Eddie Aparicio's Beehive Oven-Sculpture

An interview with Eddie Rodolfo Aparicio about "Pansa del Publico," 2021

Welcome to the latest issue of Weekly Special, a food-art newsletter by Andrea Gyorody.

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I’m putting the cart before the horse here, but I want to spotlight an event happening tomorrow at the site of this week’s artwork, Eddie Rodolfo Aparicio’s sculpture-oven/oven-sculpture Pansa del Publico, in the center of Los Angeles State Historic Park. Here’s all the relevant info, including a link to register (which you can do right up until the event):

Kristine Jingozian: Armenian Cooking Demonstration

Saturday, July 10, 4 – 6pm PST

Chef Kristine Jingozian leads a demonstration on how to make Armenian Nazook and Gata in the woodfire oven of Eddie Rodolfo Aparicio’s Pansa del Publico. This cooking demonstration will be accompanied by a live Oud performance by Raffi Joe Wartanian. This public program is produced as a collaboration between Clockshop and OxyArts. Registration is required.

Ok, now that you’re hopefully intrigued to learn more, let’s dig in!

This Week’s Special

Eddie Rodolfo Aparicio

Pansa del Publico, 2021

Site-specific installation

While I was in LA looking for an apartment and installing my Beuys-and-friends show at Track 16, I was lucky enough to catch the opening event at artist Eddie Aparicio’s site-specific installation Pansa del Publico. Commissioned by Clockshop and programmed in collaboration with Oxy Arts, Pansa del Publico is an otherworldly concrete and ceramic sculpture that contains a functioning brick oven. Sited (temporarily) in the center of Los Angeles State Historic Park, where Eddie created it over a number of months, the oven-sculpture is playing host this summer to a range of events celebrating various cuisines, including the Salvadoran food that partly inspired it.

The inaugural event, co-organized by independent curator and activist Leyna Lightman, featured the cooking of Chef Michelle Lainez, who took a break from supervising the oven—which was doing a final cook on what turned out to be incredibly succulent chicken and rice—to hop on a mic to share her dizzying breadth of knowledge of Salvadoran food and cooking techniques. (More on Chef Michelle below.)

Thanks to an introduction from the ever-generous Beatriz Cortez, I wound up chatting with Eddie about the oven, and knew right away I had to interview him more extensively for Weekly Special—when we could chat properly, away from the broiling heat of the summer sun and away from the stress of firing the oven in front of a crowd of hungry people. Eddie kindly made time to talk with me last week, and I’m so glad he did. This project is fascinating on every level, in how it engages materials, site, history, collaboration, and more. I learned so much through our conversation, and I hope you do, too. Enjoy!

Let’s start at the beginning. What was the genesis of this project?

This project was originally supposed to be at the Bowtie and it could not have been more different. Well, there are some similarities but I'll just, for the sake of argument, say it couldn't have been more different, what I originally proposed. I was going to do a glass and amber sculpture, which is another project that I'm working on separately, and then when the pandemic happened they shifted to doing programming at the LA State Historic Park. As I was doing site visits there, at the beginning of the pandemic, I was in residency at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation in Florida and I was doing ceramics for the first time in a long time there. That residency got cut short because we all basically got sent home in the middle of it, and so I ended up in LA and I wasn't going to my downtown studio anymore because it was just so hectic downtown for COVID reasons. So I turned my back house into a ceramics studio. I figured I wasn't having any guests coming anytime soon, so I might as well utilize the space. I ordered a big kiln, then put it in my garage, and you know, we can't really run the AC or the heat at the same time as the kiln because of the electrical power. (Laughs.)

We shifted to doing something at the park and then I wanted to do a sculpture. I was doing ceramics and looking at the history of the Zanja Madre, which is very close to where the sculpture is now and the history and utilization of ceramic in that, in the creation of an aqueduct, basically to fuel the growth of the Pueblo, and the enslavement of the Tongva communities here. There was so much ceramic under the ground, a section of which had been left above the ground when they were building the Gold Line, kind of left there, just thrown on the side of the rails. So, I wanted to basically turn the Zanja Madre vertically and make it into a brick column, that was then going to be covered in these ceramic thorns, which are a reference to the Ceiba tree—the center of Mayan spirituality that was seen as a direct connection to the different realms of the universe. And also this idea of these protective thorns on the surface of it for me felt relevant to talking about Central American communities and immigrant communities here in LA and this idea of protection and self-protection.

So, that was my original conceptualization and then turning the ceramic aqueduct—which was basically meant to steal water from indigenous communities and lands and to irrigate colonial settlements and their crops—I wanted to turn that vertically to then divert the now absent rainwater back into the ground, this gesture of turning it vertically as a way of capturing and funneling water from the sky into the ground and thinking about the difference between that and the horizontal element of it. I was in the middle of trying to figure this out, but the state park has this requirement where you can't actually dig or penetrate the dirt at all, because there's so many historical objects and it’s such interesting, rich ground in terms of the history of the rail line, of the Tongva people, of the colonial settlement, of all of these different lives that that land has had. The scale of that piece wasn't really going to work and so I started thinking of it as like, a capped version of it. So I had a rendering of this vertical column of brick that had a rounded top and then I was thinking about how, oh, now it just looks exactly like the brick ovens that my father had been making, that are traditional. So I was getting really excited about this connection to making it an oven. There were so many different versions I presented to the park, but once I brought the fact that I thought that I could make an oven inside of the sculpture, everyone was like, so excited about it, they were like, yes, let's do that. 

They wanted to put it in the Roundhouse, which is where it is now, for fire safety, but I thought that was an interesting idea, because it's kind of the center of the park, so like a community hub. And thinking about the ways in which this oven could be used and the history of the connection to the food sales and looking at my own history of archiving Central American Resource Centers. The history of food sales—it’s immigrant communities from Central America coming and bringing their food and their culture through their food and then using that to sell in public parks, and then using that money to then send back for medication and for the purchase of anything that the struggle needed. That's something that still happens now. But I have all of these handwritten notes, basically tallying up how many tamales they needed to make to be able to make this amount of money. And then the graph that leads to how much of this specific antibiotic could be sent to this town through that sale. And so charting the history of so much organizing and solidarity through the history of food and culture that was traveling with people, and then sending the money back. I was just really inspired by that in the way that so many other artists and groups are reinterpreting public space during the pandemic to help people during this time. It's kind of a memorial—not a memorial, that sounds so dead—but it's an homage to the history of that practice and wanting to make something during the pandemic that could be used to also feed people and could be used to talk about systemic inequality, but also elevate the history of food and the understanding of these communities and the things that they bring with them. 

Tell me a little bit about the ovens that your dad built in El Salvador and how that practice relates to Pansa del Publico.

I was actually trying not to ask him too many questions when I was making it (laughs), because he talks for a long time and I love my dad, he's an amazing artist and maker, but I was getting little bits and going more on my own research. But from things I was able to get from him, he was making ovens from a really young age, like five years old. His mom would ask him to make these ovens—they’re one of the things that she grew up in the little village that she lived in outside of San Miguel, where they use this as their main cooking source. And so he would use pieces of brick that he found laying around and adobe clay, and all of these other things, like broken glass bottles, which are a really good insulator. He was using that underneath the floor of the oven. Traditionally the ovens in El Salvador have a front and a back door, whereas the oven that I made only has one door. That was for me mostly based on aesthetic reasons, in that I wanted the piece to have a large amount of its viewpoint not be directly referencing the functionality aspect of it. I wanted to make a sculpture that had an oven inside of it, I didn't want to make an oven that had an ornament. I was more interested from an artistic perspective in making something that I felt was visually compelling that also had this element of functionality inside of it. There’s a chimney on it, which is the number one tell of what it is and that was a decision I was going back and forth on in terms of whether I was going to let that be so distinguished on the surface or integrated into a larger mass. People see the chimney and then they get to “oven” very quickly, but you can see the back side of it and not see any of the door or the chimney and I like that you have those multiple viewpoints and the ambiguity that that creates in terms of people questioning what it is that they're looking at.

I have this theory around materials, as to not exoticize them and not to feel like I have to be so strict about where everything comes from. I wasn't going to go to San Miguel and get all of the clay and make the oven—like, we have clay here, and I think a big part of me understanding my identity as the second generation, or actually maybe the first, but I’ll say second generation, part of the Salvadoran diaspora, as the child of someone who migrated here, is that this is where I grew up, this is my home, and I have a connection to other places. I’ve also talked to a lot of food people, a lot of chefs who have this relationship to the material that they use in their food, which is like, they're going to use whatever they have access to here. They don't really feel the need to go and get this really specific kind of grain from a specific type of place. I mean, I know there are a lot of chefs that are really particular, but the people that I'm collaborating with on this project, for the most part, have some relationship to this idea of materiality. Part of my understanding of my family is that they use the best things that they have access to. They lived—and some still live—in poverty. So this idea of finding what they can and making something—the techniques and the intentionality of making this [oven] and the food that goes in it is more important than being so specific about every little detail of where the material comes from. So I ended up modeling [the oven] more off of like a European model, a European oven, because those were the most efficient materials and methods of construction that I could find, and I felt like that for me was more akin to the ways that my distant ancestors or even my very close relatives would have wanted to make it.

That seems like a really important point about the notion of authenticity and what it means to be part of a diaspora and using what you have, which might not be what your ancestors would have used, but you don't live where your ancestors did. 

It’s the history of food. It’s the history of migration and re-adapting of techniques and food styles and ingredients within different communities. It's that blending of spaces within a particular kind of tradition, like the history of al pastor in Mexico coming from Middle Eastern cooking techniques. For me it’s always so interesting and so much more a part of the reality of what it is to be bodies in motion on a planet that's in motion than something that's so fixed in time and space.

Did that whet your appetite? You can read my full interview with Eddie—wherein we discuss the logistics of creating a mega-hot oven for public space, and the first meal Eddie made in the oven for the park’s staff—on Weekly Special’s homepage, right here.

For Further Eating

Chef Michelle Lainez is a gem. Seriously. When I saw her in action a few weeks ago at Pansa del Publico, I was hooked from the first lines she spoke about the history of Salvadoran food—a cuisine I’m embarrassed to say I knew little about. I sat on a blanket, savoring a square of Salvadoran Quesadilla and drinking a cup of Salvadoran Horchata (which was next-level delicious), and felt a spirit of both fierceness and generosity emanating from Chef Michelle. She talked about the place of adobe ovens in Salvadoran communities and about the ingredients she had sourced for the food she was serving to us, all while supervising the oven and directing a team of helpers. Lots of chefs make great food; few are equally gifted as educators and cultural ambassadors.

After the event, I reached out to Michelle to ask if I could include her recipe for Salvadoran Quesadilla—a perfectly sweet-salty (and therefore very addictive) snacking cake with the most gorgeous crumb—in this week’s newsletter alongside my interview with Eddie. To my delight, she said yes! She gave me a few tips that I incorporated into the recipe below, and when I asked what personal meaning the recipe had for her, she told me, "Very few things make me feel as comforted as when I sink my teeth into freshly baked Quesadilla and sip warm cinnamon milk.” Having just devoured a thick slice with a mug of hot chai, I really couldn’t agree more.

Salvadoran Quesadilla

Serves 24

1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
7 large eggs
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon Diamond Crystal (or 1/2 teaspoon Morton kosher) salt
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk [if you have time to plan ahead, break a cinnamon stick in half and infuse in the buttermilk overnight for extra flavor]
1 1/2 cups finely grated Cotija cheese
1 1/2 cups finely grated Salvadoran queso duro or parmesan cheese [if you can find it, Michelle says the Salvadoran cheese makes a huge difference]
Ground cinnamon and white sesame seeds to garnish

1. Place a rack in the middle of your oven and preheat to 375°F. Butter an 18x13” rimmed sheet pan (also called a half sheet) and set aside.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk flour, baking powder, and kosher salt. Set aside.

3. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, whip butter and sugar until light, fluffy, and pale in color.

4. With the mixer running at medium-low speed, add eggs one by one until completely combined.

5. Reduce speed to low. Stir vanilla into buttermilk and add to the butter-sugar-egg in three batches, alternating with the flour mixture and incorporating completely after each addition.

6. Add both cheeses and mix until just combined.

7. Pour the batter into buttered sheet pan and spread evenly. Sprinkle liberally with ground cinnamon and sesame seeds.

8. Bake, rotating halfway through, until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 24 to 28 minutes. Let cool slightly. Run an offset spatula or paring knife around the edges, then turn out onto a cutting board and portion into 3” squares. Eat warm or at room temperature.

Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you next week!