On the corner of Bayard and Lorimer Street in Williamsburg, the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) is a quiet, unassuming structure whose only distinguishing exterior feature is the bright red door that beckons guests inside. But inside the museum, food history is being made. Thirty-nine guests—mostly women—have come together on this Wednesday night to recreate Judy Chicago’s 1970s feminist artwork The Dinner Party, which is a permanent exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Chicago’s Dinner Party arranges an elaborate dinner banquet on a triangular table. The table hosts place settings for 39 iconic female figures throughout history. These settings include gold china and brightly-painted porcelain plates in the shapes of butterflies and vulvas. The artwork also displays the names of 999 other women in gold inscription on the tiled floor beneath the table.
“I thought, ‘What a fabulous concept to turn into a dinner…’,” explained Victoria Flexner, founder of Brooklyn-based Edible History. “Because it’s literally 39 incredible women sitting around a table having a dinner party. So we decided to take four of the women from the dinner and turn each of their stories into a course this evening.”
The guests in attendance span ages and backgrounds, from millennials fresh out of NYU to older culinary historians. I take my seat at the end of one of the three tables lined with black tablecloth, which have been pushed close together in imitation of Chicago’s original artwork. Next to each of the place settings rest placards of other iconic women throughout history. I get Marcella, who was an ardent devotee during the early days of the Christian church. I’m not sure Marcella would have drank a gin cocktail, which I’m sipping now, but I take it in stride.
Flexner introduces the first course of our night and the woman in whose honor we have gathered here tonight. Sappho, from ancient Greece, was one of the greatest poets of her time, Flexner tells us. The Greek island of Lesbos, on which Sappho resided, is where the word ‘lesbian’ derives its origins, as Sappho was known for her penchant for women. Only one complete poem of Sappho’s survives today—the rest of her poems exist in fragments and are often missing words or sentences—underscoring Flexner’s point of how little we still know about these historical figures. “Fears of women and sex were projected onto Sappho,” says Flexner. Since Sappho lived on an island, servers carry plates of oysters doused in pungent green cumin sauce with a side of blood sausage and honey-infused white wine for our first course.
Flexner looked into cookbooks from the time period of each woman to craft the meals. The event is part of a months-long dinner series taking place during Edible History’s residency with MOFAD, which will run through November. Edible History is a four-year-old supper club that has hosted dinners in Brooklyn with the goal of bringing “the past to life through food and drink,” according to Flexner. The club’s executive chef, Jay Reifel, collaborated with MOFAD chef John Hutt to produce tonight’s dinner.
The evening’s second course is dedicated to Christine de Pizan, who lived in Italy and France from the late 1300s to the early 1400s. Her father was a prominent astrologer to French king Charles V, which ought to have assured some financial security for Pizan. But she suffered tragedy after tragedy, starting with becoming a widow at a young age. She became a writer to support her family and wound up working as a copyist in a book store, which was an unorthodox pursuit for women of that era. Flexner also shares a tale of how Pizan got caught up in the 14th-century equivalent of a Twitter feud over misogyny, which garners a few laughs from the audience. In honor of Pizan, we feast on stuffed capon: chicken leg wrapped in crisp parma ham sitting in a pool of saffron. It reminds me of an old-timey turducken, but Flexner notes that the dish’s strong flavoring reflects the booming spice trade of the time.
Prior to serving the next course, the chefs roll a suckling pig out in full display of the guests before carting it off to be carved up for our meal dedicated to the third lady of the night: Eleanor of Aquitaine. She became Queen Consort of France when she was married off at a young age to King Louis VII, who in additional to being a religious zealot, was also prone to irrational outbursts. This did not sit well with strong-willed Eleanor. Ultimately, Eleanor’s marriage to Louis was dissolved and she remarried to Henry of Anjou, who would later succeed to the throne of England. But their love wouldn’t last. Following a rebellion by their sons—which Eleanor likely encouraged with the support of her ex-husband—Henry imprisoned Eleanor for 16 years. To toast Eleanor’s feisty spirit, we chow down on the roast pig from earlier, which has been chopped up, coated in a thick, peppery black sauce and heaped on chewy, burnt bread.
The dessert is as unusual as the rest of the meal, as I see when the chefs bring out an edible display of the martyr Saint Agatha. Agatha’s outstretched hand bears a platter of two breasts, in reference to her own bosom, which was brutally chopped off after she refused the advances of a Roman prefect. Modeling that display, we dive into a suet pudding of raisins and molasses, aliet dulcia of pine nuts, and pepper and minne di santa agata of ricotta and sugar. All three desserts come in the shape of miniature breasts. However, our fourth course is not in honor of Saint Agatha, but Sojourner Truth. Born Isabella Baumfree in Ulster County, New York, she was a slave who escaped to her freedom in the early 1800s. She changed her name to Sojourner Truth and embarked upon a new chapter of her life in middle age. She became one of the best-known abolitionists and women’s rights activists of her time, setting forth on nationwide tours to share her personal stories of the evils of slavery.
Alongside each of the four-course meals, bottles of red wine flank the tables, keeping us in good spirits—literally—throughout the night. The conversation flows around me, ranging from discussions of Jane the Virgin to praises of comedian Ali Wong. It’s truly a feminist reckoning of both the past and present.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that there is only one known poem of Sappho that exists today. The article has since been amended to state that there is only one complete poem of Sappho to survive to the present day.