/she/ it an inspiration to you?
I work freelance for the experimental filmmaker Pat O’Neill is his lovely craftsman home in Pasadena where I have had the privilege of becoming dear friends with his wife Beverly O’Neill.   Often, I’ll find cookbooks on my desk with a post-it note on it saying ‘For Bari’ – it’s such a sweet gesture! We pour over the recipes at her kitchen table chatting about food, politics, and what to cook for dinner.
Beverly will pull me out of my office and say come here, I have a taste test for you in the kitchen.  She’ll have three spoons out, three small taster bowls, accompanied by three different olive oils and a glass of water.  Sampling each olive oil, I’ll be guided through the various choices, which yield dramatic differences in color, aroma, and flavor.  Because of Beverly, I’ve developed a bad hankering for McEvoy Ranch extra virgin olive oil, costing almost $35 a bottle!  I’m currently milking my bottle, for it’s lasted me over 6 months.

The contested colander and Bari's beer stein.
4.   What is your favorite kitchen utensil and why do you love it?
In my art practice, I’m interested in the everyday domestic object and I question the attachments – be psychological, economical or emotional – that consumers tends to place on spaces and objects that adorn them.  In my own kitchen, I’m sentimental about two kitchen items:  a 70’s orange plastic colander and a glass beer stein with Bari Lynn etched into it.  
When I moved to CA in 2002 to attend Cal Arts for my MFA, my mother generously bought me my first set of pots and pans along with various other kitchen gadgets at our local Marshal Fields department store.  But when I went to ask for the 70’s orange plastic colander stored in the far reaches of the lower kitchen cabinets – her face filled with alarm.  This colander is an icon of 70’s design during the Tupperware revolution that took over suburban homes in the 70s and was used to strain many of the meals my mother cooked for the family.  Once my mother was willing to relinquish the colander, my older brother and I fought over who would get it.  Funny how my brother and I both had a similar affinity towards this object.  I recall sneaking it out of the house on the day of the big move tucked between this and that.  On a trip to CA, my brother found the orange colander while cooking one evening – holding the colander up in the air saying ‘A HA!’

When I was 10, my father took my brother and I on a road trip from the suburbs of Chicago to Tennessee to visit Chattanooga, Dollywood, and to see historic railroad cars.  Similar to Disney Land, Dollywood has rides, food, and various tchotchke souvenir stands. But what it doesn’t have is a Dolly Parton Museum featuring glass cased top-heavy performance outfits or a glass-etching kiosk.  My father bought me a hearty glass beer stein with my named etched into it in old english font: Bari Lynn.  Twenty-two years later, a beer stein seems like an odd gift for a 10 year old but today I use it daily for my morning tea.  A sweet reminder of past adventures with my family.

5.  What did you eat for dinner this past weekend?
I spent Thanksgiving weekend in the Desert Hot Springs with some lovely ladies soaking in the mineral pools, cooking in our kitchenette, hiking the freezing Joshua Tree landscape, discussing friendships, art, and bonding over our shared experiences over lovely meals.  A thread of emails passed between the three of us prior to our departure about food, planning out who would bring what – resulting in a list of meals for the weekend even before our departure! It was clear when we arrived, that we planned with our stomachs in mind bringing too much food.

We tail gated at the Sky Village Swap before attending a High Desert Test Site event, feasting on veggies from a LA farmer’s market with tahini and improvised sandwiches.  After a night of soaking in the hot springs, we whipped up a collaborative meal of freshly stewed tomatoes, green beans, basil and garlic over whole-wheat pasta with a bottle of red wine. Accompanied by a luscious raw kale salad with avocado, cherry tomatoes, lemon, and olive oil.  While soaking in the pools the next day, the owner of the small hotel asked us what we made the night before – for the smell of garlic made him salivate!

6.  When you were growing up, did you eat Sunday dinner or another meal the brought your friends and family together on a regular basis?  If so, what did you eat?
Sunday dinner’s in the Ziperstein household was not a routine, but the Jewish holidays were a time of celebration and gorging.  My mother’s famous Swedish meatballs and secret sauce was a classic dish, the sweet smell of chili sauce filled our Chicago suburban home.  My brother and I were assigned the task of rolling hundreds of meatballs, all the while in our pjs and watching cartoons.  To make time go by faster, we made a secret game of putting holes in a few meatballs and during dinner if you found it, my brother and I would have a secret silent look we’d give each other from across the table.  We still giggle about it today!

7.  Do you have a garden?  If so, what do you grow in it?
The combination of apartment living and a hectic schedule hasn’t allowed me for much garden exploration in Los Angeles.  Craving a more local and seasonal diet, a few years ago I started trading small ceramic sculptures for a monthly harvest from my friend Vi Ha’s lush Chavez Ravine garden.  It’s been a wonderful exchange from the obvious monetary savings to the conversations surrounding food with a culinary expert.   Through out the year, I’ll have hearty bundles of herbs, collard greens, chives, cherry tomatoes, lettuce, wild arugala, kale and my favorite perennial green called sorrel.

8.  What is your ultimate food fantasy?
In the 80’s movie Return to Oz, upon her arrival in OZ Dorothy discovers a tree that grows lunch box pales of boxed lunches with tuna sandwiches.  It’s a fantastical scene where modern living and leisure combine to create a hallucination of Dorothy’s fantasy.   If I could grow a similar tree, it would have loafs of steaming sourdough bread hanging from its limbs lathered in earth balance buttery spread.  I’d likely to also have to invent that my bread tree is magically carb free but doesn’t compromise on taste.

Bari's Grandmother's Jell-O mold.
9.  If you could choose to have any person living or dead prepare a meal for you, who would it be?  What would you want to eat?
I’d give anything to have a sliced of my grandmother’s chilled strawberry and banana Jell-O.  For ten years in any weather, she’d leave a weekly Jell-O mold on our front porch between the storm door; it was her youngest son’s (my father) favorite treat.  Even after she had a stroke and was unable to drive herself, she’d have her live-in nurse make the Jell-O by following the box instructions and drive it over to us. I later learned from my Aunt that her recipe was straight from the box; despite trying to replicate the recipe it never tastes quite the same.  I have her metal Jell-O mold handing above my sink, a commemorative plaque of sorts.

10.  Fill in the blank:  "The most important element of a good meal is __________."
Texture and company.


  1. We had that same colander! Bet Mom still has it... worked great, and was super sturdy in the sink or in a bowl. Might have to try and talk Mom out of it next time I go home before the siblings think of it! Great post, thanks to you both.

  2. I've been looking for my mom's yellow version, but no luck so far...