When you ask Julia Sherman to define a salad, her answer is far more philosophical than just "vegetables." "For me, a salad is about an approach and a perspective more than anything," says the artist behind the blog Salad for President, a project for which she invites artists, musicians, writers, and other creative professionals to make salad with her. "When you're done making it, you should have somehow enhanced the flavor or the quality of the ingredients."
"I always cooked and hosted, and I wondered what would happen if I took that more seriously."
For the past four years, Sherman has been exploring the confluence of salad and art. A photographer first, she started her blog in 2012 as an experiment. "I got to a point where I started to feel like the gallery just wasn't the best place for my work," Sherman says, explaining that her projects have always been process-oriented and very interactive. "I always cooked and hosted, and I started to wonder what would happen if I took that more seriously."
Sherman acknowledges that her choice to focus exclusively on salad is "almost comically specific." Yet, as a formal constraint, salad made sense for a number of reasons. For one thing, it's been her preferred meal for as long as she can remember. "It's been kind of a running joke ever since I was a kid," she says. "I really am interested in produce and vegetables."
Sherman says that salad also lends itself well to collaboration. "I wanted to include other people, and everyone can make a salad—whereas not everyone can bake a cake," she explains. "It's an equalizer. It's an approachable and manageable request for someone to make you a salad. And, of course, that can be incredibly complex, or it can be three ingredients with salt and pepper and olive oil."
Sherman admits that, in the beginning, she worried that salad might be "too bourgeois or frivolous" for artists to take seriously. But she was pleasantly surprised. "As I started to tell people about it, I realized that so many artists love to cook, and it was actually a conversation starter," she says. "It's very unassuming and relatable, and leads to conversations with artists about so many things."
"People will ask, 'Why is this here?' and then they'll ask, 'Are you an artist or a gardener?'"
Recently, Sherman has collaborated with everyone from California architect Harry Gesner—who shared his great love of nasal-passage-clearing horseradish—to artist and designer Ron Finley, who helped her make a banana blossom salad with limes, mint, papaya, and peanuts. She traveled to Lima, Peru, to meet artist Mariella Agois, who shared a traditional Peruvian recipe for Papas a la Huancaina—potatoes with corn, Aji Amarillo sauce, eggs, and black olives.
In the summer of 2014, Sherman created her first "museum garden" on the roof of MoMA PS1. The temporary installation served as a public space for gatherings and performances, as well as a place where she invited artists to collaborate on salad recipes made using ingredients grown on-site.
Last fall, she presented her second salad garden at The Getty. For her gardens, Sherman says she prefers to grow things that you can't buy at the store. "It's way more exciting," she says. "I try to grow things that are unusual, and I grow things that you can eat daily but don't necessarily need to be cooked, because I want people to be able to eat them right there on the spot. I love that sense of discovery."
Sherman's work aims to inspire conversations and connections, which is why one of her favorite things about the museum gardens is what happens when people stumble upon them. "People will ask, 'Why is this here?' and then they'll ask, 'Are you an artist or a gardener?'" she explains. "They want to define my role, and I have no interest in that."
Currently, Sherman is working on Salad for President: The Cookbook, which will be published by Abrams next spring. To tide us over, we asked for a few tips to help make our desk salads a little less sad.
- Work with what you have. "You don't want to work against the ingredients," she advises. "If you are packing a salad for lunch with leafy greens, either put the dressing on the side, or don't use leafy greens at all. There are so many options for ingredients that get better the longer they sit—so start from the ingredients and don't force it."
- Think outside the box. Her recommendation for a salad ingredient that is commonly overlooked? Celery. "I've been playing with celery—grilling it, and making celery ribbons and then shocking them in cold water, so they become curly. It's awesome and cheap, and it has a lot more texture and versatility than people think."
- Anchovies. Her final tip for dressing up a lackluster salad is anchovies. "If you put anchovies in pretty much any salad, you're in good shape."
For more, see saladforpresident.com.
Here is Sherman's recipe for shaved zucchini salad, created in collaboration with designer Anna Karlin!