Food becomes art in ‘The Ucross Cookbook’ | Books

At the Ucross Foundation’s retreat outside of Sheridan, Wyoming, the art doesn’t stop when it’s time to eat.

Instead, the artists who participate in Ucross’ residency program and stay on the ranch are treated to an array of delicacies like grilled watermelon salad, caramelized carrots with ras el hanout (a Moroccan spice mix) and Wyoming bouillabaisse with rouille.

The food, and the inspiration it brings, is thanks to Ucross’ chef Cindy Brooks, who recently put out “The Ucross Cookbook,” with co-writer Cindy Brooks.

Brooks is very clear that she views cooking as its own art form. “I started out as an art student,” she explained, “so when I started working in restaurants, I really got interested in the food. I’ve always looked at it from a visual as well as a taste standpoint… We eat with all of our senses.”

The front cover of “The Ucross Cookbook,” by Cindy Brooks with Cree LeFavour. 

Brooks’ background in cooking is extensive. She got her start in her home state of California, but moved to Montana to work for a dude ranch. That led to a restaurant in Bozeman, private chef work and catering in Cody, and finally to Ucross, where she’s been for the past 12 years.

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The artists at Ucross rely on Brooks. “We completely take care of the artists in terms of their needs, including the cooking,” she said. “All you have to do is create while you’re here.”

Most of the people who come to Ucross are seeking solace, which the 20,000-acre ranch provides in abundance. But at the end of the day, Brooks says, the dinner table becomes a vital place for communion, a cross between a meeting ground and a pulpit.

Ucross sandwich

A frittata, bacon, cheddar, tomato and lettuce sandwich sits at the ready in a Ucross room. 

“It’s all very inspiring, I think, for all the artists to come in at dinner time and talk to their fellow artists about their work,” she said. “It’s just a really good atmosphere for the artists.”

The artists seem to agree. Since Ucross was founded in 1981, at least 2,200 people have spent time at the ranch, including Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Dough Wright, “Brokeback Mountain” author Annie Proulx and operatic composer Du Yun.

“The Ucross Cookbook” is peppered with testimonials from Ucross fellows, all gushing about the power of Ucross as a space for creation, and for eating. Notable is interdisciplinary artist Ann Carlson, who was so awestruck by Brooks’ cooking that she wrote a poem. The food is “Way better than any / Arts residence has” she writes.

Cindy Brooks garden

 Chef Cindy Brooks gets produce from the garden at Ucross. 

The recipes all come from Brooks’ head. “I’ve just worked on them over the years and fiddled with them,” she said. But she noted that she never uses a recipe as an exact guide. “They’re a starting place for inspiration.”

She’s sharing that inspiration for the first time in “The Ucross Cookbook.” The idea for a cookbook came out of necessity. People had long been asking her for recipes, but she never got around to compiling them until the pandemic arrived in early 2020. With Ucross shut down as a functioning artist retreat, she found herself with newfound time on her hands to explore a new project.

“It was just a twist of fate,” she explained. “It turned out to be a positive problem in the end.”

Brooks’ recipes are combined with photographs, the bulk of which were shot by Ucross fellow Martirene Alcántara. Brooks said that she knew it needed to be a collaborative effort. “That was the idea of the book,” she said, “to have it all circle back to Ucross.”

Ucross pasta

A shot of “The Ucross Cookbook’s” porcini-cremini truffle-scented pasta

Brooks lives full time on the property. But when she’s just cooking for herself, you won’t find her making elaborate meals. “Things are very simple in my house,” she said, admitting that she’s “cooked out” by the time the week is over.

“I can play and experiment,” she said of her cooking process at Ucross. “I always tell the residents that they’re residents/guinea pigs because I get to play around in the kitchen and see what I can come up with.”

It’s doubtful that any of the artists object to that arrangement.

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