This quote is attributed to Paul Gauguin – I discovered it researching a passage that caught my eye from Adam Gopnik’s recent New Yorker article “Van Gogh’s Ear.” In November of 1888, Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo about the recent arrival of Paul Gauguin, a visit Van Gogh had been looking forward to for quite some time. Part of the letter reads:

He makes a really interesting friend – I must tell you that he knows how to cook perfectly, I think that I’ll learn that from him, it’s really convenient.

My mind wandered, and I wondered what kind of meals Gauguin had prepared. Although he was born in France, he spent part of his childhood in Peru with his Spanish-Peruvian mother and her family – did his meals have a Latin flair? Or had he learned to cook later, in the merchant marine? I paged through my own copy of The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, but the only clue I found was that Gauguin arrived in Arles with, among other things, “various household utensils.”

Harnessing the power of a Google Book search, I found a snippet from Gauguin’s Intimate Journals referencing the time:

I did the cooking, on a gas-stove, while Vincent laid in the provisions, not going very far from the house. Once, however, Vincent wanted to make a soup. How he mixed it I don’t know; as he mixed his colours in his pictures, I dare say. At any rate, we couldn’t eat it. And my Vincent burst out laughing and exclaimed: “Tarascon! las casquette au père Daudet!”

Although Van Gogh’s letters make him sound a bit like a top spinning out of control, it felt like a familiar scene, and I had to laugh. I’ve randomly tossed bits of herbs, spices, and leftovers in a pot, hoping for the best – to varying degrees of success. I’m certain that Gauguin would have turned up his nose at my leftover salad soup. Perhaps Van Gogh thought Gauguin was a perfect cook in comparison to his own lack of ability. Perhaps I’ll never know more. Perhaps the real point is that, even though neither one seems to have left behind any recipes, each left behind a depiction of their local Arles cafe. Saucisson and absinthe, perhaps. This is Van Gogh’s:

Vincent van Gogh. The All-Knight Café at Arles. September 1888. Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven CT, USA.

And here is Gauguin’s:

Paul Gauguin. Night Café at Arles. 1888. Oil on canvas. The Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, Moscow, Russia.