Most octogenarians might expect some comfy slippers for their birthday, maybe a nice chutney, a handmade card from the grandkids if they’re lucky. But most octogenarians aren’t like Buckminster Fuller, the counterculture designer, architect, author, inventor, and futurist known for his ecological focus and geodesic forms. For his 86th birthday, “Bucky’s” friends, admirers, and colleagues came together to create a cookbook (of sorts) titled Synergetic Stew: Explorations in Dymaxion Dining.
It contains recipes, of course, but not always as we know them: take Shirley Sharkey’s “GEODESICANDY,” for instance, Amy Edmondson’s “Allspace-Filling Whole Wheat Bread,” or Bucky’s own recipe for tomato ice cream. There’s also the opening recipe/poem for Bucky Pie, handwritten by d’Arcy Hayman, with opening instructions that read, “Add a large helping of universe, to just the right amount of earth.” The recipes are peppered with personal anecdotes, poems, doodles, and other texts, including Fuller’s “Repair Manual for the Entire Universe,” that first ran in the National Lampoon. Gifted by his friends in 1981, the cookbook recipes are intimate, approximate, and more than a little unusual. As I would soon learn, they are not particularly accessible or easy-to-follow.
Marking what would have been Fuller’s 125th birthday on July 12, 2020, the book has now been reprinted, with new additional insights from Fuller’s grandson, Jaime Snyder, who uncovers often-overlooked facets of Bucky’s character by zeroing in on his somewhat unusual relationship to food. His out-there dining habits are evidenced in particular by Whit Whitlow’s poem, which reads: “Bucky’s diet is a puzzle/Because he’s been known to guzzle/Some peculiar combinations in his time/Wonder what he’s eating this week/Suppose it’s salads that he’d seek/Or meat or fish or only tea with lime?”
In a bid to try and understand Fuller a little better, and to really get into the minds and kitchens of those who knew him, I attempted to make a few of the recipes from the book myself. Having been vegan for the past 14 years, I worried this might be a challenge, particularly since there are at least two texts specifically outlining Fuller’s love of steak. He also seems pretty heavily into cream in numerous permutations, so John Cage’s Macrobiotic Diet section was a godsend. The diet, as outlined by Cage (who admits he has “not studied this carefully”), involves brown rice and beans, as well as several vegetables, with the exception of potatoes, eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers. Sugar (including fruit) is also out, as is booze, red meat, and dairy products. Some directives are simple, others less so, such as “Salads are not good because they’re too liquid” (!?). It’s a minimalist diet for a minimalist composer.
As for what I learned from these strange adventures into Bucky-style cuisine, I’m not too sure. But it’s been a fun and interesting ride. Below are four recipes from the book, accompanied by my commentary and review.
TABOULI (John Cage)
2 cups fine cracked wheat
1 cup ice cold water
2 cups minced fresh parsley
1 cup finely chopped scallions
3 Tbs. minced fresh mint
3/4 cup lemon juice
1 cup olive oil (health food store variety)
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper (more more. black pepper is ok.)
Combine wheat and water and refrigerate for 1 hour. Add remaining ingredients. Refrigerate. Garnish with whatever (radishes, olives, avocado).
TABBOULIEH (Isobel Fistere)
5 bunches of parsley
2 bunches of mint
6 young spring onions
6 ripe tomatoes
1/2 cup good olive oil
juice of two lemons
1 cup of burghul (cracked wheat)
This is a salad we learned to love in our years in Lebanon. Chop the parsley and the mint fine—use your Cuisinart if you have one, else your own slow scissors. Now cut up the young onion, peel and chop tomatoes, and combine all ingredients. Meantime you have been soaking the burghul in boiling water—drain off in a sieve, and squeeze dry. Now pour on and mix the olive oil, and finally, the lemon juice. This is served in Lebanon on a great platter surrounded by the young leaves of the heart of romaine and these are used as little spades to spoon up the salad and eat it.
Since there were two recipes in the book for tabbouleh (I’ll spell it as a combination of the two), I sort of mixed and matched them. One big lesson was what scallions were, another was that I have no idea what a “cup” is (I’m English), so I approximated with a small mug. These ingredients all turned out to be readily available in east London, which was useful, though I played slightly fast and loose with the “good” olive oil (how on earth can you judge an oil’s morals?) and “health food shop.” Since one recipe asked for boiling water and one ice cold water, I settled in the middle on room temperature tap water. I still have no clue what a Cuisinart, nor “slow scissors” are. But all that said, this was a success, I reckon, and made a hell of a lot of food.
Isobel Fistere’s recipe is interesting in offering a little insight into Fuller’s travels to Lebanon. Her husband John was an adviser and speechwriter for King Hussein of Jordan, and the pair ran a PR firm from Beirut, where Fuller delivered university lectures. John Fistere’s text also details the point in Fuller’s life when he stopped drinking. The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Fistere invited Fuller for a drink when the pair ran into each other outside Rockefeller Center. Fistere recalls: “With no sign of emotion or giving any sign of inner determination, he said, ‘John, there’s a war on. And if I’m going to be of any use to my country, I’m not going to take another drink.’ And he never did.”
ZUCCHINI SPICED (John Cage)
Add salt, turmeric sparingly and finely chopped onion to heated oil. Stir for a minute, add zucchini cut in pieces. Stir (covered) for 5 minutes. Garnish with chopped nuts.
No tampering required with this one, which like the tabbouleh recipe above, came from Cage’s Macrobiotic Diet section. The only confusing aspects were how to stir something while it’s covered (so it was left uncovered), and the logistics of chopping nuts. That was solved by simply smashing a small bag of roasted salted cashews with the bottom of a mug. One of the most successful recipes, this was genuinely lovely and very faff-free: it tasted like homely, comforting food that’s sort of wintery with a kick. It also made me realize how hard it is to describe the taste of zucchini—I’m settling on flaccid, but also a bit crispy all in one mouthful. What does this say about Fuller? Not too much, but still, a very tasty little number.
FOGGUN FRAPPE (Medard Gabel)
2 cups orange juice
2 scoops of favorite ice cream
1 dash Amaretto or Kahlúa
Put in blender. Blend. Drink. Repeat.
A look at these photos might give the impression that this recipe, from the dessert section of the book, was something of a disaster. But it was quite the opposite: the absolute standout of all my attempts to dine like Bucky ’n’ Co, likely thanks to its combination of sugar, chocolate, and sugary booze (presumably not for Fuller himself). This is the work of Medard Gabel, an author and speaker who co-founded the World Game Institute with Fuller. World Game, sometimes called the World Peace Game, is an educational simulation designed as an alternative to war-based games that was developed in 1961 to help create solutions to overpopulation and the uneven distribution of global resources. It incorporates Fuller’s Dymaxion map (a projection of a world map onto a 20-sided surface, which can be viewed as three or two-dimensional) and requires a group of players to cooperatively solve a set of metaphorical scenarios to act as a small-scale alternative to nation-state perspectives. Honestly, if there’s anything likely to make people more amenable to peaceful modes of global discourse, it’s this deliciously creamy, booze-laced little tipple.
TORTELLINI SALAD (Elizabeth Choy)
1 16 oz. pkg. tortellini
1/2 cup pesto sauce
1/2 cup minced Italian pimentos
1/2 cup olive oil
juice of one lemon
salt and pepper
1/2 cup garlic vinegar*
Boil tortellini in salted water until soft and done. Drain and place in bowl. Add pesto sauce, pimentos, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and garlic vinegar. Chill and serve. Makes 6-8 servings.
*To make garlic vinegar, slice garlic cloves, one per cup of vinegar, combine the two ingredients, and let sit in a cabinet for two weeks, the longer it soaks, the more flavorful the vinegar becomes.
As is likely very obvious from these photos, this is the one that really had me stumped—or at least, caught me at my laziest. By this point, ingredients and enthusiasm were on the wane: I had no lemon and no vinegar (and no intention of getting any), so those were gently ignored. After a quick Google to find out what pimentos were, tinned tomato paste that needed using up was chosen as a handy substitute. Tortellini was brushed aside in favor of the dried pasta tubes languishing in the cupboard behind three near-empty jars of Marmite. Vegan pesto isn’t easy to come by, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to make it, but I found this pink beetroot pesto which made the whole dish look absolutely nothing like it’s meant to.
All in all, this was pretty much a student pasta dinner, but a pretty nice one. It’s also incredibly filling. Perhaps by saving batches of meals that are oil and pasta heavy, Bucky gave himself all the more time to work on the stuff that’s really important. Like tomato ice cream.