The following is the first part of an article adapted from the latest issue of Lucky Peach, a quarterly journal of food and writing. It is available online only in Slate.
What do you get when you put a chocolate bar between two pieces of white bread? Andy Warhol called it cake.
Warhol’s relationship to food is manifest not only in his art but also in the frugality and deprivation of his childhood, the time he was from—America in the 1930s, ‘40s and ’50s—and in his flip philosophy and deadpan sense of humor.
Anyone with a slight interest in his work is aware of how prominently Campbell’s Soup and Coca-Cola figure into his art. Some may own, or have at least seen, the first Velvet Underground album, which has a Warhol cover featuring a bright yellow banana. (You could actually peel the banana open on the original copies back in 1967.)
Dedicated fans of the pop artist might be familiar with his Kellogg’s Corn Flakes Boxes and his Tunafish Disaster painting of 1963, which is based on a newspaper story about two older women who died from eating a can of tainted tuna. There’s even a later Warhol series of works based on Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.
The frequency of Warhol’s food references declines in his ‘60s films. (It’s possible that the actors in many of Warhol’s movies don’t eat because they were fueled by amphetamines, and speed freaks are notoriously indifferent to food.) Warhol’s film Eating Too Fast, which is also known as Blow Job #2, is a sound version of BLOW-JOB, and is obviously not about food. Still, there are Eat (1964), starring Robert Indiana; Restaurant (1965), with Edie Sedgwick and Bibbe Hansen (future mom of Beck); and The Nude Restaurant (1967), filmed at the Mad Hatter on West Fourth Street, which had been a lesbian bar in the ‘50s called the Pony Stable Inn and is now the Washington Square Diner.
Among these films, Eat is the only one in which the activity of eating is primarily depicted. For the entire duration of its 45 minutes, Indiana silently and glacially consumes a single mushroom, and not of the psychoactive variety. When Warhol was asked why the movie was so long, he matter-of-factly said that was how long it took Robert Indiana to consume the mushroom. Warhol was probably the only director in the history of film who never said the word “cut.”
And then there is the very curious Schrafft’s Commercial (1969), described thusly by critic Harold H. Brayman:
The screen fills with a magenta blob, which a viewer suddenly realizes is the cherry atop a chocolate sundae. Shimmering first in puce, then fluttering in chartreuse, the colors of the background and the sundae evolve through many colors of the rainbow. Studio noises can be heard. The sundae vibrates to coughs on the soundtrack. ‘Andy Warhol for a SCHRAFFT’S?’ asks the off-screen voice of a lady. Answers an announcer: ‘A little change is good for everybody.’
Commissioning Warhol to come up with an ad for their restaurants was an attempt by Schrafft’s to attract a hipper audience. Their image in the late ‘60s wasn’t vastly different from how they had presented themselves in the late ’50s. Tied in with the Warhol commercial was a new product, advertised on their menu as the Underground Sundae: “Yummy Schrafft’s vanilla ice cream in two groovy heaps, with three ounces of mind-blowing chocolate sauce undulating within a mountain of pure whipped cream topped with a pulsating maraschino cherry served in a bowl as big as a boat.” Priced at about a dollar, it was a pretty good deal.
What isn’t seen in that 60-second spot is what Warhol superstar Joe Dallesandro recalls from the day it was filmed. He and Viva were in the studio, both topless, she spread out on a table, with Dallesandro smoking and standing behind her, his muscled arms modestly but provocatively covering her bare breasts. They were, of course, removed from the final cut of the commercial, but it’s clear that Warhol originally wanted the sundae to have more than a cherry on top, and instinctively knew that sex helps to sell even the most dubious product.