Family recipes are simmering stews of nostalgia and memories. Almost everyone can think of that one dish, prepared by a loved one or passed down for generations, that whisks them back to happy holidays or cozy nights spent together in the kitchen.
Brenda Erickson knows how much emotional stock is held in these recipes. Erickson is a watercolor artist based in Round Pond who paints still-life recipes for prints, framed paintings and an annual calendar (each year is themed; this year was blueberries, and 2019 will be appetizers). Her most successful venture and passion project is her personal commissions, where she takes a client’s recipe — the ingredients, step-by-step instructions and quirky defining elements that make it special — and paints it for posterity.
Each commission is about more than just depicting the dish; Erickson works extensively with her clients to create a painting they will truly cherish. “I want to tell their story so that when they look at it, they can taste the food, smell the food, and hear the voices of the people who are at the table,” she said.
Erickson features some of her commissioned masterpieces on her website. The paintings are at once quirky and quotidian, skillful and sentimental. What truly makes them special, though, are the details: a bowl painted with a pastoral scene in “Blueberry Muffins for Alex,” a wooden recipe box alongside the ingredients for “Nanny’s Caponata,” the uncannily accurate packaging for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and Diamond pecan halves in “Rosemary’s Cookies.”
Erickson always loved to paint, but never took it seriously. She lived for more than three decades in her hometown of Kittery on the Maine coast, where she painted rocks, water and lighthouses. When she returned to Maine after spending a decade caring for her mother-in-law in Arizona (where Erickson still spends her winters), Erickson spent months contemplating what to paint in her free-time. The idea to paint recipes, she swore, came to her in a 3 a.m. revelation.
Still-life food seemed like a natural subject based on her painting style. She shies away from painting landscapes, and is naturally detail-oriented. Before retiring, Erickson enjoyed a 42-year-long career as a dental hygienist, which she believes informs her technique. “As a dental hygienist, I am much more comfortable with little brushes,” she confessed.
She began by painting popular old recipes — “things from the ‘50s we can all remember,” she explained. Among her original works, the born-and-bred Mainer first painted whoopie pies, Moxie soda and fluffernutters (“Everyone comments on whether or not I have the right peanut butter in that one,” she chuckled). Her friends noticed the paintings and began requesting their own favorite recipes. One of her first assignments was to paint her friend’s potato pierogies. When she told her husband, he said, “Are you really going to paint onions and potatoes?”
Erickson was undaunted by the bland Polish palette. “That one came out great, too,” she laughed.
She eventually went from painting for friends to accepting requests from clients. Over the past 16 years, she has done hundreds of commissions, along with the occasional painting for fun. She once painted Barack Obama’s chili recipe, which she found on Pinterest, and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins brought the painting to the then-president as a gift. While Erickson never got to meet Obama in person, she did receive a phone call from him when he was moving out of the White House and having his various gifts appraised. “He said, ‘I usually don’t remember these things, but I do remember yours,’” Erickson recalled.
Whether you are a private citizen or the president, Erickson values everyone’s kitchen experiences equally for her paintings. After a client brings her a recipe, Erickson analyzes the ingredients thoroughly, and often even makes the recipe herself.
“I want to see what it looks like,” Erickson said. “I want to see colors and paints and textures. I want to taste it and see what it tastes like. That helps me.” She admitted to skipping this step when the recipes involve frying — “I don’t have a fryolator,” she laughed — or when the client brings the dish to her already prepared as inspiration.
Erickson then has a conversation with her client about the recipe’s story. She asks about special ingredients or tools they remember: Grandma’s giant cracked pot, a certain brand of sugar, or a specific patterned serving bowl. Erickson is painstaking with detail, out of respect for people’s memories. She recalled an extensive conversation with a customer about the weathering and angle of a wooden spoon.
“There are no accidents,” Erickson said. “I wouldn’t put a pot in your grandma’s soup recipe if the most important part was sauteeing the vegetables.”
Perhaps stemming from her original pierogi painting, Erickson’s process helps her find the color in even the most monochromatic dishes. Recently, she had to paint a white cake with white frosting on a crystal pedestal dish; preparing the cake helped her to find the spots of yellow in the cake and the rainbow refraction of light through the crystal.
A conversation with another client about a sour cream clam dip recipe revealed that it was always eaten out of a turquoise serving bowl with Ruffles potato chips.
Erickson explained that the packaging for specific ingredients is usually an easy way to bring color into a painting. “I paint King Arthur flour a lot,” she said. But that can present its own roadblocks: “Putting King Arthur on that flour box is always a challenge. He’s three quarters of an inch tall, so I have to use a magnifying glass.”
Erickson’s albatross, however, is texture. “How do you put texture in a taco shell? How do you put texture on a pie crust? How do you make an oyster on the half shell look like something more than a blob?” she mused. But she has tackled these seemingly impossible watercolor challenges for the sake of telling her clients’ stories.
Erickson recently published a book, “Kitchen Memories,” which features some of her favorite recipes and stories that she has collected over the years. There are several recipes featuring the same dish, but that, too, is intentional. Erickson wants to show how food — even, ostensibly, the same food — is different for every person. Of the three or four apple pie recipes, each one has a different story: one focuses on cutting up the apples, another is about apple picking, and a third is about the special pan the pie was always prepared in.
What makes a recipe worth painting is personal for every customer. Usually, the recipe has been passed down for generations. Clients often request that Erickson paint recipes in memoriam of a loved one that has recently passed. Those assignments, she said, are not as sad as people may think.
“When I’m painting, it’s a happy thing: the memories of being in the kitchen,” she said. “Even if no one in the family can make the recipe anymore, when they look at it they can remember all the stories of the person who made it.”
The person lives on through the recipe; the recipe lives on through the painting.