Marfa is difficult to get to. Fortunately, you can eat quite happily once you get there. The two are connected, though the explanation requires a little patience on your part.
Way out in the high desert of Texas, Marfa is several hours of fast driving from the nearest major airport. I flew into El Paso and, on a tip from a jazz trombonist who knows his food, provisioned myself with some quite good green chile tamales from Pepe’s (just off Hwy 10) before leaving town and heading north north-west. The next three hours were filled with desert, big-rig trucks, Spanish-language radio, and the judicious use of cruise control.
Judd, the minimal
Before he passed away in 1994, the sculptor Donald Judd established a constellation of studios, living spaces, and art installation spaces in Marfa. He’d passed through the town years before as an enlistee in the US Army and been struck by its remoteness from everything else. As a successful artist showing mostly in New York and other major urban centers, Judd’s Marfa experiment began as an attempt to create art that would, by virtue of its isolation and placement, force the viewer to experience it mindful of its location and context. Judd’s largest works are installed here, at the Chinati Foundation which he established in a decommissioned military base on the edge of town.
As you drive into the town center on Hwy 67, you pass the southwest corner of the Chinati Foundation’s property. Here, sixty enormous concrete boxes arrayed in fifteen clusters of three to five boxes along a kilometer-long north-south axis. The boxes are of the same external dimensions but each cluster’s boxes have different faces left open.
Behind the concrete works, in two retrofitted hangers, sit a hundred boxes fabricated of mill aluminum to the same external dimensions but with internal volumes permuted a hundred different ways. Both installations invite the viewer to explore the mutability and variety of light, shadow, and space.
Judd’s was a rigorous aesthetic of consistency and consideration in the making and doing of things. Those who were attracted to Judd’s Marfa shared or developed something of that same rigor. This is not to say that Marfa isn’t an art town, because it is. It just happens to be an art town that has only a minimal tolerance for fluff and tchotchkes.
And so we come to the food. Does the spirit of a place permeate its food, like a sort of genius loci? In Marfa, as in other places, maybe it does. For a town with a small population and only a handful of eateries, it was a happy surprise to find as many good places to eat as I did. Two in particular felt like they’d absorbed the spirit of place: simple but not simplistic, complex but not complicated, carefully considered.
Food truck eating
The Food Shark is a food truck that shows up Mondays through Fridays under a canopy next to the railway line running through downtown Marfa. Krista Steinhauer and Adam Bork bought the truck for a small sum and keep costs down by prepping in a kitchen they built in their duplex. They recently installed a dining car—it’s a refurbished schoolbus parked right next to the Food Shark and the railroad track—to accommodate those who find the large tables designed by Judd too exposed to the elements. This is a quirky operation.
Food Shark food is simple and to the point. It’s not trying to be something it isn’t. It is what it is. Here’s an example. One of the best sandwiches I’ve eaten in a long time was a Food Shark reuben (a special that day): pastrami on dense toasted rye, with sauerkraut, swiss, and Russian dressing, served with dilled potato salad. As a list of components, this reuben sounds just like any other. As a gestalt, perfectly made and full of balanced yet distinct flavours, warm in your hand and incredibly unpretentious, it has a weightiness that makes you go quiet, eat it instantly, and then think about it for a long time. On reuben day, the town was empty and flooded in desert sun, and a windstorm was blowing eddies of sand and tumbleweeds about.
Calm under pressure
I stayed in Marfa for only a few days before heading north-east to Austin. The last night I was in town, I went to Cochineal to see what most people told me was the upper end of the local restaurant scene. Just a few years old and three years in the making, Cochineal’s kitchen staff is tiny and consists entirely of Marfa natives trained by proprietors Tom Rapp and Toshi Sakihara (previously of Etats-Unis in New York). There’s been no turnover in the kitchen in the two years they’ve been open. I sat close to the pass and watched the sous-chefs working in the open kitchen through dinner. The dining room filled up up quickly and orders began to filter in faster and faster, but the kitchen action remained precise, quiet, coordinated, and (most pleasingly of all) unfailingly polite. Making the food well was as important as making the food good.
And the food was good. It was really good, and didn’t call attention to itself with fancy pyrotechnics. Handmade pasta dressed with oil, anchovies, tomatoes, and capers, then showered with grated Parmesan was simultaneously tender and delicate, robust and meaty. A veal chop was grilled a textbook medium-rare, served with with black olives, crisp pan-roasted potatoes and parsley. Warm date pudding both dense and light at the same time, and mildly sweet with the complex flavour of molasses and dried fruit; the pile of gently-whipped, nearly unsweetened cream alongside was exactly what the pudding wanted. [pullquote]The food had a clarity rare in an age afflicted with fads: it was carried by classic flavor combinations and superb execution. With a crisp, cold Sapporo, this joined my short list of nearly-perfect meals.[/pullquote]
Spirit of place
So, back to the question: Is Donald Judd’s Marfa connected to the Food Shark and Cochineal? My take: Yes. They all share the quality that comes from careful consideration and believing that the act of making of a thing can be as important to do well as the thing itself. Here in the thin desert air, under wide skies and far from the rest of the world, Marfa’s food and art seem quite at home with each other.