Feast!

feast table long viewToday is the greatest feast day on the calendar (The “-mas” in Christmas literally means feast in Latin). The day which conveys, above all other days, the spirit of generosity and fellow-feeling. So it seems fitting to share a few images from a dinner which took place on December 14th at Flatrocks Gallery which took generosity of spirit as its guiding principle. Net proceeds from the evening went to support the work of the Open Door, an organization which feeds thousands of people here on Cape Ann while offering a range of other crucial services.

The owners of Flatrocks Gallery, AnneMarie Crotty and Cynthia Roth, wanted to hold the fundraising dinner in conjunction with their current show, also called Feast! and asked food writer Heather Atwood and myself to help put the event together.

The menu was conceived and cooked by Heather, who provided a four-course meal via several crock pots and giant roaster full of ingenuity, metaphorically-speaking. The food evoked warmth and light and conviviality and coming inside out of the cold and dark to sit together elbow to elbow with strangers, eating at a common table via candlelight. Like an idealized version of a 17th century wayside tavern where it’s warm and clean and everyone smells awesome.

The mulled wine and roasted brussel sprouts start the evening by the fire.

The mulled wine and roasted brussel sprouts start the evening by the fire.

The guests ate and drank mulled wine over the fire on a beautiful snowy New England night before heading inside to eat and drink some more. A fisherman/musician neighbor, with a great white beard and the evocative nickname of Sasquatch, stopped by with a guitar and a set of reindeer antlers on his head to offer a bit of spontaneous song in return for a bit of spontaneous cheer — given in the form of warm appreciation and a pull of whiskey. The spirit of the Irish mystic poet-priest, John O’Donohue, was at the table in the reading of his work (he would have fit right in). A few more songs, played on the flute along with a banjo and guitar, came at the end of the meal, and the guests even had the chance to join in, singing on the chorus in full voice.

On the way out the door, guests could stop by the photo booth for a chance to put themselves in the middle of a huge painting of a true medieval feast, hanging ham hock and all.

Heather Atwood looks appropriately medieval at the Feast! photo booth.

Heather Atwood looks appropriately medieval at the Feast! photo booth.

It was a warm evening on a cold night, at nearly the darkest time of the year in our part of the world, and at every point in the evening we stopped to remember, and remember again, that those of us who have much are blessed when we make an offering of our abundance, out of the fullness of our hearts.

Vintage cookbook pages were used to make the cones that held the evening's menu.

Vintage cookbook pages were used to make the cones that held the evening’s menu.

Grace Before Meals

As we begin this meal with grace,
Let us become aware of the memory
Carried inside the food before us:
The quiver of the seed
Awakening in the earth,
Unfolding in a trust of roots
And slender stems of growth,
On its voyage toward harvest,
The kiss of rain and surge of sun;
The innocence of animal soul
That never spoke a word,
Nourished by the earth
To become today our food;
The work of all the strangers
Whose hands prepared it,
The privilege of wealth and health
That enables us to feast and celebrate.

— John O’Donohue, 1956-2008

Woman to Woman: a Dinner in Honor of the Sargent House

SONY DSC

Bear with me here, because we’re about to go on a wild ride through the field of Women’s Studies. Not exactly the usual fodder for this blog. Actually, it’s not that the ride is wild so much as it is complicated by a thicket of various historical figures of local importance and beyond, who are related to each other not by blood but by inclination. And houses figure prominently in this narrative, which is the usual fodder for this blog, so in the end I’m not that far afield.

Here on Cape Ann, there is a historic house called the Sargent House Museum, built in 1782 for Judith Sargent Murray, a member of a very prominent family of the era, whose life encompassed not only the American Revolution but an attempt at a domestic revolution of sorts. Mrs. Murray was the first woman writer of status and position (even if she signed her essays under an assumed name for the sake of credibility and anonymity) to call attention to the matter of equality of the sexes in her essay, published in Massachusetts Magazine in 1790 and fittingly titled…The Equality of the Sexes.

The importance of Judith Sargent Murray to academics — and the rest of us — seems to be gaining recognition at a rapid pace, and the Sargent House Museum board and staff are working hard to perpetuate this recognition, honoring her legacy through the ongoing preservation of her beautifully intact house. Which brings us to the present day, in which, not long ago, an auction was held to raise funds for the museum.

Heather Atwood, food writer and grand dame (in waiting, since she’s not old enough to qualify just yet) of her own historic house, Howlets, offered to throw a dinner party as one of the items on auction. So the fundraiser took place, and the winning bidder was Mary Ann McCormick, local entrepreneur, founder of Lark Fine Foods — an award-winning company making baked goods that go beyond anything your grandmother made in deliciousness and beauty. I’m sorry, but that’s just the truth.

SONY DSC

Heather, sweeping up in preparation

SONY DSC

David, laying the fire for a chilly evening in November

So here is where we are so far:

Writer Judith Sargent Murray of the Sargent House to writer Heather Atwood of Howlets and businesswoman Mary Ann McCormick, purveyor of Lark Fine Foods.

But wait! There’s more! In between the two hundred years that separate the Mrs. Murray and the Ms. Atwood, two other women figure into the story.

Howlets, the historic home that Heather lives in with her family, was built by in 1911 by Ellen Day Hale and Gabrielle de Veaux Clements, two well-regarded artists who created everything from oil paintings to etchings to sculpture. These women defined independent living, from studying with the world’s great artists to selling their work (never an easy task unless you’re dead or Jeff Koons) to building a summer house and studio of massive granite pieces that could withstand an apocalypse. Ellen Day Hale and Gabrielle Clements lived the sort of lives that Judith Sargent Murray imagined might be possible for women, each succeeding generation building on the work of the ones who came before to create opportunities for us today, granite block by granite block.

Judith Sargent Murray, Ellen Day Hale & Gabrielle Clements, Heather Atwood & Mary Ann McCormick…the Sargent House to Howlets…two centuries of strong women and historic houses. See how this works? If not, here’s a chart that might help.

TRHsargenthousetimeline

This might all seem a little overblown, to make a connection between a woman writing an essay over two hundred years ago and a dinner party I went to last weekend. But it doesn’t take much of an imagination to see a (fairly) straight line stretching backwards between now and then.

Speaking of now, and of this dinner party, which is what I’m really writing about…my role in all of this is that Heather asked me to come up with something for the table. A tablescape, in House Beautiful magazine terms — a made-up name I despise but one I am gradually giving into using, as its ubiquity seems inevitable. Like the word awesome. Not a made-up word but used to the point of meaninglessness, as so few things are truly awesome, other than God and certain cheeses. But yet, since the ’90s, I have said and typed awesome around four million times. But about the tablescape.

SONY DSC

The Federalist period was invoked with lots of gold accents at the table. For place cards I printed an image of a beautiful portrait of Judith Sargent Murray on vellum so the light from the votive candles came through, illuminating Mrs. Murray herself.

SONY DSC

And for the centerpiece: four vintage frames were attached to form a square with the main flower arrangement placed in the center. As part of the arrangement, an image of the Sargent House was printed, again on vellum, and placed inside a few of the frames.

SONY DSC

The flowers were decaying hydrangeas in the most amazing reddish hue and lots of branches, gathered together in an untidy bundle. The colors of the leaves, the ones that are still clinging to the branches, have been so intense this year. I don’t recall a more spectacular fall. Or maybe it’s just that I’m getting older and make these sorts of observations.

SONY DSC

The little handmade book

As a keepsake for Mary Ann, I created a little book that featured portraits of Judith Sargent Murray, Gabrielle Clements and Ellen Day Hale, along with a tiny copy of one of J.S.M’s letters. Just one of her many, many letters. She copied and saved 2,500 of her own letters, putting them into “letter books” with an eye toward posterity.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

The restored window in the studio, set nearly three stories high

At the party, later that evening…

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

Judith Sargent Murray, alight for the occasion

MA McCormick

Mary Ann, the generous winning bidder of the dinner party.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

One of the vintage frames

SONY DSC

Heather’s homemade bread, her husband David’s selection of wine

One more note: about the food Heather made for the party… It was unbelievable, from the trays of tiny cold radishes with oyster-something-dip at the beginning of the evening to the quince tart (served as a nod to the old quince tree in yard of the Sargent House) which brought the meal to a close, it was all amazing. Awesome, actually.

If you have the chance to go to a dinner served by a food writer, go to that dinner party. Especially if that food writer happens to be a woman. Because we all know that the ladies can do wonders in a kitchen. And far, far beyond.

Continue reading

The Table in Early Spring

Spring Table nest with rock eggs

In New England, as it has everywhere else, cold, gray weather has long overstayed its appointed time. So in putting together a look for a table for a lunch event last week, it didn’t seem quite right to smother the table in pastel flowers. And since the geography of granite and rocky beaches, woods and quarries here on Cape Ann is so dominant anyway, I just let the geography win.

The color scheme of the table centerpiece was gray and white, with the green element provided by moss. And dirt. I can’t forget the dirt that made its way onto the table from underneath the moss. One guest more or less had her plate sitting in a trail of the stuff, but she was a very good sport about it. It was a bit like a more refined version of an early spring picnic in the woods.  The place cards were made from rounded, smooth beach stones that looked like speckled eggs, and snowdrops, made from crepe paper, poked from the moss, mimicking what was taking place outside.

Early Spring Table

It felt decadent, as one guest at the lunch put it, to sit down on a random Tuesday and have lunch together with a collection of creative, interesting people, most of whom didn’t really know the hosts — or each other. Food writer Heather Atwood hosted the meal at her painterly house, Howlets. She not only made the delicious meal, she provided the color with her early spring soup, made up primarily of root vegetables that she found at a nearby farmers’ market and cooked until they were just tender with a bit of bite. To see those beautiful colors collected in a bowl and set against so much gray and white was enough to make a winter-starved soul break out in song, like something from a medieval rite of spring.

The whole experience was so invigorating, from the company to the setting to the food, that, far from taking a post-meal nap, I felt like writing a book or trying my hand at oil painting after everyone gathered their coats and left. Not that I did either of those things. But I certainly felt like it, and that is as much as I could hope for from lunch on a random Tuesday afternoon in March.

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; — Song of Solomon 2:11

Table From Above

Early Spring Table Details...

photo: Heather Atwood

photo: Heather Atwood

Weekly Wrap-up: Festivals & Found Objects

Off to Make Some Music

This week’s wrap-up is going to be simple, as I have been a little crazed getting ready to leave my New England home for several weeks to go here:

If you have to ask what this is, then you ain't no Buckeye. Admittedly, the "I" is a little shaky.(photo from Cleveland.com)

I’m leaving home, family in tow, to work on an event in Ohio – a “micro-music festival” — overseeing the heavy labor involved in getting The Building (as we call it) renovated for use as a music hall. I might pick up a paint brush or two but my overall strategy involves a lot of directives issued over a cell phone (see: Reality TV renovation shows) — usually at an intensity level guaranteed to make everyone else involved in the project hate my guts (see: Reality TV). If only cameras were rolling to capture all this drama. Hmmm…maybe I’ll make my own show to post on The Roving Home. Lots of editing will be called for and no doubt I’ll come out of this thing looking like a hero.

The Building - an early 20th century brick structure with amazing plaster walls and Paladian windows. Hopefully it will come back to life in the 21st century, newly remade (but not too remade) as a Music Hall.

 

Found Objects

You must, MUST read this post by writer Heather Atwood, who usually addresses the endless and endlessly fascinating topic of food and the people who grow, cook and eat it. She occasionally departs from this subject matter if something equally compelling captures her interest (Lady Gaga for instance) and last week she treated her readers to a great post on Wells Gustafson, a compelling subject if there ever was one.

Click HERE to head over to Heather’s post.

Wells Gustafson's artfully rendered card game scorecard (photo courtesy of Wells' son via Food for Thought)

That’s all, folks. Thanks for reading and I’ll keep you posted on The Roving Home’s whereabouts. And I hope you all are having a happy summer, sweating out these July days in style!