Sausage or art? Cleveland Curry Kojiwurst is Front Triennial’s tastiest project
Sausage or art? Cleveland Curry Kojiwurst is Front Triennial’s tastiest project
Cleveland, Ohio - The art comes with a side of chips at the West Side Market Cafe. Topped with pickled onions and Bertram’s mustard.
It tastes like, well, Cleveland.
And that’s the point. This isn’t just art. It’s sausage. But the Cleveland Curry Kojiwurst isn’t just a sausage. It’s a savory, thought-provoking commentary and reflection on an ever-changing American city.
“The spices of the Cleveland Curry Kojiwurst are folded together to reflect this city,” says Milwaukee artist John Riepenhoff, the man behind the wurst. The spice combination is his contribution to the Front International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, the ambitious citywide art exhibition featuring 115 international contemporary artists through Sept. 30. The theme is “An American City.”
“You have spices like lemon balm, which native peoples in this area would have foraged. You have your fennel and paprika and mace, spices you’d find in an Italian or Polish sausage, something the first wave of immigrants to Cleveland might have eaten. Then you have your Southeast Asian and Pakistani and Afghani spices, like saffron and galangal, spices used by current refugees to Cleveland. “Together, they represent what Cleveland was, and is.”
Multimedia artist Riepenhoff, whose previous exhibitions and curatorial projects have been presented at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Marlborough Contemporary in New York, the Tate Modern in London and the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, was selected by Front artistic director Michelle Grabner.
“What John does, he puts a point on the local, on the community,” explains Grabner. “His spices are the cultivation of ideas of what we think about a city and its culture. Coming from Milwaukee, I thought he would be able to understand the landscape of Cleveland, but also be able to learn the differences.
“He was very sensitive to being an outsider. When he comes in, he is really about learning what is great in the city and what he can platform. He’s putting a point on what Cleveland is, and what it will be.
“And, it’s delicious.”
It is indeed. The lemon balm adds a slightly sweet zest to the savory fennel and mace, topped by an intriguing Southeastern Asian zing. On a pretzel bun and with Bertram’s, it was as tasty as it was thoughtful.
The flavor is as important as the concept, explains Riepenhoff.
“Honestly, I don’t want to the food to be so avant-garde that it doesn’t taste good.”
Nor does he care if diners appreciate it just as, well, sausage.
“If people don’t recognize it as art right away, it’s great that that’s the start of a conversation. If they just say, ‘I love this sausage,’ that’s OK with me. It actually means it’s good art in a way — art creates more color and value in our lives that we may not know about.”
Riepenhoff spent several weeks in a residency in Cleveland before coming up with the Cleveland Curry Kojiwurst. It was important to him to experience the, er, flavor of the city
“I didn’t know much about Cleveland; I’d never been there and didn’t have much familiarity. I knew it was a similar-size city and profile as Milwaukee, but I didn’t know what I would do when I came in, whether I would build something food- or space-related.
“I came and looked and listened, and sausage was something I saw over and over through my residency. Front suggested the West Side Market as a venue, and I thought, ‘That would make sense in this environment.’ ”
Riepenhoff, who makes the spice combination but doesn’t prepare the meat, worked closely with chef Jeremy Umansky of the lauded Ohio City Larder delicatessen (1455 West 29th St.).
“I design a structure for it, but work with collaborators. I’m a cultural attache; I can talk about food, but come from a different angle,” says Riepenhoff.
“John approached me with the concept and I was totally into it, I wanted to make sure it happened,” says Umansky. “The concept of food as art is essential for all of us. At its most basic form, food is nourishment. We wanted to take it a step further and explore what nourishment is, and what it means to ideas of a community and expression and conviviality.”
Umanksy and Riepenhoff spent weeks perfecting the wurst.
“He had an idea of what he wanted to represent and have in it,” says Umansky. “We started with curry, because that’s something that is everywhere in the world. ... John had noticed that a lot of butchers in Cleveland had currywurst, so we thought they would be a good representation of who Cleveland is.
“We had two times in mind when creating this — who settled in Cleveland and who Cleveland is going to be — and we needed a link to the past — who was here. We foraged native elements like [those] the Iroquois would have had on their food. We were able to loop in everyone: who was here, who came here and who will be here in the future.”
Spices were sourced as much as possible from the Refugee Response group at the Ohio City Farm, where a tandoori oven is on-site to grill the wursts. Using the farm was important to Riepenhoff. Not only did the mostly Southeast Asian refugees supply spices from their cultures, but the project also shines a light on these new arrivals to Cleveland, and their contributions to the civic culture.
“I wanted to provide visibility for this existing culture in Cleveland that not everybody knows about. Now people come by and see the oven and say, ‘What do you have here? Some farmers from Afghanistan? What are they doing?’ Within three questions, we’re able to explain the mission of the farm and talk about the culture of the farmer.”
Riepenhoff’s culinary creativity didn’t stop with the kojiwurst. He’s also created a Front Experimental Kolsch in conjunction with Platform brewery.
“We were calling it the Front Hoppy Kolsch but the government said ‘Hoppy Kolsch’ is not a term you can use, so we called it Experimental Kolsch,” says Riepenhoff of the brightly hoppy, slightly fruity concoction.
“That was fitting, really. Front is about pushing forward structures and ideas in the form of a triennial, and we tried to emulate that in the recipe of the beer. They are both experimental but accessible.”
The Kolsch, along with the kojiwurst, can both be found on the menu of the West Side Market Cafe, an official Front site. They’re also selling a Cleveland Curry Kojiwurst frittata for breakfast.
“They’re all really popular,” says manager Clay Kosokar. “People really like them, we’re selling a lot, especially on weekends.”
The cafe’s pork sausages are being made by the Pork Chop Shop, one of two market vendors that have been given the role of working with Riepenhoff’s spices to create their own meaty interpretations. The other is D.W. Whitaker.
“We’re getting seasoning from them, doing a pork link and a pork patty, one with the beer from Platform, and then we do a chicken one, too,” says Don Whitaker. “We’re always trying new stuff, so when we heard about this, we wanted to be involved. It’s going very well; people are getting the word about it, and even those who don’t know about it, just the name is catching people’s eye. I guess it is art, but it’s a tasty sausage — and that’s what people like.”
Larder, of course, is also selling the Cleveland Curry Kojiwurst, as well as spice packets so people can experiment at home. That’s great, says Riepenhoff.
“It was unexpected but hopeful that people are making the project their own in a positive way,” he says. “I get pictures of people’s pancetta and chickenwurst ... it’s encouraging that these spices are being folded into and entering the fabric of the city.”
So take your art, and top it with mustard or eat it on a bun, eat it at the West Side Market, or put it on the grill at home ... it’s all part of Riepenhoff’s vision.
“This is about finding art in surprising spaces,” he says. “Front is a citywide art triennial that you might not find out about until you sit down with a sausage and a beer.
“That’s the power of food — when you share food with people, you break down boundaries. This sausage is about bringing down cultural boundaries and bringing people together.”