John Riepenhoff is a painter, sculptor, and conceptual artist who also describes himself as a “food ideator,” which means he occasionally lends his artistic talents to make tasty things.
The Milwaukee-based artist spent several weeks embedded in Cleveland developing his art project for FRONT International, a new region-wide contemporary art triennial that will launch July 14. The event will feature the works of 50-plus artists at 11 venues spanning east to west, from Oberlin to University Circle, and south to Akron, much of it on view in the public space.
Contemporary artists have a propensity to explore unusual forms and to push the boundaries of how we define art. John’s artistic contribution to FRONT does not involve a brush or canvas and it was not created in a studio. John’s artistic vision for FRONT, with a theme of “An American City,” manifests in the form of a custom-made sausage that is intended to represent old and new Cleveland.
Cleveland Curry Kojiwurst was borne of a collaboration with chef, forager, and deli owner Jeremy Umansky and Patrick Kearns, executive director of The Refugee Response. The sausage is made with locally sourced meats and a custom Cleveland Curry blend composed of more than 20 spices. Cleveland Curry Kojiwurst fuses the flavors of Cleveland’s eastern European past with the flavors of the city’s contemporary immigrant population.
The sausage is meant to be as symbolic as it is delicious. “I like that sausage is a metaphor. It represents connecting things, a time-based linking of history, connecting people and heritage, an old food model and the new,” John said.
Curry is a complex spice blend that can vary by country, neighborhood, or even by family. John combined flavors representative of the old, Eastern European roots like paprika, cumin, and coriander, with essences like galangal and saffron, inspired by Cleveland’s newer residents—immigrants from places like Burma, Thailand, Africa, and Afghanistan.
John sees food as a way to make introductions and bridge differences. “We have new immigrants coming in, and there’s a growing sense of otherness. I wanted to incorporate aspects of their cultures into something familiar to Clevelanders,” John said.
Jeremy, already known to locals for his creative and pioneering applications of foraged plants and koji in his modern Jewish deli, Larder, was thrilled to collaborate with John on such a meaningful project. “We created a curry mix that uses wild foraged ingredients that the native peoples who lived near here would have used, ingredients that the settlers who came here would have used, and ingredients brought here by recent transplants via The Refugee Response at the Ohio City Farm. This blend of spices truly tells the tale of who we were, are, and will be,” Jeremy said.
Spices were procured from vendors at the West Side Market, and other ingredients were grown at the Ohio City Farm from seeds that were planted earlier in the year. Both men, one a conceptual artist and the other a culinary artist, recognize an important social ecosystem in the collaboration to bring Cleveland Curry Kojiwurst to life.
John sees similarities between his home city and Cleveland. Both cities have a keen appreciation for history, and are willing to celebrate the richness of emerging regional cultures. “Food has an endless list of great qualities; becoming part of us and helping us have a relationship with the world,” he said. “It quells anxieties and introduces us to differences.”
The sausage will be available for sale by various vendors at the West Side Market, and the Cleveland Curry spice blend will also be open sourced to other vendors who would like to incorporate it into their products. Additionally, it will be available to purchase at various public events that are part of the FRONT International schedule.