Westbeth Artists’ Housing, actually a complex of 13 buildings, is named for two of the streets bordering the block. It has been home to artists, dancers, actors, writers, musicians and film makers since its opening in 1970, and also houses gallery spaces, a theater, The New School for Drama, and The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance. Last but not least, you’ll also find the Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, which is the first LGBT synagogue in New York !
During my recent trip to New York, Alison Armstrong, who I met in 2008, invited me up to her Westbeth apartment for tea and to talk about art, books, cooking, and teaching. When I reached Alison’s apartment on the 8th floor, she and her cat, Felix Brutus, greeted me at the door. As I shrugged out of my warmest winter coat, Mendelssohn’s Overture in E major emanated from the stereo – Alison explained that she was busy preparing a new class on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for which that overture was composed in 1826.
As we sat down to tea and cookies, we chatted about food first – of course ! Besides being an accomplished writer, lecturer, painter, art history professor, and art and literature critic, Alison loves to cook – when she finds the time is beyond me ! And even though her comparative literature doctoral dissertation was about James Joyce and heavy-hitting philosopher and theorist Roland Barthes, it seemed a natural extension for her to write a cookbook about all the foods referenced in James Joyce’s body of work.
Breast Enlarging Tonic
The Joyce of Cooking is not only an extraordinary collection of food, drink, and home remedies mentioned by James Joyce’s characters. From a recipe for Combustible Duck to Molly’s Breast Enlarging Tonic, and from a list of “Menus for Joycean CEREbrations” to a proposal of an “existential psychoanalysis of food choices” in which the author cites Claude Lévi-Strauss, F.T. Marinetti’s Futurist Cookbook, and Jean-Paul Sartre, Alison’s all-encompassing book is truly a celebration of both food and literature.
Alison began her cookbook while living and studying in Dublin, Galway, and Oxford (among others). Seven years later, having moved to New York, she finished the book in a spartan work studio on the 2nd floor of Westbeth, using scissors and tape, her papers spread out over the floor – this is how books were completed before computers ! But she actually lived on the 3rd floor then, with her husband, who she married in 1984 at Gotham Book Mart, home of the James Joyce Society.
All told, Alison has lived at Westbeth for 30 years now. So she’s seen plenty of changes in the West Village since she arrived, including the construction of the nearby High Line (photo), apparently inspired by the Coulée verte René-Dumont in Paris, and the new Whitney Museum (built by none other than Renzo Piano, architect of Beaubourg, or Centre Pompidou, in Paris).
Lobster and pork sausage
Sometimes she sees local stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, Laurie Anderson, Julianne Moore, and Willem Dafoe in the area’s markets and (now upscale) shops. Chelsea Market isn’t too far, and New Yorkers seem to agree that The Lobster Place is fantastic (I agree — take a gander at this octopus carpaccio), and Alison swears by Buon Italia’s salsiccia cruda or pork sausage.
Alison says that apart from going to museums around the city (including her favorite, the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City), she hardly ever goes north of 23rd Street. And with so many fantastic shops and cultural activities in her own neighborhood, why would she need to go anywhere else ?