Chas Addams, the South Fork and one unusual cookbook.
They’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky…
The words to the snap-along Addams Family theme song characterize Charles Addams’s entire cartoon oeuvre just as aptly as they describe Morticia, Gomez and the rest, characters that first appeared in his eerily elegant drawings in The New Yorker.
Depending on when you were born, you will probably have a different association with the artist known for his inimitable comic renderings of the macabre, the surreal and the just plain offbeat. Some best know his cartoons; others the television, film or musical incarnations of the Addamses. And a lucky few remember Addams as a neighbor in one of several small towns on the South Fork where he summered and then lived part-time during his later years.
In fact, the appeal of hosting wild parties for friends and an affinity for all things maritime (fishermen are players in many of Addams’s drawings) brought Addams out east, first to Westhampton Beach and then to a wet and verdant estate in Sagaponack, which he and his third wife, Tee, affectionately dubbed “the Swamp.” Today their property houses the offices of the Tee & Charles Addams Foundation, an organization dedicated to sharing Addams’s work through exhibitions and educational programs.
Though he would have had the public believe otherwise, Addams in person was more Cary Grant than Vincent Price, debonair with a sunny disposition and a love of life’s pleasures. And some of the things that gave Addams the most pleasure were glamorous company, his collections of vintage cars and medieval armor, a good drink and a great meal.
That food was a recurring subject in Addams’s cartoons should come as no surprise. Chas was, after all, a great satirist, and his 50-plus years at The New Yorker heralded many new trends in American eating habits that were ripe for lampooning. In one cartoon, a visitor to an apple orchard does a double-take over a tree that is also a coin-operated apple-vending machine; in another, a man gnawing on a tree is said to be “on a health food kick.” There is even an element of spoof in the culinary repertoire of Morticia, who, like the rest of the Addams Family, represents a ghastly send-up of American middle-class values and domesticity. As accomplished a cook as any good postwar wife, she seasons her dishes with eye of newt, and drops in on the neighbors to borrow a cup of cyanide as needed.
In the ’60s, Addams’s interest in food took an archival turn as he and Tee began compiling antiquated and unusual recipes. Among these is a guide to serving and eating fried locusts (“not unlike fried shrimp”), instructions for preparing black pudding and a recipe for stuffed heart of steer (for Valentine’s Day, naturally). In the Chas Addams Half-baked Cookbook, published posthumously by Simon & Schuster, these are brought together with a delectable assortment of Addams’s food-related cartoons. The result is a gut-busting banquet of Chekhov’s cherries, a Botticellian Venus on the half-shell, and, for dessert, a cake inscribed with the brief and unsavory felicitation, “R.I.P.“
Few American artists have achieved a more perfect fusion of style and content, and fewer still have done so much with the realization that humor and horror operate on the same principles of inversion and incongruity (though of course Tim Burton and Edward Gorey come to mind). In Addams’s cartoons, that element of incongruity tends to pop up in an environment that all too closely resembles our hometown, our home or our dinner table.
For an Addamsesque seafood bake that would make Morticia proud, we recommend “Macaroni and Oysters.” No eye of newt required.
Delia Casa is a South Fork native and a comics enthusiast/dabbler. She’d take Addams’s Venus over Botticelli’s any day.
The Tee & Charles Addams Foundation is located in Sagaponack. Visit charlesaddams.com to learn about upcoming programs, exhibitions and events.