Q&A with Ami Bouhassane for International Women's Day
On May 15th 2018 West Dean College will host a special event with author Ami Bouhassane to celebrate the publication of Lee Miller: a Life with Food, Friends, and Recipes as part of the College's series of Author Talks, co-ordinated by the Creative Writing department. Programme Leader and author, Martine McDonagh interviewed Ami for International Women's Day 2018.
MM: There's no doubt that your grandmother, Lee Miller was an exceptional woman in many ways, but in what ways do you think she was typical of her generation, and what can women learn from her today?
AB: I don't think she was very typical of her generation. I think that one of the reasons women today find her interesting and relatable is because she was pushing the boundaries of the male dominated society and had a mindset that would be more in tune with the 21st century women, she was ahead of her time. Through her photography, writing, cooking and life story there are many moments that she challenges or refuses to abide by the society norm at the time. In her surrealist photography she encourages others to look at things differently with images like a severed breast served up on a dinner plate in a table setting at Paris Vogue studio, as a comment on the objectification of women. In her manuscript text written when she was covering events during WWII she questions the war and is intensely personally interested in ordinary people and their survival. She pushed against the authorities by violating their female war correspondent terms, which, in contrast to male counterparts, did not permit women to enter combat zones. She is thought to have been the only allied female correspondent to cover combat during the war.
She was also a mistress of re-invention and self-transformation who made a lot of her own luck. She also had some truly awful moments in her life too that in the end she managed to come to her own terms with.
Her core beliefs in truth, justice and freedom seem to be behind most of what she created and her life choices. I'm not sure what women today can 'learn' from her, but I do hope that maybe she gives both women and men extra strength if needed or inspires them to believe in themselves, their own capabilities and that change is possible.
MM: While writing The Lee Miller Cookbook, what did you learn about her that you didn't already know?
AB: How deeply engrossed in cooking she became. She completely applied herself to it in all ways and much earlier than I thought. It was nowhere near the jokey hobby her cooking is often written off as. I knew about her collection of 2,000 cookbooks but not about the huge effort she put into learning how to be a gourmet cook, attending Cordon Bleu cooking college in Paris & London, devising her own recipes which she redrafted countless times. Then there's the number of cooking competitions, her love of new ingredients, gadgets and food from other countries. The care and thought that went into the dinner and pleasing her guests down to recording details such as what foods some didn't like or couldn't eat. I knew her focus on cooking had helped her emerge from the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) she had experienced after her return from covering the war in Europe and post-natal depression but not how.
What also surprised me were her female friendships. Being used to seeing her operating in the context of a male world and being photographed by men I never pictured or thought of her as having a circle of female friends in her post war years or how some of them like Bettina McNulty (House & Garden journalist) and the artists Dorothea Tanning and Valentine Penrose went out of their way to be supportive to Lee when she was struggling.
MM: Lee Miller's menus were often wonderfully eclectic - where did she find inspiration for her recipes?
AB: Everywhere! She was like a magpie collecting interesting titbits from all over. Her cookery scrapbooks & notebooks that we have are a great wealth of clues to how she worked and what interested her. As well as recipes from friends, and others learnt from making-do with rationing, or from when she was reporting during the war, there are some from her family in America and of course others from well-known cookbooks. There are recipes from her travels to other countries or from people who visited from abroad or others like the plumber, who she wouldn't allow to finish installing the central heating until he taught her dishes from his home in Poland. She tracked several newspaper and magazine chefs too - she even had a few recipes from Playboy magazines! Jumbled in with these are cuttings about interesting new ingredients, cooking tips, gift ideas and short articles about strange things that could be good talking points at dinner should the conversation dry up.
MM: In what ways did her experience as a set designer and expertise as a photographer inform the content and presentation of her meals?
AB: She knew how to present, she had done it all her life, not just as a photographer and in set design but as a model and in her journalism too. She could execute a brief, create a mood, with lights, colour, positioning, surroundings and knew how to express that sensation artistically. She also understood people and how to present to them so they would react in the way she envisaged.
MM: Lee Miller is quoted as saying 'Cooking is pure therapy'. How do you think her combined culinary talents and love of entertaining helped to feed her own needs, particularly after WWII?
AB: When you have seen so much pain and destruction, to then go home and be expected to start covering the next season's fashion must have seemed so irrelevant. After WWII she really struggled with what she had viewed through her camera, and I believe that the association of what she had witnessed in places such as the concentration camps made it harder for her to continue to work as a photographer in peacetime. By the early fifties she stopped working as a photojournalist and from that point onwards her camera mostly recorded artist friends at work or visiting. She was however an incredibly creative, intelligent person who needed an outlet. Cooking slowly filled the gap as she started by dabbling with preserving fruits and vegetables during the post-war rationing at Farley Farm, and then, when she realised she enjoyed it and found it interesting she got more and more into all aspects of it and entertaining. It allowed her to still be creative, as well as enjoy food with her friends, both of which had become more important to her after she had experienced what it was like to lose them. Emerging from her mental struggle wasn't a linear thing, she had good days and bad periods but slowly you can see through her material that the bad days started to come progressively less often.
MM: Of all the recipes in the Cookbook, which is your personal favourite and why?
AB: It's a tough contest between Cauliflower Breasts and Florence's Chocolate Cake. The Cauliflower Breasts, which are two cauliflowers on a platter covered with a light pink sauce, garnished around the edge with devilled eggs, to me is her surrealist side playing with making us see things differently. It's funny, showing her sense of humour as well as connecting with earlier comments in her work about the objectification of the women's body. This time she makes you eat it!
Florence's Chocolate Cake probably wins marginally, not because I'm a pig, in fact I don't like chocolate much but because of its history and the tradition it became in our family. To me it symbolises another important aspect that cooking helped heal for Lee and that was her relationship with her mother, Florence.
They were distant, and throughout her life Lee never truly connected with her mother, until after the war when they found the common ground of cooking. Florence, at Lee's request, started sharing recipes with Lee from her American and Canadian family. This built up into a way they could interact regularly and expanded into friendship in the last few years before Florence died. Florence's chocolate cake was one of those shared recipes and became the cake made for Lee's son, Antony, each year on his birthday. Antonythen continued to do this for us, Lee's grandchildren - only he would make the cake into weird and wonderful sculptures that were a surprise each birthday - and now we continue this tradition with our own children.
More information and tickets for Ami Bouhassane's Author Talk and Buffet are available here.
Find out more about Lee Miller: A Life with Food, Friends and Recipes.