With his new cookbook, an artist asks readers to think about where their tomatoes come from and

Rudi-Lee McCarthy approached his idea for a tomato and hake dish with a desire to reinvent Irish cuisine.

Artist, cook and filmmaker, he did not seek inspiration from any conventional place.

On the contrary, he says, he prepared the recipe with the painter Jack B. Yeats in mind.

He wanted to capture the essence of Yeats’ 1930 oil on panel painting, Power planta representation of the Pigeonnier de Poolbeg, before the erection of its second chimney.

“It was to take my background in landscape painting and bring it to a new medium,” says McCarthy.

He soaked the tomatoes in lemon juice, as in Mexican cuisine, raw onions are often marinated in citrus flavors.

This action was, he says, his eureka moment.

At the time, he was in the middle of his studies at the National College of Art and Design, and he says that ultimately the prospect of reinventing Irish cuisine seemed too lofty a task for research.

“There wasn’t enough support structure for that,” he says.

But the lemon-soaked tomato gave it some clarity, and it emphasized the culture, its correlation to Mexican cuisine, and its broader history.

Now what he wanted to figure out was how exactly the tomato became one of the most consumed fruits in the world, and how much did it cost?

“Tomatoes are probably the most exotic fruit we have on a daily basis,” he says.

Sitting outside Fegan’s 1924 cafe near Smithfield and the now-closed wholesale fruit and vegetable market, McCarthy places a thin pale green booklet on a table.

The cover features an illustration of a tomato cut in half. Its title reads open door.

Released in a limited edition of 50 copies, open doorhe says, is a 36-page book that delves into the history of the tomato, through a tale of flavors.

Its name is Italian for “open door”. McCarthy frames it as a revelation of the truth.

The booklet is divided into two parts: The Cookbook of the Conquistadors and The Cookbook of Contemporary Slaves.

Both link the research to a series of tomato-based dishes that McCarthy has selected to represent a particular moment in history.

Dispelling assumptions that the tomato was a perennial staple of Italian cuisine, McCarthy begins in northern Peru and southern Ecuador, his true places of origin.

It traces its global spread to 1528, the year the conquistadors returned from the Americas to Spain, bringing tomato seeds with them.

When, precisely, the tomato first arrived in Ireland is unclear, he says. It was first grown commercially in the Republic in the early 1930s.

After the Second World War, when the industry developed considerably, the Netherlands became one of the main suppliers to the island.

The Netherlands remained the main hub through which tomatoes were imported into Ireland, with the crop produced there, alongside countries such as Spain and Morocco.

In 2020, a total of 25,000 tonnes of tomatoes were imported into Ireland each year, according to the Central Statistics Office.

open doorThe main goal of is not to provide living recipes, says McCarthy, but to inform consumers about how a dish or ingredient arrived on their plate or in their kitchen.

McCarthy only stumbled into the kitchen by chance, he says.

He first stepped into a kitchen in October 2018, working as a member of staff at The Green Tree restaurant in Westmeath. Later, in December 2021, he became chef at The Bective restaurant in Meath.

The job taught him contemporary French cuisine, but, he says, until then he had never intended to be a chef.

“People ask me if I’d be interested in opening my own kitchen,” McCarthy says. “But I always have to remind people, even though cooking is my medium, I’m an artist.”

His idea for open door emerged while studying sculpture and expanded practice at the National College of Art and Design.

For a while, he had considered developing a documentary on the art of tattooing for the module. But he scrapped that plan, saying it didn’t have such a strong emotional impact on him.

Instead, he opted to create a cooking show in collaboration with photographer and videographer Ian Kelly.

Title As much as you want, a pilot episode of the potential series was released in June. McCarthy’s intention was to educate viewers about art history through cooking, he says

Kelly says he was drawn to the project because it was a cooking show with a twist. “Incorporating the relevance of food itself to the artist we also cover.”

The pilot focused on the Yeats-inspired hake dish. Writing the screenplay in late 2021, McCarthy began his descent into the tomato’s violent history.

The first documentation on the tomato in Europe was written by the Italian botanist Pietro Andrea Mattioli in 1544.

In Italy, the south was an early adopter of the culture, McCarthy says, linking its spread to the reorganization of the Kingdom of Naples by Pedro de Toledo, the first Spanish viceroy of Naples.

With the convergence of Italian and Spanish culture in Naples, the kingdom’s culinary culture has become, writes McCarthy, “not quite Spanish, not quite Italian. [and] not quite Aztec”.

McCarthy learned about the makeup of Naples’ culinary heritage during a week-long intensive cooking class in the city in March.

He studied specific courses in pasta, ravioli, buffalo mozzarella and pizza.

It was while learning from the pizza chef, says McCarthy, that he became fully aware of this period of tomato boom.

“I was very quiet, anxious to learn as he told me about his story in Naples, the food and the production of the San Marzano tomato,” McCarthy explains.

“When I got home, I had this mountain of research.”

Rudi-Lee McCarthy next to his book “The European dream, and the exploitation of those in search of better days”. Courtesy of Rudi-Lee McCarthy.

McCarthy’s Italian recipes were inspired by reading botanical books of the 16th and 17th centuries, and The modern stewarda cookbook published between 1692 and 1694, by Antonio Latini, Prime Minister to the Spanish Viceroy of Naples.

The pizza maker, he says, was also able to provide insight into the current crop production.

McCarthy says his awareness of the tomato’s connection to the modern slave trade grew. “It became this political project.”

The Contemporary Slave Cookbook constitutes the second half of open doorand it places current consumption in the context of the refugee crisis.

The fundamental questions it asks are: who grows our vegetables today? And why can they be bought so cheaply in large supermarkets?

“My answer, in effect, is that the shadow of colonialism haunts our produce shelves and the exploitation of non-white and European humans is still very real,” McCarthy writes.

It focuses on greenhouses in Almeria, Spain, which cover 76,600 acres of land and produce 3.5 million tonnes of fruit and vegetables per year.

According to the regional distribution company Agrosol, 61% of Almeria’s products are exported, of which 99.8% go to European markets, mainly the Netherlands, France and the United Kingdom.

McCarthy observes in his book that often the workers in Almeria are overworked and grossly underpaid migrants from North and West Africa.

Depicting the plight of refugees and exploited migrants, it includes recipes such as jollof rice from Ghana, zaalouk, an eggplant dish from Morocco, couscous from Timbuktu from Mali, and kedjenou, a chicken dish from Ivory Coast.

In support of this, for his NCAD graduation show, McCarthy also produced a large-scale painting to depict themes from open doorentitled “European dream, and the exploitation of those in search of better days”.

A surreal depiction of two migrants, one with the head of a tomato, the piece also features the Tesco logo, referring to the fact that the chain sources its fruit and vegetables from Almeria.

Food, says McCarthy, is an educational vessel. “This [Porto Aperta] is not to make people feel guilty about what they eat, but to make them aware of it.

His immediate prescription is for people to buy their food at local farmers’ markets and independent multicultural stores.

He gestures to the area around Smithfield, both with the old wholesale fruit and vegetable market and the wave of traders in its vicinity.

Part of his research was to study the impact of food conglomerates on these independent sellers, he says.

He approached them with inquiries, some of which were rebuffed, he says. Others became friends, while refusing his requests to lend them a hand.

“They kind of accepted me like, ‘You’re a little crazy asking these questions,'” he laughs.

“Maybe we will probably never get out of the chain of worker exploitation, he says, but at least by going down to the independent wholesalers, like here, by supporting them, we will benefit from something.

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