Literary recipe: Corn cakes with strawberry jalapeño compote inspired by "Widow Basquiat: A Love Story"
The story of Jean-Michel Basquiat is intensely dramatic. A dramatic rise from the depths of poverty and an unstable family life to extraordinary artistic fame, a dramatic abuse of drugs until a climactic overdose, a dramatic set of relationships that involves wounds and insults and bizarre bathing rituals and even the one and only Madonna.
And yet, miraculously, Widow Basquiat: A Love Story is subtle, thoughtful and balanced. Perhaps this is because Jennifer Clement, the author, is a close personal friend of Suzanne Mallouk, the titular widow herself. True friends always know how to see the grey area.
Clement takes us through a beautiful and horrifying study of addiction — with neither a judgmental nor a forgiving eye. She manages to make a tortured love sympathetic. She shows how noble principles (education, fighting racism) can coexist with reckless personal decisions (wild spending, promiscuity used as a spiteful tool). She avoids the temptation to crown certain characters white knights — no one is free of exposed faults.
Because of these complex portrayals, no one character is immensely likable. Instead they are all variations on the theme of feeling lost.
Basquiat doesn’t belong in either of two extreme worlds — his roots and his eventual peers — but is unwilling to find middle ground. He rages against racism, but commercializes his graffiti roots. He despises the white art houses that patronize him, but feels superior thanks to his commercial success. He paints in expensive suits to prove he doesn’t care about money and status, but flaunts his cash at elite restaurants. He escapes into drug-induced delirium. He loves and celebrates his friends one moment, then neglects and distrusts them the next.
Basquiat’s massive ego also separates him from others, as do his strange hours, hermit-like stints, drug problems and all-around inconsistency. He is tempestuous, spontaneous, flaky, charming. He is chaos personified. As Clement puts it, “Jean-Michel is made for the night, like a mole. The daylight hurts, the sun hurts, but at night he is transformed into a magician, a Merlin with everything wound up tight and sparkling.”
The story’s muse and on-again-off-again-but-true-love Mallouk desperately tries to find meaning, independence and direction, but finds herself lost in the current of passion — whether romantic, political or mundane. She is slightly steadier than her lover, but follows her whims rather than her reason. She is successful at anything she tries — from waitressing to painting to singing to seduction — but enjoys her status as an It Girl more than she enjoys focusing or commitment. She never fully frees herself of Basquiat’s influence, and even the profession she eventually chooses is born of their shared experience.
Widow Basquiat: A Love Story lives somewhere in between diary, poetry and prose. Written in chapters with cryptic titles, it ignores pure chronology, makes heavy use of analogy and includes long confession-like passages from Mallouk. It’s a gorgeous book and an unfortunately quick read — I was very sorry when it was over.
To savor it a bit longer, I set out to create something bold, beautiful and a little bit stormy. I hope you enjoy my corn cakes with strawberry-jalapeño compote.
CORN CAKES WITH STRAWBERRY JALAPEÑO COMPOTE
For the compote:
- 1 pint of strawberries, cubed
- 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and diced
- juice from 1 lime
- 3 tablespoons water
For the corn cakes
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 1/4 cups flour
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 3/4 cup yellow cornmeal
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- a pinch of salt
- 3/4 cup milk
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 1/4 canola oil
- 1 egg
To make the compote
Place your berries, sugar and water in a saucepan and stir over medium heat until the mixture is bubbling. Add your jalapeño and simmer for about 15 minutes until it reaches your desired thickness, stirring occasionally. Add in your lime juice and cook for another 3 to 5 minutes — now give it a taste! If it’s too acidic, add an extra dash of sugar and cook just a tad longer.
To make the corn cakes
Add the butter to a skillet and heat it up to medium-high.
In a large bowl, combine all dry ingredients. In a smaller bowl, whisk all the wet ingredients together. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix until just blended.
Pour 1/4 cup of your batter into the skillet for each corn cake. It should take about 2 minutes of cooking per side — you’ll know it's done when it’s golden brown.
Adapted from The Food Network