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Top Ten 2010

(originally posted December 29, 2010) Considering the tragic, scary and downright stupid things which dominated the news this year, we thought we would end our last newsletter of 2010 with a Top Ten list that speaks to brilliance and talent, with one pertinent reminder that because nothing ever stays the same ~ the only direction that ultimately matters is forward.

1. The Low Budget Film, alive and kicking

The Social Network had a great script, and Inside Job should be required viewing for every American, but the cinematic theme of the year wasn’t about greed and technology, rampant though they both are. Film is primarily a visual medium, so it was all the more remarkable that the most inspired films released this year focused on how, in spite or because of the proliferation of social media, language is failing us. Nicole Holofcener’s mordant, deeply funny Please Give was a pointed but gentle rebuke at the narcissistic face of liberal guilt. Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love was a ravishing visual roman à clef that brought Visconti to mind, confirmed Tilda Swinton’s face as a force of nature, and for all the power in which it captured the empty language of the rich, could have been a silent picture. Of all our favorite films this year, however, none was more impressive than Debra Granik’s Winter's Bone. An explosion of brilliant new talent both in front of and behind the camera, it was the kind of low budget film about the human condition we used to think only foreigners could make. A mystery, an exploration of what it means to be poor and illiterate in America, and, most poignantly, a use of lost language as spare and wounding as a Faulknerian tone poem, this is a great American film. In drawing a world bereft of morality and faith, it speaks to what happens when human beings fall back on superstitions and tribal tradition to guide their destiny. Which, when you think about it, is a pretty powerful global message as well.

2. Montaigne Rules

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was the great American novel of the year, deserving of all the hype, but the most remarkable book this year, for being both a homecoming and a map to the future, was How to Live (or) A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell. An inventive biography about a dude who lived four hundred years ago, Bakewell invites us to re-discover a voice so honest, charming and clever its wisdom is as relevant today as any self-help book you are likely to find. I am an unapologetic member of the dying tribe that still believes the unexamined life is not worth living, but even if your definition of wisdom runs only to aphorism, you will find a lot to chew on here. Bakewell does an extraordinary job of letting Michel Eyquem de Montaigne speak for himself, while placing him firmly in a Renaissance tradition that exalted the life of the mind. This genteel nobleman was a winegrower who spoke fluent Latin, a self-taught philosopher who participated fully in politics and invented the short for essay which he used to reflect amusingly on every issue of the day. Montaigne believed the more thought we put into life, the more we get out of it. Amen to that.

3. Park Here If You Must

I’ve not yet been inside Herzog & de Meuron’s new parking & retail structure in Miami, 1111 Lincoln Road Garage, but I almost don’t need to. It's pretty damn hard to rethink space on any level in the current economic climate ~ when you work as big as these guys do it's practically impossible. Yet this Swiss firm consistently challenges preconceived notions of material, design and program in future-forward ways. While the current focus in architecture on ecological and ergonomic utility is certainly important, aesthetically, when it comes to public spaces that aren’t deep pocket museums, it’s been pretty much of a bust. As Healdsburg’s parking problems continue to grow, it’s refreshing to think there may be alternatives to addressing that problem without resorting to the concrete parking bunker. 1111 Lincoln has a mixed-use program with pop-up retail on the top floor. Its undulating concrete walls will eventually be grown to soften the ‘view’ of all that metal inside. During the recent Art Basel Miami Beach some of its vast floor space was also used for performance art, very cool indeed. Even for a town as small as ours I see the potential of parking cars, flea market sales, and stimulating performance art all in one place, especially when that art could represent a segment of the community that cannot afford high street rents.

4. In Bed with Jon and Frank

With the exception of my husband, I spent an inordinate amount of quality time in bed with these two men this year. Late at night, especially when it was a frustrating news day, I fell asleep with a smile on my face thanks to Jon Stewart, America's court jester, who says what we are all thinking a hell of a lot funnier than it plays in our aching heads. Frank Rich provided a different kind of salve for these trying times. In an age when facts have become almost beside the point on a increasingly partisan and commercialized media playing field, his thoroughly researched, riveting editorials in the New York Times every Sunday morning were David and Goliath efforts that never failed to speak truth to power.

 

5. Public Speaking

While Stewart and Rich deserve twin “the Emperor is Wearing No Clothes” awards this year, Martin Scorsese did us all a favor by bestowing a lifetime achievement nod on Fran Lebowitz, the closest thing America has to a wit the size of Oscar Wilde’s with the feminine acuity of Dorothy Parker. Public Speaking, which arrived on cable without much fanfare is a program that actually lives up to being Must See TV. An hour spent with this woman is an instant elixir, brief respite to the proliferation of Kim Kardasian types and all those other 'fame ho’s' (both male and female) that increasingly clutter the airwaves, and our lives. This is that rare hour of amusing enlightenment which sidesteps youth for age, fake beauty for character, stupidity for profundity. I was especially taken with her remarks about the audience that was lost with AIDS and how that has affected the arts, and the importance of elitism in culture (as opposed to building an elitist society) which has lead to a degradation of quality that has affected every aspect of American cultural life.

 

6. Jamie at Home

One of the questions I asked myself in 2010 ~ that I didn’t get any closer to answering~ was why food programs on TV continue to get worse instead of better. With the proliferation of farmer's markets, the fervent interest in sourcing, the rise of urban farming, why does food programming increasingly reek of such dumbing down? I haven’t been a fan of the Food Network since they went over to the dark side dropping Mario for Paula. So I was thrilled to find Jamie Oliver over on the Cooking Channel (with fellow Brits Nigella Lawson and Two Fat Ladies) a few months back. I have no idea if he really lives on his farm with Jools and the kids, cooking in wood fired ovens using food he has grown, and I really don’t care. His visceral description of ingredients, the way he touches food, the simplicity of his ideas (recipes are almost besides the point for Jamie) are simply brilliant. I’ve loved Jamie since Naked Chef days. He is a lovely boy (as my dear friend Lynda would say) who has taken his fame as a serious opportunity to improve everything around him for as long as the dance lasts. Yes, his experience with getting Americans to eat healthier was a disaster, but this program is worth taping and referring back to. If you don’t get the channel, go online where you can download the recipes for free.

7. Jil at Home

Speaking of food that doesn’t have to be precious to be delicious, go figure that the best meal I had all year (not made by Chef Fancher) was a simple vegetable soup. Why vegetable soup when I had the great privilege to eat food from the kitchens of Mario, Jean-George, Daniel, April, David, Doug and Ari? You know the Paul Simon line ‘life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans?’ Sometimes it's true about great dishes as well. Food was the last thing on my mind when I started to think about dinner on November 2nd. The stupidity and vitriol in the run-up to the elections that day had, quite literally, made me sick to my stomach. As it was a Tuesday and the restaurant was closed, I rummaged through the walk-in and the fridges, then spent a long time foraging through the raised herb and vegetables beds behind the gallery. It must have taken three hours to make that soup. At first I was simply avoiding the results of the election, but slowly, as I sliced every vegetable carefully, adding them to the pot one at a time, patiently watching them turn translucent, bubble, and simmer I came to see that while the results were now out of my control, feeding myself, my family, and members of the human race who, by luck or by design, wander into Barndiva, wasn’t. In the end I didn’t make that soup so much as it made me. When I finally came to taste it I took great pride in the balance of sweet to salty, the rooty, herbal, heavenly smell, the glorious color. When Geoff tasted it later that night he looked up and said “this is really great, what’s in it?” “Hope”, I replied. He probably thought I was crazy, but there is nothing new in that.

8. Cocktail of the Year

I don’t care if it sounds like nepotism, the best cocktails anywhere this year were served here at the barn. Strawberry Life called for the ripest of wild strawberries macerated into a cognac base to which we added a touch of Nagori Sake (cloudy, the result of unfiltered dormant yeast particles), homegrown Thai Basil and fresh lemon juice. Finished with a mist of Crème de Violette, it was summer in a glass which we should have called Sex in the Grass (no, not that grass Virginia). Ernest in Love, another favorite (ode to Hemingway’s first marriage) featured Tequila and Aperol with local watermelon compressed with lemongrass, lime juice, agave nectar and, as a grace note, a spray of fresh rosewater. Thanks in great part to Stefan’s mad genius and Adam and Sammy’s desire to push the limits, we infused spirits with all manner of fresh fruit, herb and spice drams, cold smoked apples and rosemary from our farm, washed brown butter, infused rare black teas, fabricated pumpkin curries and stone fruit jams, chopped through all manner of homegrown chili and exotic citrus until our eyes rolled. Croatian cherries? No problem. Jack Daniel's barrel woodchips? Torch ‘em. With the exception of the night Stefan almost burned down the barn cooking up some concoction, every drink these three guys put out this year was bloody brilliant. I was a very proud mama indeed (albeit one with an aching liver.) Cocktail of the year goes to The Lover (named after the great Marguerite Duras novella of the same name) because it perfectly balanced my favorite fruit (white peaches) with fresh ginger and the green herbal notes of lemon verbena we grew from a plant Bonnie Z gave us. Filtered sake and a hit of Navarro grape juice added sweet and yeasty notes. We finished the drink at the bar by igniting a poof of green chartreuse ~ this Divatini even had magic. The trick of making craft cocktails at this level is that all the flourishes must soften and meld the minute you pick up the glass to drink. These do. Cheers.

9. Picture of the Year

Without a doubt you will find more globally important images if you click the links below, but the moment Lukka captured of the Healdsburg Post Office burning resonates deeply for us on several levels. It marks the end of an era: no more walking distractedly through town to post a letter and find the moment of the day in which the town reclaimed you. Sometimes it was just a wave from a neighbor, a quick coffee from Flying Goat, a simple breeze that made you look up at the trees in the Plaza. I am not alone in mourning the loss that experience will mean to living here. But in the weeks and months that followed the fire, as it became clear that efforts by Jim Wood, Ray Holly and others to re-build would come to naught, I began to understand that more than the post office was gone. What if the loss we were experiencing on a community level was just the beginning of the end to Snail Mail which will be gone soon, like listening to music on CD’s, watching films on DVD’s, conversing on land-line telephones. Some of these ‘advances’ are good, no doubt, and all of them will seem inevitable when we look back. What is hardest to reconcile is how change like this undermines a precious connection to the time and place, and to the people you accidentally get to know when you wandered out to experience life first hand.

New York Times 2010 year in pictures

Magnum Photos of 2010

10. A Town Full of Babies

Losing the post office was sad, which makes the last item on our top ten list all the more important. 2010 was the Year of the Baby here in Healdsburg ~ everywhere you looked gorgeous babies glided by with their newly minted parents, making everyone in their wake feel like a cockeyed optimist. Some were spied repeatedly dining in our gardens or at Scopa, others were seen hiding in the foliage at Dragonfly, the changing rooms at Arboretum, the shampoo station at Brush. One young man we knew as a baby had his first, while our bookkeeper had her fifth. This proliferation of new life, the growth of families that have put roots down here and have already contributed so much ~ with so much more left to come ~ is something we can take joy in. And we do.

 

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Not in Kansas Anymore

(Originally posted December 8, 2010)

I often start to write these blogs in my head, which saves time when I can edit in there as well. Last week in NYC, walking blissfully through a Central Park ablaze with glorious fall color, I was playing with the idea of using Oz as a metaphor for the role the city has played in my life. At the exact instant I thought naw, yellow brick roads of possibility is going to sound trite, a tumultuous windstorm came out of nowhere, lifting thousands of leaves high into the air. Runners halted, mothers covered their children’s heads, tourists like Geoff and I, stunned, looked around dumbly, as if for the culprit. It was a truly serendipitous moment, magical, but also a bit unnerving. Classic New York.

I was in New York ostensibly to help my second son relocate from London. Secretly however, I also went in hopes a week there would shake me from the awful mood I had been unable to vanquish since the election. The tenor of discourse in the country has fallen so low, grown so ugly, I have begun to fear that nothing good will ever come from the way we currently practice democracy. Where are we going as a nation? Who are we anymore? As the world sinks into what feels like unprecedented violence, both natural and man-made, too many Americans have resorted to a mindset ever more petty and short sighted, deeply mistrustful of anything which requires intellect or reason.

In the past New York has afforded me solace, if not answers to questions like these. I was 16 when my despairing parents, “at our wits end!” shipped me off to a very rich aunt who lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. They were expecting a miracle, or, failing that, a short course finishing school. My aunt took one look at me in full hippie attire, a backpack of contraband and a guitar I could not play slung over my shoulder, threw up her hands and promptly decamped to her daughter's house in Connecticut. The closest thing I had to minders for the rest of the summer was a cabal of doormen who thought I was crazy. I wasn’t. I was confused and deeply disillusioned, mostly about the war in Vietnam.

Though I only lasted the summer, by happenstance several things conspired to keep me safe and propel me to a place where I began the long journey trying to make sense of Power with a capital P, and the creaky way it turns most people’s lives on history’s spit. I was young, dumb and stoned enough most of the time not to fear the city, and as I was intrepid in my appetite for adventure, explored Manhattan from Harlem to what was then a meatpacking district with actual butchers. Coming from monosyllabic LA, where vocabulary basically consisted of only three statements ~ “far out,” “that’s cool (especially when something wasn’t), and “bitchen” (when something was), I was fascinated with the way new yawkers talked, talked, talked. Everyone, from the countess across the hall to the taxi drivers who picked me up late at night, dispensed advice. In Paris success in social conversation resides in the perfect bon mot, in Italy the well chosen hand gesture, in New York it means 'having the last word.' Which of course is not a word at all, but a stream of passionate, opinionated, often colorful lectures that fall somewhere between a short story and a graduate thesis. On any subject. Even if marginally not worth talking about in the first place.

On long hot muggy days, waiting for night to fall, I stalked the halls of great old American buildings stuffed with Robber Baron art, starting with the Frick, one of greatest small museums in the world, which happened to be right across the street. It was my first exposure to art where I wasn’t tagging along with my mother, or forced to look at muddy prints in boring school lessons. Experiencing it on my own, from a vulnerable yet curiously open place, it opened my eyes to a number of things. The first was that Americans didn’t understand sex or the female body, (I was from LA, remember, which still doesn’t). It was incredibly exciting to know there was a whole sensual world out there. The second, which spoke directly to the pain I was in, was the extent to which art was a valuable witness to the misuse of power that is repeated in every age, no matter who the man was behind the curtain is. What was taking place in my lifetime wasn’t an aberration of history. While I must have already known this on some level, instead of making me even sadder, as I studied canvas after canvas of masterful paintings and sculpture going back more than 500 years, I began to see a concurrent theme of hope and ambition. One that, against the odds, almost seemed to be fueled by adversity. The history of art is the history of an indomitable human spirit, a hunger not just to survive, but to see the beauty in life, bruised though it may be. Life is opportunity, which for an artist starts with the very impulse to pick up a brush or chisel.

We stayed at The Surry for the first three days, a hotel not far from my old haunting grounds. In the clear bracing sunshine we walked in the park, took our time over delicious prix fixe lunches at Café Boulud (which happily was attached to our hotel), then climbed the big steps of the Met and went our separate ways, or slowly trailed each other, until just before closing. Below are my notes on a few of the shows that I saw. The Barndiva Newsletter is primarily focused on food and art; both are sources of nourishment without which we cannot survive. But even if you are not traveling East in the next few months, the diversity of what you find in any great museum is essential viewing. The Met, sadly, is one of the few in NY that is still free if you do not have the money to donate ‘an appropriate’ entrance fee. It astounds me that we are making fine art an elitist sport in this country when it offers one of the few singular opportunities for citizens of all persuasions (income levels, ethnicities, religions) to come together in consideration of shared human values. Go to a museum and look around, not just at what is on the walls.

I won’t lie: while my time in NYC’s museums and parks topped up a flagging spirit, the most important moments for me on this trip were those I spent with my family. Seeing the Metropolitan Opera’s Così fan Tutte with my daughter ~ her first opera experience. Having a grown son know enough about New York (and for that matter, life) to guide us straight into Bemelmans Bar when the sky opened and a sudden rainstorm clamored down. Noisy and late dinners at Del Posto, abc kitchen, Pastis, where, for a few hours, it was permissible to believe that good restaurants, the ones that source with their hearts and take care to provide great service, like Barndiva, will survive this recession. (A glass raised to Mario Batali who has the biggest balls right now in this big balled restaurant town, not only for what it took to build the beautifully retro Del Posto and take it to four stars, but for his just launched and truly audacious attempt, with his partners, the mother and son Bastianich, to create America’s first great food hall in Eataly).

I also won’t lie that all those experiences cost money. A not inconsiderable amount of it. My point is that even as we feed the essential personal narratives in our lives, to whatever extent we find important and can afford, we need to make time to consider upping our participation in institutions and public open spaces that everyone can enjoy and reflect in.

On one of our last days Geoff and I walked the new High Line Park, on the lower east side, where we were now staying. Even in the cold, without the families with dogs and young children, it was easy to see what a wonderful addition this park is to the city. Designed by the always excellent Diller, Scofidio + Renfro out of a raised rail track built in the 1930’s but unused for the past thirty years, it instantly transforms one’s view of the city ~ not just the views down into the streets, but an inner view of what it means to reclaim and interact with awkward unused urban spaces. The High Line is a sculptural park with simple but sinuous benches of concrete and old wood that rise up out of the old tracks. The hardscape is softened with a landscaping plan by James Corner primarily of grasses which pay homage to what had been growing there wild, since the trains stopped running.

I was greatly impressed with Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart's Renaissance, an exhibit of lush representational color with a politically subversive subtext which must have raised eyebrows at the time. The Dutch empire fell from a height of considerable power for sins of hubris, so make your own connections on that score. This was a good one for me to see right now.

 

 

In conjunction with viewing the work of Gossart, I was really looking forward to an exhibit of a series of Joan Miró pieces that the great Spanish artist did shortly after he returned from studying the Dutch masters at the start of his career. But while the works in Miró: The Dutch Interiors makes clear the colorful and compositional connections between what would seem two remarkably incompatible styles, the show was not as revealing as I hoped. Not really a surprise: Miró is to the Dutch movement like Jeff Koons is to real sex. Having said that, for me, a day where you can see three roomfuls of Mirós, even marginal ones, is always a joy.

 

Of the exhibits I managed to see, I was least impressed with John Baldessari: Pure Beauty, the much touted show of the season, which, intended irony aside, simply was not. (beautiful) For me this show was another case of the Emperor's New Clothes a la Art Basel. From all accounts Baldessari was a great teacher, but in even his strongest work here (and with the exception of what he burned in the 70’s, it's all here) this is art with a heart of stone, wordplay that is dated, video that makes me long for Nam June Paik. Baldessari is an LA artist in the same way Frank Gehry is an LA architect. There is great irreverence here to be admired, a “take that” attempt at disarming pretension anyone hoping to survive LA must have in their DNA, but whereas Gehry plays to his strengths in three dimensions, Baldessari’s antipathy to negative space produces work that is flat and ugly, devoid of even a rueful use of color. I would love someone to explain why this shit works for them.

Which is not to say that living the vida loca (modern life IS crazy) does not come with a concomitant desire to take a deeper look at why post war prosperity ultimately led to the American soul becoming disenfranchised. American’s suffer from a misconception of what material wealth really brings to the table, that much is clear and sorely needs to be addressed. Lee Friedlander: America By Car at the Whitney (which I wandered into by accident on my way to visit the Hopper exhibit upstairs) is the real deal. Taken over the last decade through his car window while he crisscrossed America, it is one of those shows that builds as you move through it. The exhibit is a revelation that speaks to Friedlander’s talent for composition which brilliantly straddles wit with profundity. Image after image reveals what happens when our insatiable hunger for illusion gets left by the roadside. Like unfinished poems, the detritus and people he captures along the highways and byways of this country made the point about junk culture the Baldessari exhibit didn’t. Think Wim Wenders of Paris, Texas crossed with Bruegel the Elder if you transferred his work to black and white and then set to having some fun with a mimeo machine.

My favorite show this fall, perhaps because I was on a lover's journey in New York, was Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand which takes up a number of connecting backrooms at the Met. Stieglitz, the master teacher, and his two most famous protégées (who arguably overtook him in the craft) captured images from a mindset we hardly remember now as the instant documentary aspects of the medium have subsumed the painterly qualities they sought to capture. In addition to being beautiful in their own right, most of these images are fragrant love letters to New York, and while I have seen many of them before, seeing them collected together in room after room, made me realize that all the bells and whistles we've added to the medium of photography hasn't done as much to capture its soul as envisioned by these pioneers. Technical virtuosos in their day, while that aspect of their work is no longer remarkable to our 21st Century eyes, their approach to the details of everyday life is all the more thrilling when you realize so much of what they captured happened in the incredible city right outside the door of the museum.

Links: The High Line The Surrey Hotel (I booked The Surrey at half price on Jetsetter which you can join for free.) My favorite travel site, Tablet, also has auctions every week worth checking out if you are willing to spend a bit more on boutique accommodations. SoHo House- These are among the biggest and most comfortable rooms in Manhattan if you can take the neighborhood which parties on Fridays and Saturdays until the wee hours. Great spa and you are graciously invited to all the in-house events. I came back from dinner too late one night for the premier of Paul Haggis' The Next Three Days but I crashed the after party and though I knew not a soul, had a good time.

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Cat in the Orchard

(originally posted October 13, 2010)

The compulsion to make art has been with us for 17,000 years. For most of that time, the foremost question asked of the artist (perhaps second only to where’s the rent) has been why do you do it ~ where does this unstoppable urge to create come from? It’s a fascinating question especially if you’ve never had the calling, but beware the loquacious artist ~ Picasso pops to mind ~ who can come up with what sounds like a dazzling answer to what is ultimately a goose chasing question.

“You might as well ask me why I get out of bed in the morning,” an artist friend once explained, to this day the most refreshingly honest answer I’ve heard. By and large, art is made by people because ~ excuse the double negative ~ they can’t not make it. Doesn’t matter whether the art they make is good or bad. In your or anyone else’s opinion. They make art because, just like getting up in the morning, there is simply no alternative for them. Even in an extreme case, like van Gogh, anybody out there really think he wouldn't have flicked the switch in exchange for a normal, but art free life? He couldn't, not didn't. And constant use of his messed up mental health by art critics the world over as an explanation of his work is not just a ruse, it’s an insult to his genius.

An infinitely more interesting question is why we need art, what we see in it that is so intrinsically different from what we see just walking around, living our lives. Surely art explains the world to us, but while we can’t argue that context is unimportant, don’t trust history alone for an answer as to why you respond so deeply to one artist’s work, while you are left cold by another’s. In any case, the historical “reasons” we make art change every few hundred (or thousand) years. Since we’ve been keeping track we’ve gone from religion (with God the Über curator) to documentation (Vermeer and the Camera Obscura onward) to a need to explore the psyche (Freud and the Surrealist Movement did a nice tango on this one). For the last few decades art has been obsessed with finding meaning in materialism ~ you can thank Andy Warhol for the soulless Jeff Koons generation. My point is that while context is important, something else is up with our fascination, our need to look at and experience art. Is it finding grace? Is it looking in the mirror? Is it seeing our worst fears exposed?

A few years ago I dragged the family to NYC to see a Gustav Klimt exhibit, 8 paintings and a 120 drawings, at the Neue Galerie, Ronald Lauder’s exquisite private museum on the edge of Central Park. Though one of the most published artists in history, endless squabbles over Klimt’s legacy has made viewing more than one painting at time nearly impossible. The exhibit did not disappoint, but what happened unexpectedly while I was there set me thinking about context in a whole new light. Starting out in poverty, Klimt trained at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, immediately gaining acceptance and public commissions by Emperor Franz Joseph I. But instead of following a proscribed career, in 1887 he founded the Vienna Secession, a controversial group that encouraged unconventional artistic expression, invited exhibits by foreigners, and published a manifesto that debunked the myth that any one artistic style ~ especially what was in vogue at the time ~ should rein supreme. In short, at the turn of a century that would see two world wars change the map of Europe and, not least, the direction of art forever, Klimt helped push the envelope. Even when briefly shunned by society ~ his work deemed pornographic by every quarter that had once supported him ~ he defied conventions of the day, broke from tradition and become one of the most successful artists of all time.

Towards the end of the day I found myself standing in front of Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. The painting, which had been purchased by Lauder for $135 million ~ the highest price ever paid for a single work at the time ~ depicts a beautiful, fragile Jewish woman engulfed in a gilded, intricately decorated world that we know from history was on the precipice of extinction. Lush, subdued color draws the viewer into a universe that cossets yet distinguishes the female form from the fabric of her history. Light skims off the surface of burnished gold leaf, while intricate ornamental detail is eloquently rendered with flowing sinuous lines. Egyptian, Byzantine, Japanese influences, arguably all present, are subsumed by techniques that speak to no known style at all. What seems a sharp edged nod to a Dürer engraving catches in the light and disappears, only to be replaced by a soft tonal mosaic that brings ~ of all people ~ the neo-impressionist Seurat to mind.

As I stood there, a nine-year-old girl who had pulled away from her mother in another gallery came to stand beside me. While all these thoughts were going through my mind, she shifted uncomfortably from side to side. Like it, I asked? Yeah, she said, gnawing at her sleeve, but why is she so sad? Is she, I countered, to which the girl’s eyes, which had been darting around the canvas, looked directly into mine and held for a good five count ~ eons for a nine year old. The only thing free of her body is her mind, she replied. A non-contextual response, to be sure, but she had nailed it. In that moment, somewhere between the two of us, Klimpt’s ghost stirred.

In a few week’s time the question of context will become particularly relevant as the studio mounts Susan Preston’s “One Button Off,” the last show of this exciting and transitional year for us. Susan is one of the most well known and ~ though she would be the last to admit it ~ beloved members of our community. She and her husband Lou have created, in Preston of Dry Creek Farm and Winery, a living agrarian document that eloquently tells a deeply political story which has been instrumental in helping to inform Sonoma County’s embrace of sustainability. The edible gifts of their working farm, which exist so successfully alongside their vineyards, winery and tasting room, have also helped expand a previously limited viticultural agenda for Sonoma that was up to now scarily Napa bound. If you’ve visited the winery, walked the grounds, been lucky to share in their hospitality on any Guadagni Sunday or at any one of a number of public events they host, you cannot have missed how a refined artistic presence infuses everything they do. We live in a county where great wealth has spawned many extremely beautiful wineries, but few speak so fully of an independent artistic vision.

What we haven’t yet seen, though it has been much anticipated, is a full viewing outside the framework of their family endeavors of Susan Preston’s work as an artist.

The one-woman show will consist of 14 pieces. The hallmarks of past work will be there ~ the use of wordplay and talisman; the almost mystical transformation of the most common materials ~ but there is a great deal more here as well. A sense of universal themes with rousing, if slightly disturbing narratives. Susan Preston has what I can only describe as a lovers gaze for the animal/people that live in her world, an understanding of sensuality as distinct from gender, a belief that a battered nature is still capable of rocking us to sleep at night. This is a world where fools are kings and art has all the power of the confessional.

The greatest thing about starting with the premise that art need not document anything other than itself is that it enables the viewer to cauterize the aesthetic experience, allowing all the blood to flow back into what you have in front of you. This, at the end of the day, is really all you need to react, feel, reject, or love a work of art. While it may be hard to separate the Susan Preston for whom all actions have consequences (the better to eat you my dear) with Susan Preston, the artist, go for it. The exhibit, which opens on November 10th will run through December. Oh, and don’t forget to bring a nine year old if you happen to have one lying around.

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Complicated Lives

(originally posted November 10, 2010) Simple lines…complicated faces, the man next to me mumbled. He was talking to himself, but I followed his gaze to a poster across the underground track on the wall just beyond where we were standing, waiting for the train. London was awash in great art shows that winter but the Giotto Exhibit, which the poster was touting, was not high on my list. Religious painters are not my thing really. Yet once the stranger had drawn my attention to the image of the Madonna and child I found I could not look away. Beneath a film of soot the face of a woman who lived centuries before me glowed with incandescent dignity. I felt a better person just being in the same space with her.

I thought about that moment a few weeks back as Susan Preston and I moved through her studio on West Dry Creek looking through a collection of paintings that would comprise her one-woman show at Studio Barndiva, which opens November 10th. It may seem like a stretch to compare the work of a woman living today in a small farming community in Northern California with a man who, in wrestling with how to present the human form realistically on a flat surface, developed his own language for three-dimensional space that changed the course of art history. But that’s the thing about remarkable art: its capacity to capture the singular attributes which make us human transcend both time and providence.

Susan Preston is also an artist who begins with an extremely shallow picture plane that she fills, sparely, with ‘naïve’ characters who challenge our notion of what it means to be spiritually relevant. Whereas artists of Giotto’s time painted from a place infused with religious certainty, Preston, a woman very much of our time, poses a series of complex moral dilemmas. She does this through the development of a mixed-media/mixed-message language that is both literary and textural, resulting in work that, very much like the great Italian master, leaves us believing that the spiritual is ever present.

Take the half naked woman sheltering beneath the waves of Just Drops, Really. Is she the artist viewing history from a distance, or mother nature herself surreptitiously controlling the faceless monks as they make their Canterbury-like way down the mountain, catching rain drops any which way they can? She views the scene with a curious detachment from her self-contained envelope, neither strident nor embarrassed in her nakedness which, despite her age, radiates a rakish charm. Step away from the canvas and you are left contemplating an utterly contemporary question Giotto never had to consider: resources and who controls them. This confrontation without violence is a recurrent Preston theme, one that hints, if not confers, contemplative power.

This is especially true of her babies. These old souls, wise as Buddhas, complacent as cool California dudes, resonate without having to interact with the spare natural order that surrounds them. The caped baby in On Top of the Mountain and little boy on the back of a yak in Upward Tears are all but oblivious to the crow and farm woman who respectively share their world, yet the artist manages to convey that a powerful connection exists between them. The babies of Heaven of the Milk Tree pay little or no attention to the forbidding tree that dominates their landscape, yet their direct but unreadable expressions challenge the viewer to wonder if those dripping fruits which loom above them are filled with milk, or poison (life-giving or deadly). I Can’t Decide, the artist avers, in the title of Milk Tree’s companion piece, leaving us forced to engage with the work on yet a deeper level if we want to arrive at an answer. Which, I would hazard a guess, is precisely what she had in mind.

As for the Preston women, indecision reigns here as well. Motionless while dangerous insects creep into their hair (Hold Still), sanguine and naked in the face of traveling monks, (Just Drops, Really), even with a spike coming out of the head (We’ll Never Do That Again) they persevere with lacerating visual humor co-joined with word play used subversively in the title, or directly written onto the canvas. Whatever the animal is in One Button Off, it is surely female, and dressed for tea and sherry with Dottie at the Algonquin. With Comb Your Hair Jezebel the absent Jezebel, represented by two suspended combs, tines facing inward, answers the exhortation (by her mother?) not with words, but with a solid wall of black that vibrates affirmation in the negative. Black is often used as a conduit for Preston’s question and answer games. Take the portrait of the woman who dominates We’ll Never Do That Again, who for all the nostalgia implied by the use of the silhouette is not only disconnected from her body, but has that alarming bolt driven straight into her elegantly coiffed head. Which of the two calamities that has befallen her will “We” not do again?

Yet for all the unsettling questions that go unanswered in these paintings, they are not sad pictures, not by a long shot. With an irreverent and politically charged sense of the absurd the artist creates a strange band of characters and anthropomorphic animals that challenge our perceptions of what it really means to be alive, to be hungry. They also give us the chance to reflect on a universal truth: no sooner do we gain command of life than circumstances beyond our control will no doubt shake the ground we stand on.

This shifting sense of reality is made manifest visually with Preston’s collage technique which relies heavily on the use of distressed recycled paper. The brown paper ~ a supermarket variety which we all know so well from a lifetime of carting groceries home ~ is put through a time consuming process in which she buries, drowns, irons, and over paints it with watery gauche, the better to see through. This alchemy transforms the uniform brown into a gorgeous tonal pallet that brings to mind sun-baked earth, cracked leather, butterscotch, wheat, parchment, and sand. Under her hand, ordinary paper becomes all but unrecognizable, yet somehow retains the very essence of itself.

As wonderful as her use of paper is, it is but half a visual pas de deux that takes an archaic reference of reflective gold, once used for its resplendence and to confer both spiritual and political power, and turns it on its head. Here, beneath a cracked pavement of cut and torn paper, a silvery world beckons. The inference, that there is nothing to stop us finding magic in the most prosaic of materials (in this case chewing gum wrappers) goes well beyond the trope that all that glitters is not gold. Viewed straight on, the juxtaposition of textural organic earth tones edged with silver registers as a flat opaque surface, but the moment the viewer commits ~ an eye moving across the canvas, a shift of the body ~ light catches along the irregularly cut edges of paper igniting a grid of luminous intersecting lines, electrifying the entire canvas.

Though they have the power to haunt you for days, these are not, to my mind, personal pictures. The artist herself remains very much a mystery to the viewer. The one exception is Goodbye Pina, painted after the death of the great dance choreographer Pina Bausch. With an initial nod to Giotto’s God in the heavenly direction Pina’s body takes in her contorted dance of death, Preston then refuses to relinquish her beloved muse to an idealized heaven. Pina dances into eternity only after she has risen through an undulating landscape and crossed over into a searing black monolithic sky. Relieved of her pain and made whole again, the power of this simply drawn figure in danceflight is remarkable.

A versifier of the highest order (she could easily have been a poet) words are used to great effect throughout the pieces in One Button Off. We Killed The Wrong Twin begs two questions: our complicity, and why the wrong twin needed to be killed in the first place; Bring It Back may be a refrain from the kid issuing the baby bottles from his mouth, or again, from the artist to the viewer about our inability to feed ourselves in what Preston, in her other life as a organic farmer, knows full well are dire times. The elongated goat in I Never Told You I Was A Contortionist, clearly is, while the caped baby in On Top Of The Mountain, clearly is not. Are these titles lies, or, by being put on notice to suspect all words, are we simply being cajoled into making new meanings from them? Take your pick. By consistently sneaking up on the viewer and whispering discreet possibilities in our ear, on both an intellectual and a sensual level Susan Preston has made it clear in this collection that we are free to consider all options. Art that exhibits this level of profundity seeks not only to claim the epicenter of our attention, but creates its own morally complex force field. To the man in the train station I would say “Simple faces, complicated lives.” Much like our own.

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Susan Preston ~ One Button Off

(Originally posted November 17, 2010)

All of Healdsburg turned out for the opening night of Susan Preston's one woman show ~ One Button Off~ last Friday evening. Thanks to an insane Barndiva cocktail called The Contortionist and a surfeit of always wonderful Preston wines, no one seemed to mind the wall to wall crowds. (We apologize to any of our guests who did not get to taste the spicy chopped Mediterranean salad we served on Lou's baguettes or our crispy tempura string beans.)

It was, in short, a great night.

Best part of the evening: the party atmosphere did not stop folks from taking the time to slowly view this extraordinary show.

One Button Off will be on exhibit through the month of December in Studio Barndiva.

 

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Earl Loves Myrna Loves Earl

(originally posted October 6, 2010)

I don’t know how many times I re-read Raymond Carver’s short story collection “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” over the years, but the spine of the book eventually fell apart if that tells you anything. Carver had that particular kind of talent that could surgically slice through the emotional muscle we build up over our hearts, all the better to prod at what lies below. But while I still crave stories that seek to answer what for me has been one of life’s most mystifying question ~ what DO we talk about when we talk about love ~ with respects to Carver, I’m tired of quiet denouements that artfully foretell a future in which lasting true love is pretty much a hopeless proposition. I’ve spent a lifetime mucking about in the name of love, licking my wounds, acknowledging my mistakes. If all that doesn’t confer wisdom, at least let me celebrate the fact that it speaks to a enduring optimism of the heart.

When I was younger I was epically naïve on this (and sadly many other) subjects. I had the requisite young person’s immediate apathy towards any marriage that smacked to me of convention, rejecting the kind of relationship where after you stripped away the holidays, martini hour and whose responsibility it was to pick Jimmy up from Judo there was no deeper intellectual connection to carry the day once the children had grown. I was sticking too closely to the Ibsen script by only defining ‘convention’ as some narrow set of rules for conduct dictated solely by the mores of the day. Convention ~ old fashioned values ~ also means following a code of honor that often puts character above passion, especially bad news for my horny generation. This didn’t occur to me then, not even when friends of my parents started to get divorced in blockbuster numbers. It was easier to blame the institution.

My generation held out the hope that through equality of the sexes we might remedy what had been wrong with marriages that came before us, but we swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. Trying to create an agenda of shared interests, even going so far as to swap roles like wage earning and child rearing, we too often fell into over analyzing every interaction, awarding stars for good behavior, taking away privileges when we fell short. Feelings, instead of providing a way into the loved one's psyche, all too often became the shield we used to protect ourselves. As often follows when one gets ready for battle, after the shield came the sword.

So here is a marital parable for our times. When Earl Fincher met Myrna Hall 52 years ago, he wasn't looking for a meaningful relationship. He was a 20- year old boy intent on sowing his wild oats. She was a beautiful 15-year old with a wide open heart. They met a dance. He had no money and few prospects. There was no conscious meeting of the minds, no existential conversations or résumé sharing, just an honest physical attraction they could not ignore. Marriage was the last thing on either of their minds. Earl worked long hours, just as he had done since he was 8 years old, the year his parents left Missouri for a protracted hardscrabble journey west that eventually landed them in California, in the small farming town of Healdsburg, doing migrant work picking in the fields.

Possessed of a relentlessly curious mind, Earl has an uncanny ability to think endlessly on all manner of things that fall into the ‘how to build a better birdhouse’ category. But then, as now, when it comes to what the rest of us consider the ‘big’ issues, like wrong from right, he does not have to think much at all. The way he sees it, there are the things in life you have to wrestle to the ground to figure out, and then there is the stuff you should just know. He knew what to do when he took measure of Myrna. He married her.

If Myrna was scared starting out so young in life with a man that had but $11 in his pocket ($10 after they paid the preacher) she is not saying so now. They met in Spring, by Christmas she had given birth to their first child. Life was good but hard. Only once did they have to break Earl’s cardinal rule ~ never rely upon anyone else ~ and then only to stay with Myrna’s family for a few weeks during a particularly rough time. They saved every dollar, working and living up at Michel-Schlumberger, followed by a stint at Gallo. A lucky conversation Earl overheard one day looking for work brought him to the gates of the mill in Healdsburg just as construction in the area was taking off. With Earl’s work ethic, it’s not surprising a one-day job turned into a 26 year career.

By 1970 they had finally saved enough to put a down payment on some land. It was 3 ½ acres on Chalk Hill Road for $7,000, a price that was not as cheap as it sounds today ~ certainly not for them. But they managed to pay it off and finance a loan to build a house. It is the house they still live in, raising their family of five, year by year expanding the verdant patchwork of raised beds and fields from which they now feed their many loyal customers and restaurants like Barndiva. It is a source of great pride to them that they paid off that 30 year mortgage ~ though it took them every one of those 30 years ~ just like they said they would.

Early Bird's Place is laid out in a jumble of outbuildings, all with a different purpose, all filled with inventions Earl has designed over the years. Myrna calls the stuff that fills the ranch house, garage, potting and gourd drying sheds and chicken coops ‘creative clutter’. She closes her eyes, sighs and smiles when she says the word creative, adding that Earl is a man incapable of throwing anything away. It is something she both hates and loves about him, in unequal measure. Unequal is the operative word because, according to Myrna, love is never equal at any given moment in time. After more than fifty years together they have seen all the fault lines in each other; it no longer matters who is right or who is wrong. So long as I always put Earl first in my thoughts, she will tell you, and he does the same for me.

A few weeks back I visited them at the farm with Drew Kelly, a talented young photographer who is working to help me document Barndiva’s ties to a cadre of local farmers. It was a joy to see them together as I usually only ever see Myrna alone when she drops off produce and eggs at Barndiva's kitchen door. It struck me ~ as it must folks that see them together every week at Healdsburg’s Farmer's Market ~ how completely they compliment each other without either losing a beat on what makes them so interesting as individuals.

There is true adoration in their banter, which is played out in the physical dance they do as they move through their many rooms and linked gardens. Earl is short and wiry, these days he walks with most of his weight held high up in his shoulders, steering in a specific direction until something interesting catches his eye and he changes course. Myrna is rounder, more kinetic as she moves, with an almost tendril quality in the way she constantly reaches out with the part of her that is most vulnerable, fragile wrists encased in protective bands where repetitive strain injury has taken its toll. When the distance between them grows too great she weaves back to him in looping circles. In this way they trade off who leads and who follows.

This then is the secret of their marriage: it doesn’t matter who leads or who follows. By not constantly reassessing how the other might be falling short, or what might be missing from their marriage, they never made the fatal mistake of taking what they did find in each other for granted. If it always wasn’t this way, it hardly matters now. I learned to button my lip early on, Myrna will tell you, the important thing is to be patient, to know that marriage has a way of balancing out. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for her, Earl will tell you. She’s is my life’s helpmate. For a man who understands the nature of life as hard work, there is no greater compliment he could give.

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Rhymes with Play

(originally posted September 29, 2010)

Healdsburg made a joyful noise on Saturday night ~ especially on our part of Center Street where 200 elegantly dressed people of all ages came together and kissed, wept, drank, ate, laughed, told stories, then lost their shoes and danced their hearts out. Our weddings are always very special, but something else was in the air as well. As if the brief return of a warm night coupled with the sense that only a few weeks are left of summer heightened the mood so it swelled beyond the happiness felt by this particular couple and their families and friends. It reminded me how important it is going to be in the coming year to express delight whenever we can. We will continue to face seemingly insurmountable problems ~ a faltering economy, an ailing ecology, a paucity of leadership ~ that history has placed at our door. Most solutions will come in tiny packages. All but a few will seem to take too much time. Many of us reading this will not be around to see how it all plays out for our children and grandchildren. But we are in the game right now, and each of us with a powerful role to play. With the stakes so high, we need to keep from feeling overwhelmed. It’s essential we stop when we can to acknowledge that good things are still happening, though sometimes they need a jump start.

The first thought we came up with to keep the parties going ~ stay tuned for lots more ~ was to open the Gallery for musical evenings, films, talks and fun cocktail parties of any size. We will waive all facility rental fees to make use of the space more affordable. Our menus will be keenly priced, but will continue to be sourced locally and sustainably. Our farmers need to feed their bottom line, as do we, but we want Studio Barndiva to feed something else as well ~ a sense that as a community we have a great deal to be thankful for.

We like the French word soirée, even though it sounds a bit poncy, because it really does capture what we’d like to see happen in the Studio. To wit: “An evening party or social gathering esp. one held for a particular purpose” yes, that hits the nail on the head! Besides, it rhymes with archway, which is nice. Sometimes friendship alone pulls us through to the next courtyard in life, sometimes it’s music, or the spoken word. The point is to keep moving in an interesting direction. Yet real social contact is precisely what our all-consuming electronic media is robbing us of. What’s most important when we come together in groups, after the work of the day is done, is often simply that we are together. And while it’s great when you know people at a party, often it’s more exciting when you don’t. In a community our size ~ with so many interests and passions and so much talent to express them ~ it almost doesn’t matter what draws you away from the campfire of your hi-def screens and out to the town square. Your presence alone has the power to redefine the space, and claim it. Not knowing the outcome is part of the magic.

Of course it helps when there is great food and drink ~ which we will happily provide. When Ryan first came to us we weren’t sure how he would feel about all our weddings and special events. Lots of chefs look down on events, understandably. It’s not just the amount of work that goes into coordinating them. From a chef’s point of view, because of the timing and the sheer number of plates, most often they don’t showcase a chef’s talent in the way fine dining does.

Taking his cues from Lukka, whose joie de vivre is legendary, Ryan has fun with the menus, be they family style or comprised of many wine paired courses. He approaches a glitzy Oscar Night or a serious dinner where each course is paired with the dirt it was grown in with the same intensity, and as his talent blossoms it reflects on each and every farmer partner. Even for those working the events the sheer exuberance and style of our parties is contagious. By summer’s end we will have sent thousands of people back to their own cities and towns across the country talking about what’s going on in Healdsburg. Not just Barndiva ~ but the connection they made here with the surrounding community. Hopefully it sent them looking to recreate parts of that experience closer to home.

By making the story of local sourcing the point of our food, we haven’t relegated Ryan’s talent anymore than Bonnie Z’s, whose gift for arranging flowers is sometimes subsumed by the sheer extravagance of her locally grown blooms. Talent and product become indispensable to each other, and for the end user, indistinguishable. We all live in cultivated landscapes, in self-curated spaces. What we choose to seed and grow and prune is up to us. If only a fraction of our wedding guests go back to their hometowns and seek out a Farmer’s Market, that’s a fraction more than had the desire to do so when they sat down and unfurled their napkins on a warm summer night beneath the fairy lit arches in our gardens.

But make no mistake: Joy is the carrier of that message. And Joy, while clearly not in abundance these days, does not need a wedding to thrive.

So listen up: If you own a business and want to say thanks for a year of hard work (with another yet to come) or are a group of friends wanting to meet up to raise high the roof beams, we want to make Studio Barndiva ~ and the food and drink we serve ~ available to you. While we hope you will join us for some of our upcoming scheduled events (first up: the opening party for the much anticipated Susan Preston Exhibit: One Button Off) consider this an invitation to think up your own reason for a soirée in the coming months ~ rhyme it as you will.

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Sunny Side Down

(originally posted September 8, 2010) A few weeks back a journalist called looking for a quote for an article she was writing on the salmonella debacle, whose horrifying revelations were then just beginning to unfold. The first quotable words that came out of my mouth when she asked what I thought (lots of expletives having preceded them) were “It’s just the tip of the iceberg.” Which, sadly, it is. It’s a travesty that the simple egg, which even comes out of the animal that produces it in its own sanitary container, can be made into a lethal weapon. But that is by no means the only potentially dangerous food heading your way courtesy of a hydra-headed corporate food industry that has been built to put its own profitability before the health and safety of its customers. Up next: more meat recalls. Still, even for someone as skeptical as I am about the business practices of CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), it was shocking to read that one single company alone (family owned no less) was capable of producing 2.3 million eggs a week in its Clarion, Ohio facility. We’re talking 60 million chickens folks, housed in hanger-sized industrial roosts where they lived, laid their eggs, and died inhabiting spaces the size of a shoebox. It’s not like you can take a broom and clean out a henhouse that size with the help of the neighbors.

Not these neighbors at any rate. From all available reports most of them either worked for the DeCoster family or had businesses dependent to some extent upon them. After I hung up I began to wonder at the mindset of someone living in Clarion, traveling to work every day, passing “millions of gallons of manure and putrid animal carcasses” heaped, in plain sight, beside facilities where rat excrement in the chicken feed was eventually found to be the cause of the outbreak. What were they thinking? At what point does self-interest begin to take a back seat to a greater concern for the health and safety of the community at large?

It’s easy to judge the community of Clarion in hindsight, but the truth is they are not alone in turning a blind eye to the perils of modern food production. Most Americans have come to accept, even expect, cheap animal proteins in their daily diet. Instead of questioning how a plate of food that includes meat can be sourced, prepared, and served in a fast food restaurant for only $1.99, we complain when we come up against the real cost of food which has been properly farmed. A farmer I know that has a stand at the Farmers Market in Marin, an upscale town if ever there was one, told me a well dressed woman looking at her heirloom tomato prices last week ($1.50 above what we pay for them wholesale at Barndiva) told her “That’s a bit high, don’t you think? I can get six of those at Safeway for the same price.” No, actually, she can’t, not six of ‘those,’ but where is the change in having that conversation, at a Farmers Market no less?

By failing to understanding the real cost of producing food which respects the land and the animals that live on it in a manner which puts health first (their and ours, which in fact is one and the same thing) we have come to validate a false economy. One that, with the shrinking availability of the oil it's wholly dependent upon, is about to crash. The irony here is that when it does it will affect the cost of those "cheap" tomatoes a lot more profoundly than the local, seemingly more expensive ones.

And don’t be fooled by the recent headlines that until the spigot closes, oil based agriculture will be able to help the economy in general in any meaningful way either. The lead article in the New York Times business section on September 1 may have read “strong exports lift agriculture, a bright spot in the U.S. economy,” but the key word in that seemingly optimistic headline wasn't ‘Bright’ ‘Strong’ or ‘Lift.’ It was ‘Exports.’ While the natural catastrophes in Russia, Kazakhstan and the Ukraine which decimated their wheat crops this summer, along with the increasing desperation in China to feed its exploding population have indeed lead to higher prices for wheat and grain produced by American food conglomerates, who really benefits? Read a bit further in the same article and you find out: 75% of the farm production the headline touts as being ‘on the rise’ in this otherwise dreadful economic year occurs in just 12% of the total farms in the country. If the ethically challenged DeCoster’s aren’t representative of that 12%, I’ll eat my hemp hat.

If we can just agree it’s time to understand the real costs involved in producing good safe food and adjust to the fact that it’s going to be a bit higher than we have gotten used to, where do we go from there? We can start by eating less and eating more intelligently, but obviously that alone won’t do it. We need systemic changes in the system ~ food production needs to reflect a sustainable set of values. If food producers are not held to legal standards to accomplish those, we’re doomed. Yet at precisely the moment in our history when we should be pulling together as a nation and demanding oversight and change in a unified voice that will truly serve 'the will of the people' ~ that hallowed historical tenet ~ built into the constitution to save us from ourselves when faced with precisely this kind of scenario ~ has been co-opted.

What do you really know about the Tea Party Movement? Not what you've been led to think ~ a genuine grass roots (neo-conservative) movement ~ but what do you really know about how it’s being funded and what its real agenda is?

Frank Rich wrote an eye-opening editorial two weeks ago in the New York Times in which he noted “There’s a difference between mainstream conservatism and a fringe agenda that tilts completely toward big business, whether on Wall Street or in the Gulf of Mexico, while dismantling fundamental oversight safety nets designed to protect the unemployed, public health, workplace safety, and the subsistence of the elderly.” A lot of what Rich refers to in “The Billionaires Bankrolling the Tea Party,” which we provide a link for below and urge you to read, was based on a remarkable article published last month in The New Yorker by Jane Mayer. Both articles point to overwhelming evidence that the self-serving interests driving the Tea Party Movement will subvert the very notion of grass roots that has always been relied upon to seek change from the bottom up. Instead, and possibly without the knowledge of most of its members, the TP Movement advances a singular big business agenda that cares about as much for the little guy as the DeCosters cared for their 4.6 million disease riddled chickens. Don’t get me wrong: Americans need to demand change within virtually every Federal Regulatory Agency we’ve entrusted to have our backs when it comes to labor, the environment and food safety. More and more, with every Katrina and BP disaster showing fault lines in federally funded protection agencies we should be able to depend upon, Washington begins to resemble a lawless frontier town where justice is random and graft reigns. But having a lawless town doesn’t mean you don’t need a sheriff, it means you need one whose gun fires more than blanks.

With respect to food, which this newsletter is primarily about each week, if you’re reading this within eating distance of the Sonoma County Foodshed and are tempted to think outbreaks like the Salmonella egg fiasco can’t touch you because you know where your eggs come from, think again. No matter what your individual diet is comprised of right now no matter where you source it, the dismantling of controls over food production will eventually affect all of us.

It’s one thing to be fed up with the quality of "elected representation" masquerading as leadership in Washington ~ I know I am ~ but quite another to think the center will hold in America by dismantling all our flawed but essential public programs simply because they don't serve the vested interests of powerful lobby's and the corporate entities they represent. The very way we define the words “an America of and by the people” is up for grabs, that is the real war being fought right now. As in all wars, the first thing to arm yourselves with is knowledge.

 

Links:

CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories

With respect to The Tea Party we urge you to read Frank Rich’s editorial: The Billionaires Bankrolling the Tea Party, and the Jane Mayer article: Covert Operations, in the New Yorker.

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Knowing More and More, About Less and Less

(originally posted August 25, 2010) Every year when the kids were little we marked the official end of summer with a blowout weekend at the Mendocino County Apple Fair, held in Boonville. Saturday night we went on all the rides and ate junk ‘til our sides ached; Sunday morning, usually with a strange assortment of hung-over house guests in tow, we somehow managed to slide into the old wooden stands at the fairgrounds with a minute to spare before Guido Pronsolino welcomed the crowd to the start of Sheep Dog Trials. Remember the movie Babe? No animated pig in sight, but the same loyalty, patience, and hushed nail-biting tension ~ even better when it happens in real time.

The County Fair ended up being a hyper version of the pen marks we made on the door frame to show how fast the kids had grown: no sooner did we let go of their hands for a second to reach for the caramel corn than they were shouting over their shoulders, we’ll call you on the cell when we’re ready to leave, disappearing into the fairground crowds just as a few years later they would disappear into their own lives. But hell, that was bound to happen. At least the memories we were making were good ones.

To this day Boonville puts on a proper fair with a parade, a rodeo, sheep dog trials, pie eating contests, a fairground full of rickety (thus exceptionally thrilling) rides, and large exhibition halls filled with every variety of crop grown and animal raised in the county, all spit polished and groomed to what contestants hope is an award winning shine. It was in those 4-H buildings one summer that I first began to understand what a mutually dependent relationship between a farm animal and a human could look like, and where it starts in a young person. You haven’t lived until you’ve spent time with a bright eyed nine year old wearing a green sash who speaks with the authority of someone who can put food on the table.

Growing up in a big city all I’d ever known was the social relationship people have with their pets, starting with the BFF status we invariably confer on them. The relationship between those young future farmers and their animals was different. These were kids who cared for their animals from birth with a matter-of-fact understanding of just how they fit into a farming family’s dynamic. As far as I was concerned the blue ribbons weren’t awards for how perfectly they groomed their animals but for all those early mornings and late nights they’d swept and cleaned and cared for them like their lives depended upon it, which, once upon a time, it did.

The Sebastopol Gravenstein Apple Fair isn’t associated with 4-H ~ it’s just a wonderful community event now in its 100th year with the big green heart of a Gravenstein apple, which Sebastopol, with the help of Slow Food, is trying to bring back from the verge of extinction. So I wasn’t expecting a real county fair experience when I set out to go two weeks ago with a group of friends. We wanted to hear great bluegrass by John Youngblood & Company and eat Gravensteins to excess. We scored on both counts: Just as the sun came out John played an incredible set on a stage beneath a giant canopy of spreading oak trees. We ate apple pie, apple fritters, and (in my case, at least) drank copious amounts of hard cider. We saw a display of very old tractors and tried out ingenuous farm tools that had never been patented (some, like the recumbent bike that cut useless roundels out of redwood trees, for obvious reasons). It wasn’t until a much needed trip to the port-a-potties sent me to the furthest corner of the fairgrounds that I found that animals had, in fact, been invited to the party.

Sebastopol is not deep country, not anymore, so it was understandable that the animals on display weren’t many, but it was hard to miss the fact that not one of them would ever end up on the dinner table anywhere. There were cashmere sheep with Jean Tierney eyes, llamas groomed like large exquisite poodles, and miniature donkeys that had been saved from a coal mine ~ I’m assuming somewhere far from Sebastopol. Had I inadvertently stumbled upon the Jonathan Safran-Foer collection of farm animals?

Safran-Foer, in case you somehow missed it last year, is the author of Eating Animals, a passionate and highly personal rant on why he believes the human diet should not contain animal proteins. Safran-Foer is a wonderful writer ~ Everything Is Illuminated, his first book, was a tour de force ~ but in Eating Animals he bullies the reader in much the same way a Jehovah Witness arrives at your door with the ‘either/or’ option of accepting their version of religion or going to hell in a handbag. I have no doubt that expanding one’s vegetable diet would be good for the planet, if not for our health, but there is a big difference between making the decision not to eat animal proteins and an insistence that everyone else make the same commitment ~ which would mean, by extension, that we stop raising animals for food.

Michael Pollan tackles many of the same issues In Defense of Food as Safran-Foer does in Eating Animals, but manages to reach an inclusive endgame ~ he believes that through shared community values that directly effect the marketplace we can still make profound changes in the way food is produced in this country. The first step is to become more thoughtful eaters. The little I managed to read of Safran-Foer’s book struck me as guilt driven, written by a man so petrified by the idea of raising healthy children in a messed up world (and who isn’t) he’s gone into the wall building business: this side of the wall (vegetarians only) is good, that side (the rest of us) is bad. It’s the kind of thinking that can only serve a divisive agenda, creating antagonistic groups of people who, while they certainly differ on eating habits should be waging the same war when it comes to fighting for respectful, responsible stewardship of the earth. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Even if we put aside the case that the human race is predisposed to being carnivorous ~ we ignore at our peril that we have only made it this far in history by a profound reliance upon domesticated animals. A lot has gone wrong with that seminal relationship in the last century, starting with the way we treat animals in the corporate food system that by and large replaced them with machines. But if we can find our way back to it, a culture of mindful animal husbandry holds many answers to the real complexity of farming well. And, as Wendell Berry writes in so many of his wonderful books, there is real complexity to farming well.

Look, there’s little doubt that dependence on machine based agriculture and overdependence on the chemicals their use has engendered has lead us to where we are today ~ mired in the wrong kind of shit, the kind that fertilizes nothing. But the historic relationship between farmer and animal, which should be built upon respect born out of mutual dependence, goes hand in hand with a natural cycle that could provide a roadmap to re-claiming ecological (and quite possibly psychological) health. The widespread soil erosion, toxicity and decay we’ve seen with the rise of mono-culture mega-farms that have proliferated in the last fifty years have gone hand and hand with the destruction of our rural communities, the direct result of not having what Berry’s friend Wes Jackson calls the “right ratio of eyes to acres.” These are issues that cannot be addressed in any meaningful way if we eliminate the central dynamic of personal farming that has animals at its center.

I had a good time at the Sebastopol Gravenstein Apple Fair with my friends, but I left feeling like it was a bit of a lost opportunity. County Fairs have the potential to embody two essential American traits we are fast losing: inventiveness and the ability to admire accomplishment based on hard work, not luck or the hubris that often comes with fame. Walking around a crowd-filled fairground isn’t the same as walking around a crowded mall ~ the mall is a sales construct that teaches us nothing, it exists with the sole purpose of selling a false sense of security. Programmed to replicate the same controlled experience over and over again, all it can inspire is a faster technological response to a shrinking list of stimuli. When are we going to wake up and see that all technology has thus far afforded us is the ability to know more and more about less and less?

A County Fair is an opportunity to have a unique experience with people you can choose to recognize as your community. It’s about hand-grown food, and hand-made craft. Not all of it’s good, of course, but if you don’t like the apple pie at one stand, there is another one a few steps away touting a different family’s recipe. Pies at small County Fairs aren’t flavor profiled by a chemist in some food lab a thousand miles away, their taste testing was done in kitchens like yours just up the road where dogs and kids wander in and out and the oven door has a loose hinge. No doubt every generation had added something to the mix, but they still call it Grandma’s Recipe because, at heart, it still is.

With or without the kids, I’m going to the Boonville Fair this year. I long for that smell of hay with a hint of cow manure you get the minute you step out of the car, full moon rising, into the big field that serves as a parking lot and head off towards the fairy lights of the fairground. At some point the smell of cotton candy takes over, but it’s nice to get a whiff of the real smell of a place, before that overlay of sugar kicks in.

LINK The Mendocino County Apple Fair in Boonville is September 17-19th. Rodeo is Saturday Night. Sheep Dog Trials start at 10 am Sunday.

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Know Your Lamb part 2

(originally posted August 4, 2010)

I was happily surprised we only received one complaint after last week’s admittedly bloody newsletter in which Chef Fancher dismembered a 90 lb Fritschen Vineyard’s lamb. ‘ugh, gross” the unsigned email read. Everyone around here figured a vegetarian or a vegan wrote it.

But I’m not so sure. I know from personal experience it could just have easily been written by a passionate carnivore who loves to eat lamb. It is one of my favorites too, but if memory serves me, ‘ugh, gross’ was exactly the thought running through my head many years ago when I found myself face to face with a plate of Stuffed Lamb Heart. I was living in London at the time and it was my first outing to Fergus Henderson’s Mecca of Nose to Tail dining, St John. I fancied myself quite the food adventurer, but while I had devoured a plate of roasted bone marrow and parsley salad, bravely tasted deep fried lamb’s brains on toast and a spoonful of Gratin of Tripe, something about the sight of that heart made me realize what I was playing at wasn't a game. The non-stop plates coming out of this kitchen represented a whole new way of thinking about food, and that scared me. I can’t eat this I told my friends. In reply they didn’t argue or tease. One of them just leaned over the table and quietly asked, What do you have to lose?

Nothing, as it turned out, and an enormous amount to gain. I no longer even remember what that dish tasted like, but the question has stayed with me. It proved especially providential six years ago when I began to start thinking about the kind of food we wanted to serve at Barndiva.

So I’m sympathetic to the awkward part of any food journey, especially nose to tail, which certainly takes some getting used to. Anthony Bourdain was an inspired choice to write the introduction to Henderson’s cookbook, The Whole Beast, when it was finally published in America ~ we all know Bourdain is a guy who will eat anything. But while he was right to call the tome “a proclamation of the true glories of all the neglected bits of animals we love to eat,” for the rest of us he really should have written “neglected bits we should eat, but don’t.” Why we don’t is worth taking a look at.

The reason I was able to persevere after that first dinner at St John was down to the fact that I was living in a country that still valued that kind of cooking, and I had a very patient guide. My husband Geoffrey grew up in a post WW2 England when even getting meat, no matter the cut, was a treat. The recipes his mum relied upon flowed directly from a farmhouse kitchen history that 20 years later Henderson would resurrect and refine at St John. As Bourdain correctly points out, this kind of cooking is the foundation of haute cuisine, but even more to the point, “nearly every part of nearly everything we eat, in the hands of a patient and talented cook, can be delicious ~ something most good cooks and most French and Italian mothers have known for centuries.”

I grew up in the same era as my husband, but our exposure to food was vastly different. For a treat on Sunday he was more likely to be taken to the seaside for mussels, winkles and welks than a Baskin-Robbins for 31 Flavors of ice cream, which was invariably my family’s choice. Before I left home I never saw a cut of meat that didn’t come from the supermarket case. If it didn’t arrive in the house frozen, it quickly found it’s way there. I’m not dissing my mother, she loved the supermarket like every woman she knew at the time because its one-stop shopping experience meant a liberation of her time. Everywhere you looked in America during those years, if you bothered to look, you could have seen the effects of a ‘bigger is better, and cheaper is best’ mindset that was sweeping the country, ultimately having a profound effect on the survival of anything smaller and hand-made. I do remember thinking, when my favorite bookstore closed shortly after a discount book barn opened across the street, that the end result would be larger and larger venues with less and less choice when it came to books, but I never thought about how the same dumbing down process was profoundly affecting food. Never would have occurred to me.

In the case of animal proteins the move towards corporate food production resulted in a cheaper unskilled work force hired to “butcher” animals for the money cuts, those parts of the animal that took the least amount of skill to extract. Anything that took time to cut or process was thrown away. While we value cuts like filet mignon and rack of lamb for a variety of tasty reasons, we only started to think of them as ‘the best’ parts of an animal because that’s what the industry producing them wanted us to think. Offal was ‘awful’ and ‘cheap’ to boot, the implication being that if you ate tripe or had the wherewithal to make head cheese you were either a foreigner, lower class, or both. What nonsense. And it’s actually a misnomer to call the neck or the belly ‘cheaper’ cuts at all, when you factor the labor involved in properly butchering and prepping those parts of the animal. Real nose to tail cooking takes consummate skills that only start with the knife. Yet for a burgeoning middle class hanging over the freezer case in the supermarket during the second half of the 20th century, if the industry didn’t deem it salable it wasn’t to be easily found. As the butchers disappeared from the street, sub-primal cuts disappeared from the table, resulting in recipes which had been passed down for centuries becoming lost forever.

Last week I made the point that there are profound environmental gains in shortening the distance between animal and plate, especially when it involves smaller, feedlot-free abattoirs that could service local farms and ranches. A return to this kind of food production would contribute to a more diverse marketplace, so much so it’s not a stretch to say that with accessibility to animals of this quality we could re-establish a system of food production that is infinitely healthier for us, and more humane to the animals we depend upon.

All true, but we should fess up that here at Barndiva our main reasons for wanting to do more of this kind of cooking isn’t just politically or even morally driven. At the end of the day, the beauty of sustainability in this context derives from the fact that it’s also insanely delicious. On Saturday night lucky diners in the barn were offered a $35 tasting menu with five different cuts of lamb from a single animal ~ belly, neck, leg, rack, and tongue. Each preparation drew from flavor profiles you just don’t get a chance to enjoy very often. Following this process over the past two weeks, from the day I met John Fritschen and photographed the lamb frolicking in his vineyards to the moment I lifted my fork to taste an incandescent morsel of Ryan’s rillette of lamb neck, I’ve thought a lot about how far we still have to go before we have anything approaching a true locavore economy. It’s quite a distance.

On a personal level, however, I’m anything but disheartened. Every now and then I can see glimmers of it happening. I’ll tell you this, if the future could taste anything like the lamb my English husband and I ate on Saturday night, it’s worth working and fighting for. He and I had traveled vastly different roads to get to that moment together, which made the fact that we had exactly the same reaction to what we put in our mouths all the more remarkable: it was quite simply the best lamb either of us had ever tasted.

Here then are Chef Fancher’s notes on three of the five lamb dishes he prepared this week. I’ve included a fourth, Lamb’s Heart, in part because it brings me full circle to that night in St John when I shared an exciting meal with great friends in noisy room at the edge of the Smithfield meat market. Though very few people got to taste Ryan’s Lamb’s heart, when all is said and done, it epitomizes what cooking nose to tail is all about. Cooking from the heart doesn’t get any better then this.

Lamb Belly: Chef simmered the belly in a white wine stock with aromatic vegetables, then cooled and carefully cut out the bones and any remaining cartilage from the meat. He then seasoned the belly with salt and pepper and molded and pressed the meat overnight. This allowed the meat flavors to meld and gave him a piece he could cut multiples of any shape out of. He chose diamonds. The product before the final cuts looks like a flatted chicken breast ~ Chef often calls this cut lamb’s breast. To cook he placed the fat side down in a very hot pan and did not flip the piece over at any time. If there is a secret to perfect belly it’s this: score the fat and let it crisp; the heat from searing the bottom will gently cook the meat on the top.

Chef’s words: “I prefer a nicely seared piece of lamb belly over pork belly any day. With pork it’s very easy for a less skilled chef to end up with too much fat to meat ratio. The beauty of this preparation is that you get a crispy top layer of fat followed by a melty meat layer of the same thickness.”

Lamb Neck: Chef cooked the confit of neck in duck fat for 3 hours in a 250 degree oven. Then he peeled the sides down and carefully pulled out any remaining gristle and veins, taking care to leave the meat intact. The trick here is to carefully flip one side of the neck so the thinner end (towards the top) aligns with the thicker end (towards the bottom). If you don’t do this you end up with a cone shape, which will not cook evenly. Next he rolled the whole, re-formed neck meat into cellophane, and chilled it overnight. Before cooking he cut the roll into ¼” rounds ~ though one could cut it to any size thickness. The rillette was rolled in Panko, brushed with a little Dijon, and pan seared to perfection. Chef’s words: “When you see a neck preparation that is comprised of shredded bits you are looking at meat that has been processed clumsily. I treat this cut simply, all you need is that initial crunch, followed by a great, soft, satisfying meaty taste.”

Lamb Steaks (from the whole Leg) This preparation was a revelation for me. Who knew that the single leg I’ve just been roasting, bone in, all these years for Sunday lunch was actually five distinct primal cuts: sirloin, top round, bottom round, shank, and knuckle. Before working with them individually, he first marinated the whole leg in virgin olive oil, garlic, thyme, salt and pepper overnight, then pan roasted the leg until the meat began to relax from the bone. He was then able to separate it into the sub-primal segments, from which he cut the steaks.

Chef’s words: “The beauty of breaking down the leg is that then you can just treat it as you would a great steak: salt, pepper, char the fat and keep basting. We use a seasoned grill butter with lots of garlic and fresh herbs from our garden.”

Lamb’s Heart A traditional preparation for heart is to mix it with giblets and serve it diced in the lamb jus, which is delicious. Ryan went another direction. He thinly sliced then gently grilled the muscle. When it was almost room temperature he tossed it with a tangy panzanella salad comprised of bread, feta, tomatoes and lashings of sherry vinegar.

Chef’s words: “I like this preparation because with heart you are up against a predominate taste of iron…stands to reason…which is nicely cut by the sherry vinegar. There is no need for any oil in the salad, which is also a classic presentation for tongue.

LINKS:

Our Friend Marissa Guggiana, whom we met in the early days of Fork & Shovel, is about to publish Primal Cuts, Cooking with America’s Best Butchers. A brilliant food activist and fourth generation meat purveyor, Primal Cuts, which will go on sale in October, promises to be sublime on all things meaty and wonderful. Check out her wonderful website.

If you are a professional cook interested in where to source whole local animals that have been sustainably raised, contact her dad Ritz who now runs Sonoma Direct with her.

If you are interested in a meat CSA, you might try The Sonoma Meat Buying Club.

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Know Your Lamb

(originally posted July 28, 2010) Squeamish, are we? Then you may want to forgo this week’s journal entry in which we butcher the fine animal to your right. Before you stop reading however, consider this: if you enjoyed perusing the Dish of the Week just seconds ago, what makes you think you won’t also find it interesting to make a real connection between that delectable plate of food and the honest labor it took on the part of a farmer and a chef to get it to table? Dish of the Week was all about this animal’s liver, which came out of its body. In the run up to the Taste of Place Dinner we’re going to cook our way through the animal from nose to tail, a delicious endeavor, but ~ as with most everything we serve at Barndiva ~ it’s germane to remember the delicious part didn’t start at the plate.

Of course I want you to continue reading. For most people knowing where their food comes from blithely stops with an image of an animal grazing in a bucolic pasture. What happens after that is often thought to be unpleasant or disgusting or mysterious, sometimes all three. Yet it’s possible to embrace the icky bits of life when they are integral to the process. I always smile when new parents describe natural childbirth as ‘so incredibly beautiful,’ because it is, icky bits and all. I know, I know, that’s about life, where slaughter and butchery is about death, and yet, unless you forgo eating animals on ethical grounds, isn’t your appreciation of meat a celebration of life? The animals… and yours?

There can be no true locavore economy without making it possible for farmers and ranchers who raise the animals we eat to get those animals processed locally. While clean and humane mobile slaughterhouses have made it possible for a few dogged consumers (with big freezers) to purchase animals that are slaughtered humanely where they lived their lives, it’s going to take more than a few diehard foodies before the word local can be applied to animal proteins as easily as we now apply it to fruits and vegetables. There were understandable reasons over the past thirty years that resulted in America consolidating localized slaughter into larger and less humane facilities farther and farther away from where we live and eat our food, but those reasons are no longer viable. It is an incontestable fact that their size has given rise to unsafe, inhumane feedlots ~ massive holding pens ~ which do not and should not be part of the abattoir. Four large corporations now process 85 percent of the nation's cattle, which they can only control (barely) with dangerous cocktails of antibiotics and chemicals. Make no mistake: it isn’t only the animals who suffer as a result of corporate agriculture’s take over of this essential part of our food chain.

But while I’ve yet to meet a person who disagrees with me when I launch into a rant about the dangers of corporate control of the food chain, or bemoan the energy squandered shipping animals that are raised and will be consumed in one area away to be slaughtered, or even how inhumane it is to make an animal take such an unnecessary journey, something always happens when the conversation drifts toward the slaughterhouse door. A strange NIMBY response occurs when the words local (which we revere) and slaughterhouse (which is frightening) are put together. When a town like Ukiah, whose roots in ranching go all the way back and is now struggling economically, can reject a proposal for a small, progressive slaughterhouse that could serve the entire county of Mendocino, as they did last year, you know something is wrong. Change is possible ~ in two decades New Zealand has gone from American-sized centralized slaughter and meatpacking to smaller locally owned slaughterhouses dispersed across the country ~ but it’s not going to happen until we get over a modern repugnance against all things connected with death and begin to see it again for what it truly is: the final part of the life cycle.

So here’s what I propose. We do it lamb by lamb. All the talk in the world about the bigger issues of sustainability and safety won’t get us to change the way things are now if we aren’t able to bridge the disconnect between the meat on your plate and the whys and wherefores of how it got there. A good place to start is one single step back from the sexy part of cooking and consuming. Butchery is a lost art in American kitchens thanks to the role supermarkets played in making it easy to look away from slaughter. But something is lost every time you break the seal on the plastic and lift an animal part out of its Styrofoam package. Even the way you handle it communicates an “ugh, let’s get this part over with.” The smell, more a result of flesh being trapped beneath plastic, is not appealing, while the touch, instead of firm and resilient, is usually slimy. Dozens of hands, often in different states, handle one mass produced lamb as it makes its way to your table. Compare that to the short journey our animal took. John Fritschen, who raised the animal in his beautiful vineyard overlooking the Russian River Valley, guided it into a cage and took it over the hill on Monday where a USDA agent inspected it for 24 hours before the proprietor of the facility quickly dispatched the animal on Tuesday. John delivered the carcass, its organs in a separate bag, to Barndiva on Wednesday. Ryan was the fourth person to handle the meat before Pancho and Andrew began to see cuts of it coming down the hot line in the restaurant Thursday night.

The 90 lb, eight-month old lamb Ryan butchered had virtually no odor. Watching Chef break it down ~ hack sawing the neck from the body, deftly detaching the shoulders, precisely separating the belly, rack and saddle, breaking the vertebrae to make cutting the legs away from the trunk easier ~ it struck me that the techniques inherent in really great cooking, as well as the vegetables, herbs, spices and condiments, everything we use that constitutes a recipe, don’t start in a cookbook they really start here, ruled by which part of the animal the cut came from. Chef worked swiftly and cleanly ~ there was no hanging about ~ but it was the animal that provided the road map. Every now and then he closed his eyes and felt along a contour of a joint, trusting his fingers more than his eyes to tell him where to direct his knife. It was beautiful to watch ~ and it went a long way in explaining why he always cooks his proteins to perfection. This kind of understanding starts long before the meat hits the pan.

Years ago I knew a great Irish butcher in London, name of Mack, who used to make up stories about the animals as he carved them up. Nice and lean he’d say about a shapely lamb’s leg, this lassie must ‘a been a runner, or, oh look at the beautiful fat on this boy, as he sliced through the perfectly marbled ribeye, he liked the shade by the tree, he did. At the time I assumed he only nattered on to keep himself from being bored or having to talk to the endless stream of Hampstead housewives, but now I’m not so sure. I thought of Mack as Ryan ran his hand down the entire length of our lamb’s body. Beautiful animal Chef said before he made the first cut. Mack used to say the same thing as he wrapped a cut of meat in paper and tied the bundle with string, nodding as he handed it across the counter and I headed out into the night to feed it to my family. For both men, whose livelihoods are intrinsically reliant upon the animals we raise to eat, the words offered a kind of benediction. We often forget that a benediction is both blessing and guidance. We need both now.

LINKS:

Heather Smith wrote a good article in in San Francisco Magazine worth reading.

Michael Pollan's PBS interview Modern Meat.

There are usually no butchery classes offered this time of year, but you can go to an incredible fair this weekend where butchery will be only one of the food related skills you can learn about ~ with lots of opportunity for hands on experience. As Sophia Bates is one the organizers, we highly recommend a drive up to Anderson Valley this weekend. Where Sophia goes great food, music, and life changing good times are not far behind.

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Happy Birthday Baby

(originally posted July 14, 2010)

Seven years ago, the day before we opened Barndiva for the very first time, we hosted an unforgettable interactive art exhibit celebrating the work of ten renowned local food producers. Each food artist was paired with two other artists: one to document their work, the other to interpret it. The interactive part was that we invited guests to “eat the art” while they experienced it. 300 old friends, new neighbors, journalists, vintners, and tout Healdsburg descended upon the barn on a warm and sunny Saturday in July expecting to be wowed. We wowed them. Who could resist the heady perfume of art, food, wine and music, all served up in a beautiful new building on a perfect evening at the height of summer?

The entire day was our business plan writ large, with the central proposition that diva’s don’t just live in opera houses. When it comes to food there are people who hit the high notes every day of their lives in vegetables fields, olive orchards, dairies, bakeries... even restaurants shaped like barns. There was a sense that day, articulated by almost everyone who was here, that something exciting was gaining momentum in Healdsburg; that Barndiva was only part of a zeitgeist that was happening in our town, and towns like ours (which admittedly is not many) across the country. The term ‘farm to table’ didn’t mean what it does today; the concept of ‘artisan’ had only recently begun being applied to something you’d find on a plate in a restaurant. The adoration we lavished on our food savants felt new and exciting, an homage to hand made and home grown that felt wholly warranted and fully our own.

It was the greatest opening party Barndiva could have imagined. Of course we needed the good will, inexperienced as we were, to get through that first tumultuous year. And we were thrilled to have pulled off an exhibit of such great complexity to launch our business. But what we were most proud of was the $16,000 we helped raise with Slow Food Sonoma County, our partners for the event, to be spent on a program that would bring sustainable farmers to the kitchen doors of Healdsburg Public Schools to provide for their lunch programs.

Paul Bertolli, already contemplating Fra Mani, the next great act in his remarkable culinary career, arrived first with homemade salumi he’d cured in his basement in Berkeley. He had been paired with the artist Ismael Sanchez, who fashioned a life size homage to the dead pig out of rusted wire, and with Evan Bertoli, his nephew, a classmate of our daughter Isabel and a budding photographer. The group vetting the artists with me had concerns that a boy as young as Evan could pull off work that would raise significant money at auction, but one look at the image he took of Paul’s beautiful hand slicing through a sheaf of snowy white pork fat put that fear to rest: it was haunting, fully capturing the skill Paul brings to the art of charcuterie.
And so it went, with virtually every collaborative exhibit: Lou Preston’s wine was exhibited alongside Susan Preston’s installation piece of a single worn blue kitchen chair sitting, as if floating, on a mound of flour with a jug of their Guadagni on the floor. Ig Vella brought huge rounds of cheese and a lifetime’s worth of craft in his worn and irascible smile. Elissa Rubin Mahon stacked a dozen of her jams in an old wood box by the front door where they sparkled like jewels in a Bulgari window. John Scharffenberger sent slabs of different grades of chocolate and huge bags of chocolate nibs which we poured on a wine barrel below Michael Recchiuti’s accompanying ‘canvas’ of hand poured chocolate upon which he had painted a shimmering, incandescent barn. The smells of Olive Oil and Honey and Bread and Peaches ~ all other exhibits ~ filled the air, mingling with the laughter and music and talktalktalk.
One of the artisan producers I’d personally invited to participate was Karen Bates of the Philo Apple Farm. Though the focus of the exhibit was the artisan bounty from Sonoma County, Slow Food understood that as a family we intended to draw from a sustainable food shed that started in Mendocino County where we own a farm on the Greenwood Ridge. Our place is directly above Karen’s; her family and ours have been nearest neighbors and friends, raising our kids together, for going on 30 years. Karen’s artisan product, her ‘art,’ as it were, was the ‘mother’ starter she used for the farm’s infamous apple cider vinegar, made from organic heirloom apples that grow on their 40 acres along the Navarro River. I had only ever seen yogurt or bread starters before so Karen’s massive disc of fulminating bacteria blew me away.

Karen has chosen the artist Laura Parker to document her work and towards that end Laura has spent many hours at the farm that spring photographing apple trees in full blossom. She then transferred 55 images onto fabric panels that on the morning of the exhibit she slung across the entire rear of the barn. It was a gorgeous body of work. Remarkably, she’d taken an inherently flat, captured image and given it back the life it once had out in the fields. Karen and Laura are good friends, which you could tell from the way their pieces played together. There was also something wonderfully incongruous between the mothership starter floating in a huge glass bowl of rust colored cider, and these ethereal blossoms, splashing sunlit patterns through the air, moving like a curious school of butterflies, hovering, but with no intention of landing.

Laura and I connected that day, talked briefly, then lost touch, except for infrequent emails about our respective openings. From hers I gleaned that she was mixing up her time between fine art, highly sought after pastel images of fruit and vegetables (presently on exhibit in Studio Barndiva), and interactive work which sounded more experiential than performance. It wasn’t until she sent something about a new project called Taste of Place that I started playing closer attention.

 

Taking the current interest in terroir out of the vineyard and bringing it to the farm, Laura was making the case that everything we eat, not just wine we drink, has a indelible fingerprint connecting it with the soil it is grown in. She visited farms and tramped around, meticulously labeling soil samples, which she then put into wine glasses for folks to smell and discuss. She only used dirt from sustainable farms (fyi: soil becomes dirt when you take it away from where you find it). She didn’t ask anyone to taste the dirt (though some did) but she made the case that by smelling deeply we are in fact tasting: scientifically that’s what happens on the sides of our tongues when we salivate, the result when something piquant ~ in this case dirt with a little water added ~ hits our olfactory senses. What she found from the first few interactive shows was that often just the smell of dirt played a strange alchemy on memory. It can bring back a moment in time when we were very young, before dirt was just something to wash off. Sound implausible? Maybe, but this is exactly what happened to Geoffrey at the Taste of Place lunch Laura put on at the Boonville Hotel in 2008.

I have a long history with the Boonville Hotel: I was among the second round of investors when the restaurant was in its glory, and it provided my first real connection to Anderson Valley. Ironically, given what I do now, it also exposed me to a style of country dining I’d only ever seen in Europe, where it’s not unusual to see some of the food you are eating growing or frolicking in the fields beyond the dining room windows. The hotel is now owned by Johnny Schmitt, Karen’s brother, a wonderful cook who had worked with Laura and her farmers to create a soil-paired meal I had no intention of missing. My husband thought otherwise. On the day of the lunch, with temperatures already climbing over 80, it was all I could do to get him in the car.

The first thing that strikes you when you experience Laura’s Taste of Place is how different the soils look when you are able to study and compare them, side-by-side. Some soils are deep and rich, while others look almost too thin to support growth of any kind. Some are rocky, with bits of granite, some smooth as silt, several so light and airy they seem to be crawling up the sides of the glass.

There are two ways of describing what happens after that. The first is to take a page out of wine Terroir vernacular (albeit tongue and cheek) as indicated from crib notes Laura and Karen wrote about the Philo Apple Farm.

Philo Apple Farm – Flood Plain, Navarro River District. Unlike the Indian Camp Ground variety, flood plain has a yellow mustard color. It's texture is hard and clod like. A bit less exotic in aroma, but more varietal, with olive and mineral notes, and a bit weightier finish. The nose here is clay and smoky with huge extract and extraordinary elegance.

Then there is the way Geoffrey experienced Taste. First he stuck his long aquiline nose into a glass of “Indian Campground: Arrowhead Reserve” and inhaled deeply. Then he furrowed his brow, closed his eyes, sighed. “This brings me right back to our coal cellar in London when I was 5." He looked up at Laura and smiled. “It’s the smell of anthracite and moisture. God, I spent hours playing down there, with this smell in the air.” Later, in the car on the way up to the farm he remarked that he hadn’t thought about those years for a long, long time.

It is amazing to me, and quite wonderful indeed, that after seven years we are still talking about the sanctity of the soil here at Barndiva. Since Ryan arrived the idea behind “eat the view” has taken on even greater meaning. It’s not just a nifty tag line for our patrons anymore, but embedded deep within their enjoyment of everything we surround them with here at the Barn. With inspired cooking, as with bio-dynamic farming, it's hard to know where the passion ends and the science begins. A growing part of me feels we may be seeing the beginning of a thoughtful re-consideration of why food tastes the way it does, which could even lead us to a reappraisal of the very concept of nourishment. There is now talk about Secondary Metabolites in plants which, while they have probably been around since the beginning of time, are only now being studied for the possible secrets they hold in protecting the plants that produce them. If we are ever able to unlock that connection, they may someday be able protect us as well.

These are exciting times to be considering taste and how it applies to farming practices and food. What’s most incredible is the fact that this new frontier has been here all along, where it’s always been, right beneath our feet.

If you missed our opening party seven years ago, now is your chance to share an historical evening at Barndiva. If you were here for The Taste of Art, thank you for your continued patronage. We hope to share A Taste of Place with you in August.

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Kill the Messenger

(originally posted July 7, 2010)

I went to a party last week in Santa Rosa. First warm summer night, great music, lots to eat and drink. As the evening began to wind down I found myself happily ensconced in a deck chair by the pool with people I had never met before. One minute we were having an innocent chat about BP’s CEO, wondering aloud how he could sleep at night when talk seamlessly morphed into a conversation focused on things in our personal lives that we were ashamed to admit we did. Anonymity and alcohol easily carried us to a casually intimate place that somehow felt comfortable, like a collective sigh. It was dark and the band had taken a break and there was a lovely waterfall sound emanating from the stone walls that surrounded us. Not far from where we were sitting a dwindling group was still playing bocce, so every now and then the solid thrack of one ball hitting another ricocheted in the air.

One fellow said he cheated on his taxes. Sometimes. Not big things, mind you, little things the government had no right sticking their nose into. A woman, mid-thirties and more drunk than the rest of us, giggled and said she fantasized about cheating on her live-in boyfriend. She loved him but sometimes she felt time whizzing by, while she watched, standing perfectly still. A heavy set woman sitting at the far end said she went through a phase where she would steal magazines from Whole Foods, and justified it to herself because they were such a big company. Cheating seemed to be the theme of our confessions, but when the conversation came around I heard myself admitting that sometimes when I couldn’t sleep I crept up to my office and watched The Housewives Series on Bravo for hours. Didn’t matter which city ~ New York, Orange County, New Jersey ~ the women were all interchangeable and uniformly dreadful, a fact which they happily compounded by allowing their obtuse lives to be played out on national TV.

A silence enveloped the group. Finally the tipsy girl piped up and said I know what you mean. I can watch a whole season of The Tori Spelling Show in one sitting. The tax evader asked if DIY shows counted. No way all three women shouted. At least you can learn something from them, the girl said. The woman at the end sighed. We all watch crap TV, she said, it's just harmless fun, what’s so bad about that?

I had no idea, but for me, I didn’t think it was just about fun. And I wasn’t quite sure about the harmless part either.

I am not a snob when it comes to TV, or film for that matter ~ if it moves I will pretty much watch it, or at least give it a chance. I’m as stumped by the guy who can ‘only’ listen to classical music as by the guy who brags he’s never listened to it before. Of course it’s true that quantifiable genius separates Ibsen’s A Doll’s House from Russ Meyer’s Valley in the Dolls, but they basically have the same plot and come to the same conclusions about the human (female) condition. And truth be told a hell of a lot more people watched and read and wept over Jacqueline Suzanne’s overwrought story of female subjugation then ever sat through an Ibsen play. Great themes and their denouements come in a variety of disguises; it's up to us to decide which ones we will rely upon to get us through the night.

So my nocturnal relationship with the surgically enhanced ladies of Reality TV was not repugnant because I looked down on the form it was coming to me in. And while one would be hard-pressed to find uglier examples of women in the 21st century, there’s also not much change left in spending time with characters simply because you feel superior to them. For a while I ran with the assumption that the Housewives Series was a cautionary moral tale ~ with apologies to Goya ~ a 21st Century Los Caprichos about how tragically our venal desire to acquire things has lead us astray. For the past fifty years we have been force fed an American standard which exalts an unbridled obsession with wealth. The girls had simply taken a step further and ordered their Kool-aid to go. But that still did not explain why I was watching it. If bling with a dubious moral attached was all I needed, I’ll take my Jay-Z straight up, thank you very much.

Television is the most democratic and popular medium ever created, even now as it is being subsumed by youtubitis. But from its beginnings the programs which held sway over the airwaves, while they used a variety of voices to keep us entertained, always aimed at a common dominator. (read: lowest). Classic TV programs like The Honeymooners, All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Seinfeld, Friends, all tackled big issues ~ marriage, dysfunction in the family, racism, friendship as a sustaining force ~ but played them out in a common vernacular that consistently and perhaps naturally veered toward the stupid. Name any great sitcom in the last thirty years and on some level stupid reigns supreme.

Still, the paucity of good programs I found in 1996 when I returned from a decade living in the UK shocked me. It seemed to parallel what had happened to food in America while I was gone: the plates had grown bigger while the nutritious value had exponentially diminished. My family went from four stations (two government sponsored!) to over 400, but with the exception of sports, choice felt remarkably more limited. There are still great scripted programs like The Soprano’s on TV ~ the Nurse Jackies, the Mad Men, the Friday Night Lights ~ but they grow ever more infrequent. Reality TV, meanwhile, continues to gobble up more and more air time. Dead cheap to produce, with no writers to pay, no sets to frame reference, no studio time to keep the industry alive, Reality TV proliferates because we are allowing a cost driven marketplace to buckle under massive competition from the internet. The irony is, because all you need to produce a ‘reality program’ is a cameraman, people who will do anything to have their five minutes of fame, and an editor with an eye toward cutting for commercial breaks, with reality programming the television industry has set in motion its own demise.

Some competitive programs like So You Think You Can Dance elevate struggling cultural forms by exposing them to huge new audiences. But generally Reality TV grows in stupidity instead of getting better. Take cooking shows ~ have you wondered why the initial progenitors like Mario Batali, chefs who really know how to cook and talk about food, have been forced out and replaced with ‘user friendly’ schlocky cooks like Paula Deen? Even Gordon Ramsey, an extraordinary talent who shaped one of the best food programs ever (The F Word) made while he was still in the UK, instantly dumbed down his act when he hit our shores, producing unwatchable crap like Hell’s Kitchen.

Then there is the Housewives Series, my bête noire of the moment. Like Survivor, and MTV’s Real World (the progenitor of reality shows) it would seem to focus on social interactions in their crudest forms ~ basically how we manipulate one another ~ which admittedly has some practical application in the workplace and relationships. But there are no resolutions, no winners, no achievements, just an endless stream of greedy people with narrow worldviews living meaningless lives. At what point does ignorance become culpable? Something happens when you spend time with people whose only notable ‘talent’ is that they have managed to invade the privacy of your home, bringing all the meaningless stupidity of their lives with them. I fear you don’t just watch stupid, you become stupid.

There will be no innocent bystanders in the war currently being waged on TV and the internet for a collective attention span that is shrinking in content, even as it gains in numbers. What we switch on when we drop our tired vulnerable bodies down on the couch and focus our eyes for a few hours each night ~ even when we do it for harmless fun ~ will ultimately make as profound a difference to the quality of our lives, and the culture we have to draw from, as what we put into our bodies when we eat.

It is our right and our mandate to demand more from the people making money off us. In the words of Thoreau “The world before me is of too much consequence to be merely observed.” There’s cheating on a spouse, cheating the government, cheating big business ~ none of them good to be sure ~ but all of them preferable, to my mind, to cheating on yourself, because that’s where identity and honesty starts in each and every one of us. Which is why, at the end of the day, my ‘confession’ in the dark actually was the worse one of all.

 

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The first official week of summer, this is what we are.....

(originally posted June 30, 2010)

 

doing early in the morning...... Lukka's ideal, relaxing, magical day in Summer is a journey down the Russian River between Healdsburg’s Memorial Bridge and Wohler Bridge - an undeveloped, eight mile stretch of clean river that boasts some of the most exquisite and diverse landscapes in Sonoma County.

It's an easy paddle which rewards you with face time with herons, ospreys, turtles, egrets, and Lloyd the bald eagle who lives just after mile 2. Last week Lukka clocked 55 miles! Mondays are reserved for taking groups down the river (whoever shows up) with large coolers filled with copious amounts of delicious food and drink. Russian River Adventures SOAR canoes are inflatable, more stable, and extremely comfortable for lounging . . and owners Larry and Amanda will pick you up at the end of your journey, take care of the boats, and return you safely and most contentedly back to your car!

inspired by... We have more and more vegetarians dining at Barndiva, along with vegans and gluten sensitive guests. It's a misnomer to think that just because you eliminate proteins you lose a discerning palate or the desire for creative options when you dine out.

Ryan is loving re-visiting the vegan cookbook Raw, right now, because of the amazing array of color on every plate. Always a firm believer that people eat with their eyes first, color is a key trigger for him ~ whenever we get new art in the gallery he is immediately drawn to the most vibrant work. Now that summer is finally here he is looking forward to maximizing flavor without heat. "The images for these recipes remind us what bright and fresh looks like. They celebrate in every 'sense' that vegetables are still alive when they reach your plate."

 

pouring... After this rainy spring we are all ready to enjoy some crisp, lean Italian white wines while basking in the late afternoon sun in the gardens. Tommy has snagged us a few cases of Orvieto "Terra Vineate" from Palazzone, which has everything one would expect from great Central and Northern Italy whites: bracing acidity and minerality coupled with a subtle extra layer of opulence and glycerin. Palazzone produces inexpensive yet highly sought after blends of Umbria's indigenous varietals (Procanico, Verdello, Grechetto, Drupeggio and Malvasia Toscana) the very same ones used to make wine centuries ago by the Ancient Romans and still coveted for their remarkable golden hues and intense flavours. The traditional Cepage is unique in that Palazzone includes a high percentage of Grechetto and Procanico which gives the wine an interesting note of hazelnut oil as well as distinct spiciness. The best part for last: Organically farmed, hand harvested, indigenous yeast fermentation, bottled unfined and unfiltered...and only $10 by the glass in the Lounge.

mixing up... On Wed we hosted a small mixer, one of several Barndiva will be throwing over the summer to say thank you to wineries, concierges, and wedding planners that have supported us. It was a great time to kick start our summer cocktails. New bartender Stephan came up with a wonderful libation for the coupe using pineapple sage from the gardens which we bought a few seasons back at one of Occidental Arts and Ecology Center's plant sales. He paired it with lashing of gin, sparkling water, yellow chartuse and St. Germain. For a peek at our specialty cocktails, check out our cocktail menu...but you better hurry as it's about to change again as more summer soft fruit starts to ripen.

doing with our kids... When 2 year old Teagan isn't searching for the perfect spot to go berry picking in Sonoma County, she's heading North this week to Portland. This summer's trip is to cheer on the kids from Girls Rock Camp. Her aunt, Marisa Anderson, is the Creative Director for this program which runs throughout the summer and teaches girls (ages 8-17) how to form bands, write original songs and play instruments. This spectacular program started in Portland, but now offers camps throughout the US and Europe.

 

jamming... Turns out our bartender Sam Levy not only has a jones for jam but an incredible talent for making it as well! He will be working with Jil and Chef Ryan all summer as we buy up slightly soft or less than perfect fruit to wave our hot wand over. Voila, come winter we will still be eating peaches, apricots, berries...summer fruit! When apricots from Coombs Ranch showed up this week (with just a little frost damage but great flavor) Sam got busy and came up with a smooth chutney with a hint of brandy, fresh ginger, and allspice ~ perfect to serve with our Artisan Platters. He is also working on a jam for Sunday Brunch with vanilla bean and carmelized Meyer lemon rind, and a cherry jelly which uses apricot and peach juice. Sam caught the jamming bug from his mum, who caught it from hers. At their house some days they have three generations going strong, using fruit from their own trees. We are thrilled to have a jam fanatic in the house this summer.

proud to see in print... Great article in this month's Garden Design Magazine which features our own Mick Kopetsky and our great friend Bieke Burwell. Mick, who owns Mix Gardens with Bieke, is one of Barndiva's main vegetable suppliers and a dedicated Fork & Shovel member. He also recently took over Healdsburg Landscape Materials down the road which supplies many of us with great soil mixes and river rock ~ We know this because we just finished spreading about 12 yards in the new Studio Gardens. Great to see his accomplishments in print. We are thrilled his muse Bieke is back from London for the summer.

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Jimmie Johnson in the house

(originally posted June 23, 2010)

We don't want to brag, but we can't help being totally jazzed that the day after a superlative (his words) 4 hour dinner party at Barndiva, Jimmie Johnson had a incredible Nascar win at Sonoma's Infineon Raceway on Sunday.

Johnson, who Chef Ryan cooked for at the French Laundry, sent a rave review back to the kitchen after the meal, which he shared with 12 of his friends at our beautiful new Family Table in the front patio. Though we obviously can't take any credit for the win, we are chuffed we played a small but delicious part in the good spirits he took with him to help start his engine.

Our lovely hostess Gracie was there celebrating Father's Day with her dad to cheer Jimmie on.

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Waiting for Scarlett Johansson

(originally posted June 23, 2010) Sofia Coppola made a sweet little film a few years back called Lost in Translation, where an incandescent Scarlett Johansson meets a morally exhausted has-been actor played by Bill Murray in a hugely impersonal skyscraper hotel in Japan. Needless to say, the terrain they find themselves lost in is not just Japan.

I’m thinking of this movie on Wednesday, standing in the middle of Target in Rohnert Park, when it suddenly occurs to me I’m in the remake playing the Bill Murray role, with Target standing in for Japan. Scarlett Johansson is nowhere in sight. A good number of exceedingly large people are however, gliding around me with shopping carts, some motorized, as I stand stock still with what feels like a classic Bill Murray look on my face ~ bemused, baffled, slightly demented.

The carts have no trouble navigating around me because the aisles are inordinately wide. Wide enough to swing a cat. They are also very clean. In fact the entire enormous store, as big as side by side football stadiums, feels like one big clean country. I know I am lost in more ways than one, and I’m pretty sure I don’t speak the language.

The journey which lead me here actually started on Tuesday in another Target down the road in Santa Rosa. My good friend Bonnie Z and I left Healdsburg just after nine heading for a nursery to buy chef flats of basil and peppers for our gardens. As I also needed umbrellas for the front dining patio, and Bonnie needed a large grill for Dragonfly, we agreed on a ‘brief’ foray to Target and Costco to see if mega store America couldn’t fulfill our needs.

Contrary to popular opinion, I am not a shopping snob. I will shop anywhere when the mood strikes, the Salvation Army, Ross, Barneys, Bergdorfs ~ bring it on. My usual litmus test for purchase is that sweet spot where beauty meets quality. But since I opened the restaurant and the gallery and began in earnest to meet the people who grow my food and make things I choose to sell, more and more, before I make any purchase I find myself wondering how an object came to be sitting before me in the first place.

Like most of us I can play fast and loose with the word ‘need,’ when desire strikes, rendering its true definition useless. How many pairs of shoes does a woman really ‘need?’ As far as I’m concerned it’s an unanswerable question, right up there with angels on the head of a pin. The frustration around sourcing a decent American-made umbrella every summer has lead me to make peace with the fact that until such a time as I start hand-looming them, Chinese umbrellas live in my world. It was the name right next to the words "Made in China" that took me by complete surprise.

If you haven’t been following the sad tale of what happened to Smith & Hawken, once one of the most wonderful companies in America, here it is in a nutshell: In 1979, Dave Smith and Paul Hawken opened a shop catering to organic farmers in Mill Valley in order to sell beautifully designed, handmade English gardening tools. That they were equally mindful of ecological and social justice issues made them visionaries for their time in developing what we now call a sustainable business model. The shop grew in its product line, and then into many shops and then into a corporation. But it held the line with its original ethical model. I still have the English bench (same one as Kew Gardens!) I bought from the flagship store. It has survived 28 years of storms and intense summer heat, yet managed to age to a beautiful smooth gray patina, yet with an integral strength which is rare for a garden bench (except for the ones in Kew Gardens!).

Smith retired after a few years to open a bookstore in Ukiah, but Paul Hawken soldiered on at the company, in addition to writing a number of significant books on his journey trying to create a mindful but profitable business in America. So far, so good. Then, in 1993 when Paul Hawken retired, the company began to change hands. It went first to a retail conglomerate that expanded the line and eventually went bankrupt, then was bought in receivership by a private investment company that quickly unloaded it to the Scotts Miracle-Gro conglomerate. Scotts Miracle Gro is a corporation at the top of a merchandising food chain quaintly known as "Grow and Kill" (to us layman, that means a company that sells gardening and chemicals). The irony of this purchase was not lost on anyone, except perhaps the GM at Miracle Gro, who blithely told the SF Chronicle that his company had only purchased Smith & Hawken to “make us seem more green than we are.” As if that wasn’t unintentionally droll enough, he concluded, “We want to enter categories less chemically oriented and much more female."

The first thought that occurred to me as my hand hovered was that perhaps the fact that Smith & Hawken had landed at a company known for using great design to move merchandise wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Hadn’t great design been an indisputable part of Smith & Hawken’s original précis? Isn’t getting companies to acknowledge that things need to be designed well before they are sold a first step toward the redemption of production? The back-story on Target lines like Michael Graves and Issac Mizrahi is that their contacts with Target saved these iconic designers ~ both of whom had expanded too fast and had lost (or were about to lose) control of their creative empires. Designers need to keep working if they are to survive but it's valid to ask if this kind of pseudo design ultimately does more harm than good. It wasn't a question I was going to be able to solve with this one purchase however, so with a 'what difference can two umbrellas make' shrug I slung them in my basket, paid for them, and Bonnie and I got the hell out of dodge.

What happened next was a perfect ‘you can run but you can’t hide’ experience. I had not bought enough umbrellas. This necessitated yet another trip to Santa Rosa the next day, where I was belatedly informed that during the night gremlins (my word) had crept into the store and fiendishly marked all the remaining umbrellas in stock on close-out to make room for back to school gear (in June?) Since that morning they had been selling like hotcakes ~ that’s Target shoppers for you the salesgirl helpfully informed me ~ and they were all gone. Except for the floor model which they agreed to sell me. That’s when I made my fatal mistake. I asked if she might check to see if any other Targets had more umbrellas.

What commenced after that I am not completely sure. Target strategically places a popcorn machine at every entrance to their stores, so the first thing you smell when you pass through their doors is comforting. It’s a clever marketing ploy to make you feel relaxed, to slow time, and now that I’ve subjected myself to it I can attest to the fact that it really works. For the next forty minutes, life as I knew it went into suspended animation. I suspect this is where millions of Americans get lost in our country, some of them forever. The longer I waited the more I felt compelled not to give up and thus squander the time I had already wasted.

They located the last Made-in-China Smith & Hawken umbrella in Northern California, also a floor model, down the highway in the Rohnert Park store. This meant time spent in horrendous traffic because THEY WILL NEVER FINISH WIDENING HWY 101, then involved getting lost looking for the right shopping center. I found it but then had to park a mile away because, incredibly, all the spaces in all the rows directly in front of the store were marked handicapped. There simply cannot be that many handicapped people in Rohnert Park, can there? According to a clerk I asked once I finally reached the front door, if you count obesity as a handicap there certainly are.

Helpful as he was on this issue, neither he nor three other team members could tell me where Backyard World transitioning to Back To School World was located. So I began to wander, more Andy Warhol than Moses, but still a woman on a mission. I did not find umbrellas. I found: a row with 14 different toaster models (every single one made in China), two rows of shiny trash cans (ditto), picture frames, pickled things, Target sheets, hampers, rings for the shower, and row upon row of plastic this and that (ditto ditto ditto). I contemplated for far too long a close-out sale that included some very attractive lamp shades. I steered clear of the sections I knew were outright wrong ~ food and drugs ~ though by now the word drugs was starting to sound pretty attractive. It wasn’t until I found myself in the George Foreman aisle for the THIRD time that things started to unravel. I love George, but I do not want to be alone with an entire row of his grills again in this lifetime. Where had I gone wrong? I knew better then to get lost in translation.

I knew better because for me, at this point in my life, there is no middle ground left for pragmatic decision making when it comes to what I purchase and what I eat. I don’t have a large family to feed anymore. I know too much about how things are made. It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that when an object like a toaster is put together on the floor of a Chinese factory, then packaged and shipped and tracked and trucked and stocked on the aisle of your megastore of choice, it shouldn’t cost “only $12.99.” Something is seriously wrong with that equation. If you have any doubts about where our greedy dependence on cheap fossil fuel driven products has lead us, turn on your TV and take another good look at the oil burbling up from the depths of the ocean in the Gulf of Mexico.

Still, it’s possible that the aroma of fresh hot popcorn or even Scarlett Johansson might have saved me from this dénouement, which I know full well will bring a world of tsuris for me in the future. The thing is, only a few aisles away from where they pop their corn at Target, the lovely smell dissipates completely. From there on out, as far as you can smell, all you get when you sniff the air is the vaguely synthetic odor of guilt.

Links: Paul Hawken has a number of wonderful books really worth checking out.

Go Local is a Sonoma based co-op that supports local businesses and runs a number of exciting educational programs throughout the year. Join them!

Consider alternatives when you make purchases, especially big ones for your home. Friends recently demurred buying a foreign made fridge and bought a Sun Frost instead, beautifully made right here in Arcata California. They love it.

Or how about giving Pottery Barn a pass the next time you need dinnerware. Most of the best designs you see in catalogues like Crate and Barrel are stolen from small but talented designers. For gorgeous pottery that will grow old with you check out Aletha Soule, whose studio is right down the road in Sebastopol.

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Art of the Rind

(Originally posted June 16, 2010)

We want to thank Cheese Plus, The Fatted Calf, Cowgirl Creamery, Pt Reyes Blue, Kelley & Young Wines and Dragonfly Floral for making our opening reception of Wil Edwards Art of the Rind such a perfectly delicious event.

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Why do they call it Father’s Day when it’s really Dads we honor?

(originally posted June 16, 2010)

I’m not being specious, there really is a difference between the two, one that goes deeper than a name. It’s Dad we will take out for brunch or dinner this Sunday, not Father. Just like it’s Dad who bought us ice cream when Mom told him we’d had enough sweets for the day. Taught us to ride a bike, then a car, for which he paid the insurance, and repairs when we had the inevitable accident forgetting in an instant all he taught us. It’s Dad who imparted a sense of security to our early lives, even if all he did was be a solid, sleeping presence down the hall.

I love dads, I love the ones I know and the idea of dadness in general. The sporty kind who shows up at school meets, the pedantic, stick in the mud kind, who, it turns out, said a bunch of stuff we try to live up to every day now that we are adults. The tinkers, the thinkers, the ones who cook, even if badly, when no one else is around to put dinner on the table. I especially love the ones who try and fail at a multitude of things in their lives, but hang in there, even when we realize, years later, that they must have been dying inside at how hard success, and sometimes just living, turned out to be.

Fathers, on the other hand, bring a whole different game to the playing field. Check it out: we have Father Time, Father Christmas, the Father of our Country (which in our case is George, but every country has one) and not last, certainly not least, Our Father Who Art In Heaven. Fathers are the big theme winners in the game of life: Time, History, Power, and Religion ~ they hold all the cards. Even old Saint Nick (his other name) the jolly, seemingly benevolent one, is a potential game changer if he deems your behavior warrants it.

These are powerful masculine entities who have controlled history and held sway over every big decision we’ve made in the civic realm from Plato on. So what compels us to call them by a declarative name which by rights should be reserved for the real flesh and blood guy who taught you to throw a soft ball? Where did the practice of calling them Father come from? Does it make the King more user friendly, less likely for us to overthrow? Strengthen our connection to God in a way that deepens it? For whose gain? Forgive me for asking these impertinent questions. One of the great things I learned from my dad was to be unceasingly suspicious.

My dad grew up in an era when good and evil were clearly delineated, where honor, not wealth, was the defining characteristic of a man. He’d gotten all the way through to his mid-30’s a bachelor, and if his life was not completely carefree ~ he supported his mother, four sisters, and a brilliant but invalid brother ~ he enjoyed a quintessential New York high life where Sinatra was the soundtrack and even dames wore gloves to dinner. An exceedingly handsome man ~ Clark Gable with less hair is how my mother once described him ~ while he played all night, he always returned home to his mama (and responsibility) in the morning. The age of Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll in which he was forced to raise his children must have presented epic questions for him, and no small amount of frustration. Short tempered when faced with what he could not control, he barked a lot around the house. But there was no bite to the man when it came to his daughters. My dad’s whole raison d’etre was to see his daughters succeed ~ a goal which required enormous sacrifices that I’m not sure he was ever amply rewarded for. That he didn’t do it for the glory made him a perfectly normal dad and totally terrific.

Which didn’t stop me from being disappointed in him when I was growing up. Historical archetypes have their doppelgangers in popular culture in a way that affects us deeply. I secretly wanted a father just like Nancy Drew's. He never meddled in her business, in fact he was conspicuously absent while she drove around the countryside (in the coupe he had given her) solving mysteries. But he always managed to arrive in the nick of time when she needed him to get her out of trouble.

Instead I was stuck with a dad who told corny jokes and yelled advice from the balcony instead of talking to me in quiet measured tones like Atticus Finch talked to Scout. That I held his lack of erudition against him is understandable, given my age. What’s sad is that even nowadays, when parental stereotypes have gone through so many changes, too often we still miss seeing our fathers for their unassuming virtues. Mine, as it turned out, was blustery but unfailingly brave in the face of moving cultural targets that loaded on financial pressures. He wasn’t Father Knows Best, because he didn’t know what was best ~ who could have in those frightening times, fraught with psychological baggage which seemed to emanate from deep global uncertainty, much like today. If he didn’t know best, he nevertheless wished for the best. Without guile or motive. From what I’ve learned of life since then, this well-spring of loyalty, this selfless pride, is one of the greatest gifts of love we have to bestow on one another.

I’ll let you in on a big secret: Most of what mothers do we do because we don’t have a choice. Instinctive or intuitive ~ it doesn’t matter why, our responses to the great challenges of motherhood are driven by something deep within us, a primordial knee jerk reaction. We can’t help ourselves. A mother doesn’t throw herself under the bus to save her child because she thinks it’s a great idea.

Though I’ve never been one, I get the feeling dads aren’t wired quite the same way. When they stick around, through thick and thin, it's elective, not because their hormones and 2,000 years of genetic imperative force them to. For the ones that do stick it, and despite what you read the large majority of them do just that ~and then some ~ it’s all about character. And choice. Which makes their roles in our lives all that more amazing, when you come to think of it.

 

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