Maria Popova is the founder of Brain Pickings, a website designed to introduce you to a broad variety of subjects that feed one’s mind and inspire creativity. Since founding Brain Pickings, Maria has spent countless hours researching and writing – hours that have taught her many life lessons. In honor of the website’s 7th birthday last fall, she was generous enough to share 7 things she learned from those 7 years of reading, writing, and living.
The 7 Lessons:
- Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.
- Do nothing out of guilt, or for prestige, status, money or approval alone.
- Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words.
- Build pockets of stillness into your life.
- Maya Angelou famously said, ‘When people tell you who they are, believe them’. But even more importantly, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them.
- Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. As Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
- Debbie Millman captures our modern predicament beautifully: “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.”
Last Friday night, we hosted our second “Friends of the Café” dinner, which also served as our first Piggy Bank Dinner fundraiser for the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA). Chef Vivian Howard of Chef & the Farmer restaurant and the Peabody-award winning television series A Chef’s Life traveled to The Factory from North Carolina for an evening of delicious food, cocktails, much laughter and lively conversation, and music, performed by friend and songbird, Shonna Tucker.
Vivian’s show, A Chef’s Life, focuses on regional food traditions and explores classic Southern ingredients. Friday’s dinner highlighted the story of our own local farmers and their fresh ingredients, with Vivian’s Eastern Carolina twist. Each course was accompanied by a wine pairing, chosen by Harry Root (Bacchus Incarnate) of Grassroots Wine.
I love what Christi Britten—one of our dinner guests and the author of Dirt Plate— writes in her review of the evening:
Pretty much, Vivian Howard gives a damn. She gives a damn how the food she serves is raised, prepared, cooked, presented, eaten, enjoyed, and thought about. She gives a damn about her community’s food culture and wants to suck up as much knowledge as she can about where their food comes from and how to make it. She gives a damn about the farmers that work hard every single day to feed a community as well as their families.
She has, with her own hands, butchered whole animals to use from snout to tail in her restaurant. She speaks with a tone of reverence and authority over the food she creates. And basically she is a food medium. She is confident, yet humble and puts us all into a place where we can visualize the care taken to prepare what we put in our mouths.
This farm to table dinner celebrated local farms and Southern food culture by bringing together the summer bounty into one meal among a diverse community of eaters.
We often speak about our home, our state, and our community that provides an incredible amount of inspiration for our work. We are not alone: friend and occasional collaborator, Billy Reid, also headquarters in the same community. It has been mentioned (and is remarkable) that Alabama has the third largest membership in the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), numbering at two; we rank just behind New York and California. And just as there is a rich history of textile production in our community, there is a somewhat unknown or unrecognized group of designers that have emerged from our home state.
We at Alabama Chanin have long been obsessed with and inspired by Maira Kalman. She has a rich and singular voice – as a visual artist, author, illustrator, and storyteller – that imbues people, objects, and words with knowing wit and humanity.
Maira has written and illustrated 18 children’s books, all of which have been popular nighttime reading with my daughter Maggie. Maira’s illustrated version of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style resides, beautiful and dog-eared, on my desk each day—as it has become part of our company style guide. And for years, I have traded and passed on copies of and links to her columns from the New York Times, The Principles of Uncertainty and The Pursuit of Happiness (both of which are now published exquisitely in book form).
For the past few years, I have essentially worked as a roving curator seeking out new artists and projects for Institute 193 and occasionally finding time for my personal work. I am on the road constantly: crisscrossing the Southern United States, meeting people, visiting artists, and making pictures. Things happen along the way.
This past fall, I was driving from Atlanta to Dallas, a short twelve-hour jaunt, to deliver some paintings. Around sunset, I pulled over to photograph a roadside memorial near Cuba, Alabama. I had been talking to my mother at the time (I know, distracted driving) and our heated, but lovely, conversation had made it slightly more difficult to slow the car down while crossing multiple lanes of fast-moving traffic. As a result, I was much farther away from my subject than usual. I hung up the phone, jumped out of the car, and zig-zagged through one hundred yards of un-mowed wet grass and weeds to the wooden cross. I typically run along the highway shoulder, but it was narrow; the sun was setting; and one of my obvious but unstated artistic goals of my project is to NOT become the subject of a roadside memorial. The irony would be too much for me to posthumously suffer.
After a long slough through the mud and weeds, I bent down and took the picture. I ran back to the car, tossed my camera onto the passenger seat, put my foot on the brake, and watched a small light on my dash flash the words: NO KEY FOUND. And that is precisely the moment when things got interesting.
In honor of our upcoming “Friends of the Café” dinners (which are also Piggy Bank fundraisers for the Southern Foodways Alliance), Alabama Chanin is offering a DIY SFA Apron kit, with a portion of the sales going toward the SFA.
I keep a selection of half-aprons and full bib aprons on a hanger inside the closet door of my kitchen pantry. Depending on the task at hand (and whether or not Maggie and/or flour are involved in the recipe), I may opt for the additional coverage of a full apron. I cannot count the number of times that I’ve looked down to see that I should have grabbed an apron before starting a kitchen task. I remember both of my grandmothers wearing aprons habitually and often think that an apron is a great addition to every task in life—especially with the addition of a small pocket. This full apron is unisex in design, so I can use it – but it will also work well should I be able to convince my son Zach (who has recently been helping us in the café) to come over for a cookout.
This DIY Kit comes stenciled and ready-to-sew with one of our A. Chanin Long Bar Aprons in Natural and medium-weight cotton jersey for the appliqué (you choose appliqué and embroidery floss color). We will also include basic instructions for embroidery and construction techniques. A whipstitch was used to outline the logo’s letters and the outer circle. The individual shapes were stitched using backstitch negative reverse appliqué. For detailed instructions on these techniques, refer to Alabama Studio Sewing + Design.
Community cookbooks – collections of recipes gathered by churches, women’s societies, rotary clubs, and other regional clubs and foundations – have been the foundation of home kitchens across America for decades. These collections often present an air of nostalgia, using old-fashioned techniques, offbeat ingredients, and occasionally include really great anecdotes. They are—in their best versions—a direct reflection of the region of their origin and an admirable labor of love. The recipes are seldom fancy, and most often highlight the kind of meal that is made in an average kitchen on an average evening by an average cook who finds an epiphany of enlightenment in a great recipe. Even more captivating is the community cookbook filled with family recipes passed down from prior generations and lovingly shared with the community at large.
Caxton Press in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania published what is believed to be the very first charity cookbook in 1864, during the time of the Civil War. This assortment, titled A Poetical Cook-Book, by Maria J. Moss, was filled with foods common to that era, like leg of mutton, mince pies, johnnycakes, and hasty pudding. The book was sold to provide funds for field hospitals and aid wounded soldiers.
Many, like the ones I was given by my mother, grandmothers, and aunts, are overflowing with sense memories of a location and an era. While similarities exist among the cookbooks, there are distinct differences between what the women of the Virginia Eastern Star were making in the 1920s and the dishes prepared by the late 1960s Junior League of Coastal Louisiana. Regardless of the when and the where, there is copious information on what the (mostly) women were like in each specific time and place. The ingredients tell a story of rural vs. urban landscape and wealthy vs. working class cooks. If a recipe called for a pinch or a handful, you might assume that the writer was a seasoned home cook who learned passed down recipes and perfected dishes by taste, not by measurement. If a recipe was “eggless” or “butterless”, you might suppose that it originated during wartime, when certain foods were rationed.
I have done a bit of traveling and it has been my lifelong habit to observe local fashion trends – what crosses regional boundaries or doesn’t, what I predict will be a passing fad, and what has become a mainstay. In the last couple of years, it has become evident that tweed is reappearing in a big way all across the globe. Years ago, it was considered by many to be an old man’s fabric, representative of a stuffy, moneyed culture. It is refreshing to see that contemporary designers and connoisseurs have adopted tweed and added modern styling touches. Tweed is timeless. And today, certain varieties of tweed are still hand woven by individual artisans in their own homes; a skill that is reminiscent of our own artisans.
Tweed was first crafted in Scotland and Ireland in the 1700s; a coarse cloth woven from virgin wool, it is naturally wind and water resistant and well suited for the local farmers working in damp, cold climates. In fact, surplus cloth was often traded among farmers and workmen – becoming a form of currency in the Scottish Isles; it was not uncommon for islanders to pay rent in tweed blankets or bolts of cloth. There are a remarkable number of types and classifications of tweed. There are clan tartan tweeds, which are used to identify members of a specific family, and estate tweeds, which were used to denote people who lived and worked on an individual estate. Some tweeds are named for the type of sheep who produced their wool (like Cheviot or Shetland); others denote their region of origin (Donegal or Saxony). There are also brand names of tweed – such as Pendleton Woolen Mills and Harris Tweed (the latter being one of the most well-known).
A few weeks ago, we wrote a review of Handmade Gatherings by Ashley English (and also picked Ashley’s brain for her best tips on communal entertaining).
As The Factory continues to grow and host events, we openly welcome her simple approaches to creating an experience through collective, potluck meals. Now, we want to share those inspirations and insights with one of our lucky readers.