Category Archives: BEAUTIFUL LIFE

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.

SETTING THE TABLE

Partners & Spade, Manhattan

“Setting the Table,” from Maria @ Bureau of Friends:

Have you ever noticed that most of the real action at conferences takes place in the lounges and walkways outside of the Main Halls and presentation rooms? There is absolutely a place and time for sit-and-listen audiences and there’s nothing like a compelling speaker to move and enlighten us, but what might we do better to nourish real connections between people who gather around shared goals or values?

In our first few weeks together as the Bureau, we talked much about how difficult it can be to decide in which efforts we should involve ourselves, as speakers or partcipants. There are so many worthy conferences and community programs out there. We decided, that in addition to getting more strategic about how we respond to invitations, we’d proactively develop our own opportunities to engage talented and conscientious people.

Our first attempt was a collaborative event at HEATH and our next, is an up-coming conversation-in-the-round with Partners & Spade—the storefront and think tank for Andy Spade (co-founder/previous owner of Kate Spade and Jack Spade) and Anthony Sperduti (Andy’s creative partner).The evening at Partners & Spade, will build on the success of the Bureau’s experience at HEATH by continuing a forward-thinking conversation in the form of a traditional sewing circle. We are already at capacity for the Partners & Spade event, but I promise we’ll post about it later.

While these initial events revolve around a collaborative project inspired by charter members of the Bureau, Natalie Chanin (Alabama Chanin) and Cathy Bailey (HEATH Ceramics), our work at the Bureau will evolve to reflect other ideas and efforts of those who wish to deploy the hearts, minds and muscle of the Bureau.

In our media drenched, social networking maxed, Twitter-pated lives how else might we hear from and engage with others in a way that might lead to action—or at the very least, connect us to each other in more satisfying ways?

LES BLANK

It is an amazing thing in life when your heroes become your friends. And so it is with friend Les Blank.

I rented Gap-Toothed Women in the 1990’s when I was living in Vienna. And then came Burden of Dreams. A clear addiction to documentary films ensued.

Don’t miss this great interview with Les @ Vice Magazine.

THE COLOR OF DESIRE

Red can be a naughty color — red-light districts and bordellos. It is both the color of Satan and the color of the Roman Catholic Church. Stevens notes that red was a color often associated with divinity; medieval and renaissance paintings show Jesus and the Virgin Mary in red robes.

Red is for happiness — Indian brides get married in red saris. Red for good luck — the one-month birthday of a Chinese baby is celebrated with red eggs.

Red is rarely an accident.

“A textile is not dyed red by chance,” Stevens says. “No you use red for a specific reason whether it’s for love, for fertility, for happiness — you made it red on purpose.”

From: The Color Red: A History in Textiles

Read:  A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire


THE BASIC FOUR

While I love a good apron and The Gentle Art of Domesticity, cleaning has never been a particularly sexy task around our house. However, I loved the article below that ran in our local paper on Tuesday of this week.

It makes me happy that living clean is going mainstream.

Some great recipes are available here.

Maggie loved mixing the ingredients with me in the kitchen last night.

BUT, I still swear by Mrs. Meyers Lemon Verbena for washing our clothes…

*Make your own apron like the one above with the Bloomers Pattern available as a pull-out from our Alabama Stitch Book.

Continue reading