Category Archives: BEAUTIFUL LIFE

PLAY DOUGH + SOUTHERN LIVING

Thanks go out to everyone @ Southern Living for the lovely piece in their February issue. We have gotten lots of emails and calls about the article. There have also been several requests for the play dough recipe that Maggie and I were making that afternoon when Southern Living visited…

One of the simplest things to make in your own kitchen:  

Play Dough

1 cup flour
1 cup warm water
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon oil
1/4 cup salt
Food coloring

Mix all ingredients, adding food coloring last. Stir over medium heat until smooth. Remove from pan and knead on a floured board until cool and soft. Keep in an airtight container. Play often.  

*Thanks to Robbie Caponetto for the lovely pictures and note that Maggie is still wearing her apron – in fact, it might be her favorite plaything.

FARM-TO-TABLE

Okay – before I start – I have to say – JOIN THE SOUTHERN FOODWAYS ALLIANCE… good?

I made it through the snow and ice in Arctic temperatures to Walland, Tennessee. My trip to Blackberry Farm might be one of the most extraordinary trips I have ever taken – anywhere. I know that is saying a lot BUT the warm, gracious hospitality that you experience from the time you drive in the gate is exquisite. Add to Blackberry the wit, education and pure joy of the Southern Foodways Alliance and you have – hands down – one of the best events in the world.

I could fill this entire page but have to just highlight a few morsels of the weekend:

Blackberry Farm – I had the luxury of sitting next to Sam and Mary Celeste Beall on Thursday night and was struck at their deep knowledge of this farm and understanding of the ultimate Farm-to-Table experience.

The Blackberry Farm Cookbook – on the inside flap – says it best: “In the foothills, you don’t eat to eat, you eat to talk, to remember, and to imagine what you will eat tomorrow.” The book is lush with photographs of the estate, the kitchens, the gardens and luscious Farm-to-Table recipes.

While talking about the upcoming weekend, Sam and I spoke about the biscuit making classes (see below) and he asked me, “Butter or Lard?” This was just about the best question I have ever been asked over a five course dinner – with wine parings. You just have to love a man who understands the true essence of good bread. I laughed and replied, “Butter.”

Friday morning, the Blackberry Farm Chef Team of Josh Feathers, Adam Cooke and Joseph Lenn offered a Cast Iron Skillet demonstration – which I unfortunately missed – but came home with the following recipe by Chef Josh Feathers which I am going to make and then bake in my cast-iron:

Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes **Courtesy of Taste of the South notepad so generously supplied for all our cooking and tasting notes!

3 pounds red bliss potatoes 6 ounces butter 10 ounces buttermilk half & half – as needed Kosher salt – to taste 1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Simmer potatoes until tender. Strain and dry in 300 degree oven for 15 minutes.

Run potatoes through a food mill with medium die to mash. Stir in remaining, heated ingredients. Taste for seasoning.

Note: Those of you who are new to cast iron, NEVER wash your pan with soapy water. Clean your skillet first with a handful of kosher salt then rinse in warm to hot water and dry thoroughly. I learned this from Angie Mosier while working on Alabama Studio Style.

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WORD OF THE DAY: COLLECT.

Word of the Day: Collect.

Today I am collecting my thoughts.

Collect –verb.:

1.    To come to a collected attitude:
She collected her thoughts.
2.    To gather; assemble:
The studio staff collected together.
3.    To accumulate: Rain water collected in the barrel.
4.    To regain control: She took a day to collect herself.
5.    To make a collection of:
She has a collection of the beautiful garments.  

LIFE DOESN’T FRIGHTEN ME

Maggie’s favorite poem/book of the decade (well…moment).
She says to me this morning, “I like a scary movie.”

Life Doesn’t Frighten Me

By Maya Angelou with paintings by Jean Michelle Basquiat

Shadows on the wall
Noises down the hail
Life doesn’t frighten me at all
Bad dogs barking loud
Big ghosts in a cloud
Life doesn’t frighten me at all.

Mean old Mother Goose
Lions on the loose
They don’t frighten me at all
Dragons breathing flame
On my counterpane
That doesn’t frighten me at all.

I go boo
Make them shoo
I make fun
Way they run
I won’t cry
So they fly
I just smile
They go wild
Life doesn’t frighten me at all.

Tough guys in a fight
All alone at night
Life doesn’t frighten me at all.
Panthers in the park
Strangers in the dark
No, they don’t frighten me at all.

That new classroom where
Boys pull all my hair
(Kissy little girls
With their hair in curls)
They don’t frighten me at all.

Don’t show me frogs and snakes
And listen for my scream,
If I’m afraid at all
It’s only in my dreams.

I’ve got a magic charm
That I keep up my sleeve,
I can walk the ocean floor
And never have to breathe.

Life doesn’t frighten me at all
Not at all
Not at all
Life doesn’t frighten me at all.

SWIMMING WITH BARRACUDA

The island of Los Roques is attached to an archipelago of approximately 250 islands and is the second largest living organism on the planet – second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef.

The island itself is of volcanic origin and has small rock mountains (really hills) on the Atlantic side while the archipelago side is flat and sandy. At the southeastern Atlantic edge of the island – and archipelago – is a tiny cove which is really just a curved beach with a small volcanic hill slightly offshore.  The small hill is covered with all types of sea birds and the water swirls through the chute between the island and beach with incredible force.  The beach is virtually inaccessible from all sides; to get there, you must hike, traverse a lagoon, rock climb, shimmy around edges and corners before finally dropping onto the sand..

I had that small cove in my sights as I arrived on the island, but it took me some weeks to find time, when the weather permitted, to make my way there. I packed a small bag of supplies one morning and headed out. Three hours later, I arrived at the small strip of sand, maybe the smallest beach in the entire archipelago.  The beach sits next to a large reef of dead coral.  The Atlantic was so strong that the huge pieces of coral were crashing together in the waves and making a sound like a symphony.  Hence, I named the spot “Singing Coral.”

I stood there completely alone, in awe of the coral, the ocean, the sky and the fact that I had made it around the world, around the lagoon and around my life.  The currents seemed so strong but I had an overwhelming urge to swim.  It was like everything in the universe pushed me to the water. I dropped my pack and swam towards the middle of the cove where the water seemed slightly calmer.  I lay there – floating on my back – looking at the sky and then rolled to my stomach to look down into the depths of the cove.  When I turned and opened my eyes, I realized that I was swimming in the middle of a school of barracuda.  Floating there, it seemed as if thousands of barracuda swam around me in their slow, silent, circular funnel that continued as far into the depths as my eyes could see. I lay there still, shocked, terrified and strangely invigorated…

As slowly as their circular path, I began a small paddle back to my little beach. Slowly, slowly I moved and breathed and swam until my feet touched sand.  Standing back on the beach, I let out a whoop that could-be-heard-around-the-world and thought, “I will never be afraid of life again.”

That was the day that I started my journey to Project Alabama, and now Alabama Chanin.  To this day, I strive to live my life with the same courage and conviction I felt as my whoop joined the song of Singing Coral and the universe.

To the next decade – may we all find the courage to swim with barracuda and sing to the stars…

 

MIND OVER MATTER

After a bit of reflection this week, I am able to answer a question that has evaded me for a decade:
What inspired you to start this work? I was inspired and taken by the beautiful decay of an archipelago and how everything was used – everything.    It inspired me to begin collecting scraps of paper, taking photographs, finding discarded stories and trying to build them back together – a technique I used with t-shirts (and my life) once I arrived and settled in New York.   I never really moved back to Vienna.

FISH SOUP

In 1999, at the tail end of the last decade, I chose to leave my life in Vienna, Austria, to spend what I deemed a “sabbatical” on an island off the northern coast of Venezuela called Los Roques. How I got there is a story for another day. What had drawn me there was a woman – Nelly – and “El Canto de la Ballena.” Little did I know that my entire life was about to change.

I credit the beginnings of the work I have done the last ten years with a few months spent on that island. It was a time when hurricanes and storms wreaked havoc and destruction to the coast of Venezuela. I was on this tiny island – due north – as the weather passed through for weeks on end.

I wrote this story in February of 2000 when I had landed in cold New York but still had the stories of Los Roques fresh on my mind… I hope that my translation of Nelly’s words from the original Spanish do her justice.

Fish Soup

The point of the whole thing is food,” she said. “Good food. Real good food. A lot of people have forgotten,” she continued. “Three meals a day, sit down, take your time and eat warm food that is prepared with good ingredients and love. That’s the key,” she stresses, “love. It’s the way it’s washed, it’s the way it’s cut, it is the way one touches and it is the way one thinks as one touches. That,” she said, “is food and food is love.”
–Nelly Camargo, December 1999, Los Roques

Nelly made fish soup that day. I remember that is was one of those first days when the waves began to crash onto the porch. I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but I know that by that day, the beach was already gone, taken by the hurricane. And, I definitely remember that it seemed on that day like the waves were coming back for the porch. Soon after this day, we made sandbags because shortly after, the house next door fell into the sea.

The soup took hours. As the weather had been acting up again, everyone had the feeling of being wet and cold. Saying nothing, Nelly just went into the kitchen and started to work. In went the fish, the heads, the bones and just about everything else that could be found in the kitchen and on the island.

I guess that everyone who passed Nelly’s house that day could smell what was going on. So the soup cooked and the word spread, “Nelly is up to something.” And before I knew it, we were five people in the kitchen. Everyone was washing and cutting and chopping and rolling and laughing and talking. I know that I had never seen anything like it before that day. Music blared from the stereo and some were even dancing in the tiny, warm space.

In Nelly’s kitchen there is a window which looks down the hall and out to the sea. When you stand there and see the wooden spoons and the open window and the green-green sea in the background, you cannot help but stand still for a moment and breathe deeply. But that day, no one even looked to the window until about one in the afternoon, when the first faces began to appear.

The islanders were greeted with a big, warm smile and the question, “Are you hungry?” We went on that day to feed what seemed to be the whole island. Many faces and stories and laughter passed through my life that day. Nelly asked everyone, “Have you met Alabama?”

The feast went on into the night and here are a few of the recipes that were made. The fish soup was the best I have ever tasted in my life, but it remains Nelly’s secret. All I can remember is to put in everything you can find (plus coriander – the “spice of life”) and to do it with lots of love and laughter.

Fish in the Pan

Crush 5 cloves of garlic and salt in mortar. Add juice of two limes and a splash of soy sauce Pour over fish fillets and let stand for awhile. Cook the fish on hot skillet with  the marinade.  

Zucchini Carpaccio

Grate zucchini with skins into thin rounds. Lay flat on a big plate. Cover with juice of lime, salt, pepper and a little vinegar. Finish by grating parmesan cheese to cover.

Serve.

Red Cabbage

Cut cabbage into very thin strips. (The cutting is very important!) Crush garlic and salt in mortar; add roasted sesame seeds and crush a little bit more. Add vinegar, a little sugar, a little sesame oil and more roasted sesame seeds. Pour over cut cabbage and serve.  

Nelly’s Arepa

Mix salt (about one-half teaspoon) and warm water (about three cups) in a big bowl with a tablespoon of oil. To this mixture, add ”P.A.N” or Arepa Flour until dough is of a consistency to roll in your hand. Shape into 1/2” thick rounds and fry in hot oil. Cook until brown. When they are finished, you have to “thump” them. If they are really done, they make a kind of hollow sound.

This is just the basic recipe. You may choose to add white cheese, sesame seeds or just about anything you want to add.


Nelly moved El Canto de la Ballena in January of 2000, just after the storms had stopped. The new building is a bit further from the beach and behind the fishing pier.

I left Los Roques a few weeks after the Y2K panic was over and our world continued to spin; however, I don’t think that we would really have noticed any computer meltdown on that island. I have not laid eyes on Nelly since that time and have not spoken to her for much too long. I hope that she remembers me and will be proud when I say that the seeds for my work with the former Project Alabama and now Alabama Chanin were watered in her kitchen.

SIT

In the next decade, I will sit at my table more often and think.

In the next decade, I will sit at my table more often.

In the next decade, I will sit…

SIT : obs. 3d pers. sing. pres. of Sit, for sitteth.

To rest upon the haunches, or the lower extremity of the trunk of the body; — said of human beings, and sometimes of other animals; as, to sit on a sofa, on a chair, or on the ground.

To perch; to rest with the feet drawn up, as birds do on a branch, pole, etc.

To remain in a state of repose; to rest; to abide; to rest in any position or condition.

To lie, rest, or bear; to press or weigh; — with on; as, a weight or burden sits lightly upon him.

To be adjusted; to fit; as, a coat sits well.

To suit one well or ill, as an act; to become; to befit; — used impersonally.

To cover and warm eggs for hatching, as a fowl; to brood; to incubate.

To have position, as at the point blown from; to hold a relative position; to have direction.

To occupy a place or seat as a member of an official body.

To hold a session; to be in session for official business; — said of legislative assemblies, courts, etc.; as, the court sits in January; the aldermen sit to-night.

To take a position for the purpose of having some artistic representation of one’s self made, as a picture or a bust; as, to sit to a painter.

To sit upon; to keep one’s seat upon; as, he sits a horse well.

To cause to be seated or in a sitting posture; to furnish a seat to; — used reflexively.

To suit (well / ill); to become. To sit with a child.
Definitions of sit (sort of) from www.brainyquote.com , instructions for my Farm Table – pictured above – in Alabama Studio Style, inspiration to sit from a poem once given to me by a dear friend:

SPEAK ALL THE GOOD

I have been thinking a lot these last weeks about Maira Kalman.

First off, I am reading The Elements of Style, which is illustrated by Maira. While Maggie is now addicted to What Pete Ate – which means daily readings. You see, I have been sitting with Maira now day and night for weeks.

Secondly, I found this quote last week – which made me happy – and was reminded of Maira’s post “Can Do.”

“Speak ill of no man, but speak all the good you know of everybody”
–Benjamin Franklin

“And the Pursuit of Happiness” has been a light in my life this last year – along with many of my friends.

And, in true Maira Kalman style, this quote from Ben Franklin took me a step further and brought to mind my Grandfather “Perk.” At the mention of his name – and long after his death – people who knew him give an audible sigh and settle in their skin. “Yes, Perk,” they say. My daughter is named after his sister – who evokes the same response.

Perk was just the kind of person that made people feel happy, and good about themselves, and happy with the world. I have many a story to share about him – and will one day soon!

He would always repeat this old wives tale: “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.” He was ready with a guitar and a song, peanut brittle and a sly little smile. He was always tinkering with something and just trying to make this world a better place in general. Perhaps just a bit like Ben Franklin…

I guess that I just want to remind myself (and those of you still reading) that there is beauty in life every day. And while all the media wants to remind us that this was The Decade from Hell and The Decade of Fake (which I actually enjoyed reading), I would like to remember that some really lovely things – like Maira Kalman – enriched our lives this last year (and the nine years before). Perhaps we could start spending a bit of time each day “speaking all the good” we know of everybody.

Happy Holidays.
From our home to yours…

THE BEGINNING OF THE END (OR GIFTS + GIVING)

As the year slides towards its close, I know that it is the time of year that we all get tired of Gift Guides.

This year, we are seeing not only the end of the year but of the decade. This has been a really BIG year for all of us here at Alabama Chanin – and an even BIGGER decade. (My Ten Year Anniversary of living, working and loving Alabama will be coming up next year.)

For whatever reason, it seems that the “changing-of-the-decades” have always brought important and beautiful changes into my life. So, I would like to take these last days before the holidays (and the last weeks of the year) to look back – and a little forward.

Bear with me over the next weeks…

Back to Gifts & Giving (this one last time – well, maybe):

If you just can’t figure out what to do for a special person in your life this holiday season, consider a donation to the Leukemia Lymphoma Society.

As some of you will remember, my father was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma last year. He is, gratefully, in remission now – thanks to great medicine and research – and amazingly recovered from his stroke as a side effect to the chemotherapy. Thank you again to everyone who has been there with us… thank you to those who brought strength, understanding, kindness, patience and, sometimes, just cookies.

This could be the best gift of the year:

Leukemia Lymphoma Society

Susan G. Komen for the Cure

Make a Wish Foundation

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

Update of two more great organizations (thanks Sara):

Cure Search

American Cancer Society

*Photo of Ms. Jessie’s Vegetable Soup – also a great gift.   Recipe can be found on page 95 of Alabama Stitch Book.  This picture was originally taken for “The Kitchen Project” – perhaps  coming to our archives section one day.