With a spoon so unique that it looks as though it belongs in a museum, Rebecca Hoffberger stirs a colorful concoction of carrots and cabbage in the cheerful kitchen of her Owings Mills home. “This wood spoon came from Grace David, one of my artists,” says Hoffberger, founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum [AVAM]. “It’s from Africa, and it’s just so beautifully made. I love having a few special things to cook with that aren’t just from Williams-Sonoma or Macy’s.”
What else would one expect from the overseer of AVAM—a quirky treasure trove of art from self-taught and innovative artists? Like the museum she opened in 1995, Hoffberger’s Adirondack-style home is filled with eccentricities—from a set of kitchen chairs made from recycled rebar (reinforcement steel) and a Vollis Simpson whirligig with spinning ice-cream scoopers to a 1790s commode (with an upholstered cushion) used to seat guests in the living room.
A conversation with the 60-year-old Hoffberger is equally eclectic as she free associates on everything from her love of science (“I like looking at drops of blood under a microscope, seeing how microphage eats up all the junk in the blood.”) to delivering babies in a remote village in Mexico (“I was a quack, but I was good at it.”) to talking about herself as a child (“I liked Eloise because she was spirited.”).
Not surprisingly, Hoffberger’s anything-goes approach to self-expression is also reflected in the way she cooks. “When you measure precisely, that’s its own art,” she says. “It’s a more intellectual approach. But when you don’t measure, you have to feel. The power of intuition brings you into a closer relationship with what you’re doing.”
Trusting her instincts has been a guiding force throughout Hoffberger’s life. In the late ’60s, she dropped out of Pikesville High School at the end of her junior year to study mime in Paris with Marcel Marceau. “My parents wanted me to stay in Baltimore and learn to be a secretary or have a practical fallback,” Hoffberger says. “But they were very accepting.”
Out on her own, Hoffberger also learned her way around the kitchen. “When I moved to France at 16, that was where I really learned to cook,” she says. “One of the great things I learned is that if you’re cooking a main meal, the French use either butter or a little oil, some chopped celery, chopped onions, and a little garlic, and with that base, you can make anything.”
Hoffberger also learned to cook with local ingredients. “I love wild food,” she says. “Day lilies that you find on the side of the road right before they open up are delicious with olive oil and garlic and butter.”
This dish for “Garbage Veggie Spaghetti” is based on foraging in the fridge. (And while Hoffberger uses no form of measurement, we’ve given you some as a guide.) “Look at what hasn’t been used up,” says Hoffberger. “Just by being thrifty, you can come up with combinations you might not otherwise. Anyone who is truly creative sees relationships and potential where the rest of us don’t—and that’s what makes for all great inventions.”