Monday, December 18, 2006

i'm a foodie, i'm legit

I entered my Mille-Feuilles in a gourmet cook-off this weekend and it won best-dressed in the sweets category. How could anyone refuse that vanilla bean cream, flaky pastry in between, and a subtle glaze of Grand Marnier on top? I was worried, but for a moment, the competition was stiff. But after Col won best entree with his shrimp mango quesadillas, I gained confidence.

The elegant party atmosphere worked on my behalf. The setting was a gorgeous apartment in the renovated Hood Plant--industrial wires and exposed light fixtures melded easily with stained wooden ceilings, curved and two stories high, and buffed slate tiles covering the floor. Unexpected shapes and flavors merging together for an outcome altogether unique and refined. I wondered if, in any other setting, my favorite dessert might be misunderstood. Confusing to the palette, or worse, understated.

A mezzanine above led to a rooftop terrace with views of the lake and the street below. This is where we claimed our prizes on the balcony overlooking a crowd of onlookers. I stood there with LZ (she won for her excellent crab cakes) and let the glory of the moment wash over me. For others, this prize might not be so sweet, but for me, it was the ultimate validation.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

how to tie a scarf

If you know me, then you know I like to wear a scarf every single day. I feel absolutely naked without one! Keeps my neck warm and adds a wonderful splash of color to the complexion. It's got to be silk or cashmere or some other gorgeous natural fiber (cotton is my new craze). Something that feels nice on the skin.

Sometimes it seems a chore to add that final touch. But what a tragedy to let those beautiful silk squares gather dust. How to tie it and still show off your designer prints? Well I have a simple trick, shown in the photo here with my vintage colorblock Dior.
  1. First, start with a square and fold the scarf on the diagonal to form a triangle.

  2. Hold one end in each hand with the large point of the triangle pointing down.

  3. Next wrap the scarf around your neck from the back to the front so that the two ends meet in the front. You can stop here and tie a knot in the front creating a cape-like effect. Very nice indeed! But I usually keep wrapping around to the back.

  4. Finish by tying a knot at the back of your nape and then fluffing up the effect in the front. How tight or loose you wrap and tie will determine the amount of fluff you'll have to work with. Sometimes, it's nice to wrap it tight almost like a choker. But mostly, especially if it's printed silk, I like to tie it loosely and allow the beautiful patterns to drape across my chest. Don't worry if the knot works its way around. That's part of the charm.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

the first snow

It's snowing today. The first snow of the year. Wet, white snowflakes falling down with the thick and slushy weight of gravity. A fresh blanket of snow on the trees, on the street, on my face. Instant winter.

As I walk, I pass by the neighborhood where many Sudanese families now live. I know this is their neighborhood because I often see the young bustling families sitting on their door stoop, playing with their friends, waiting for the bus, and casting a beautiful rainbow of African dress all along the street. One family in particular, I pass quite a bit. A modest mother and her three or four young children.

Sometimes, she's with her girlfriend chatting and laughing in a foreign tongue. She seems happiest then, when she has someone to talk to. I never see the father. Perhaps he's working, perhaps he managed to find a job in this strange and distant country. Perhaps he's still in the motherland. Perhaps there is no father anymore.

I pass by and smille at the children. I smile at her, yet she averts her gaze. Quiet and sullen. What does she think of me, young, independent American woman on her way to work every day? Is she curious or does she disdain me? Me with no cares in the world. Just walking to work, walking home, every day in my nice clothes and shiny shoes. What do I know?

I always wonder what's on her mind. Does she like my coat today? What does she think of my new lipstick? Does she even see me?

This might be her first snow today. Her beautiful head-dress constrasts brightly to the newly muted landscape. She can't see the snow as I do, with comfort and childlike nostalgia. For the chilly Vermont winter holds no memories for her. There's a small chance that she can see it for its simple beauty, no matter how cold or unconsoling it may be. I wonder: does she look at a snowflake and feel the sudden calm and silence of its weight? I hope so, for what is the alternative but to see it in the eyes of cold, dead winter? That time will come soon enough, oh January. But while the snow is falling fresh, is still graceful and not yet rigid, please let her find solace in its theater of wonders.

Monday, December 04, 2006

paris flavors

We're going to Paris in three weeks. Just three weeks. And all I can think about are my tastebuds!

One of the first things I'm going to do when we touch ground is eat a King's Cake, a galette des rois. Maybe we'll eat one every day, as is the custom in France during the holidays. In fact, you can find them at every bakery, freshly made with almond paste and lots of butter, until Epiphany, which is January 6th. The twelfth day of Christmas. Each cake has a bean, or fèvre, so be careful not to break a tooth. But if you're lucky enough to receive the fèvre in your slice, then you get to wear a crown for the day. It's silly really. But a wonderful tradition. (I need to find a recipe for King's Cake... I can't believe we don't have it here! Especially so close to Quebec.)

And then I might take Col to one of my favorite cafés in the Marais, Au Petit Fer à Cheval. That means "horse shoe." We'll sit inside while the rain drizzles down the windows and drink espresso and café crème and read the French newspapers. Even though Col doesn't read French. We'll just do whatever.

We'll savor some Moroccan stew at 404. Some Lebanese fare at the street vendor near Les Halles. Then on to Angelina's, the elegant tea-room by the Tuilleries, famous for its Mont Blanc, chestnut cream piled on top of a merengue cookie, and rich African hot chocolate.

At some point, we'll be sure to taste a buttery Madeleine from my favorite boulangerie on rue Vavin. A hearty galette from the Marché Raspail on early Sunday morning. A croissant, a baguette, a bottle of wine in the Jardin du Luxembourg, my old stomping grounds. Quince jelly with some bon fromage! And even though it's slightly strange for me to say it, I can't help but crave the spicy saucissons that hang in the butcher shop. This time will be the time I finally try them.

Que je suis gourmande!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

mille feuilles, a thousand leaves

One of my all-time favorite desserts is Mille Feuilles, sometimes also called Napoleon--a name attributed to both its Naples, Italy origin and the French emperor. But that name isn't quite as beautiful as its literal translation, which means "a thousand leaves." I first tasted this rich and creamy layered pastry while living in southern France a few years ago. After coming home, I wanted to recreate the wonderful sweet thing and share it with my friends and family. So, I convinced my friend Madeleine of Cuisine et Tradition cooking school in Arles, Provence to part with her beloved recipe. Each time I make it, the result is quite different and unique. It's the nature of the process and the soul that goes into it.

Ingredients:
3 sheets of puff pastry dough (two boxes of Pepperidge Farm puff pastry)
1 quart of fresh berries

For the cream:
3 egg yolks
4 tablespoons of sugar
2 tablespoons of flour
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla
2 cups whole milk
plus 1 pint whipping cream to be whipped separately and folded in to the pastry cream.
Powdered sugar for decoration

To make:
Defrost the pastry dough in the refrigerator overnight. When thaw, unfold and place on baking sheets with parchment baking paper below. Poke all over with a fork to prevent puffing and bake at 400C/200C for 10-15 minutes or till nicely browned and cooked through (check box for cooking instructions). Remove and let cool.

Meantime, start the pastry cream. Put the milk on to scald. In a mixer, place your egg yolks, sugar, flour and vanilla and beat well until lightened in color. Transfer the mixture to a double boiler, pour into it gently, whisking all the while, the hot milk. Put on the flame under the double boiler and continue whisking till the mixture has thickened well. Keep mixing for a minute or two after it thickens. The addition of flour will prevent it from curdling too quickly. Take the cream off the double boiler, place in a bowl with ice and water and continue whisking till cool. Place in the refrigerator till needed.

An hour or 2 before serving, whip the cream and fold into the chilled pastry cream. Take out your serving platter and place one sheet of the puff pastry on it. Spread half the cream on the pastry, sprinkle with berries and lay another layer of the pastry on top. Repeat. Top off with the last layer of pastry, sprinkle some berries on top and some powdered sugar. Chill briefly in the freezer to make slicing easier. Slice with a warmed knife in rectangles. Serve with extra berries on the side.

My favorite alternatives:
Instead of using berries, you can make a glaze for the top by combining Powdered Sugar and Grand Marnier (or other tasty liquor like Baronjager) on low heat. Once the sugar is dissolved in the liquid, spread the glaze on the top pastry layer. Then melt a bar of 70% Dark Chocolate (Lindt makes a nice one) and drizzle that on top of the glaze in a pretty pattern.

For more complex flavor, try infusing the milk with lavender flowers before you begin making the pastry cream. My local co-op carries lavender flowers (they must be food grade, not perfumed) in the bulk section next to the teas and spices. Before starting the pastry cream, heat the milk and about 1/4 c. fine lavender flowers over medium-low heat until warm. Remove from heat and let sit for about 10-20 minutes or until the milk has a lavender flavor, then strain and discard the flowers. Proceed with the recipe above.

Other flavors you might try: mint, orange zest, cardamom, vanilla, etc.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

a reason to indulge

It arrived in my mailbox just the other day: an exquisite little note-card, so thoughtfully prepared. You are cordially invited... hors d'oeuvres, sweets, and aperitifs... please RSVP... and there it was, in a final statement at the bottom: Dress to impress.

As if I needed to be told! I love to dress for a party, but then I even dress up to go to the grocery store. But I understand that's unusual. Whereas for the most part people tend to look for a good reason every once in a while to dress up and indulge, this time of year, everyone is of one mind. Extravagance is the norm in cooking, in dressing, and in socializing. And just about everyone is having a party!

In fact, this little invite that I received in the mail was one of several to come my way in the ensuing days, each one decidedly different. There's the fancy cocktail, a just-dessert party, the potluck, the blowout, the family sing-along, an intimate gathering with friends, and the holiday dinner with co-workers. Oh, and don't forget New Years! This year-end, I'll be in Paris (more on that later), where dressing sharp and eating well is practically required.

At this point, I could start to worry: Will I have something to wear to all these events? Will I gain ten pounds from all of the sweets? Will I go totally broke from all of the gift exchanges and dinner bills? Well, let's just get this out of the way right now, because the answer is and always will be: YES, YES and YES.

Once you can let go of the stress that’s inevitable around the holidays, this time of year can be so fabulous. For when else can you dust off all those old party frocks, wear bells in your hair and glitter on your face, and eat five truffles in one sitting? When else do you get to see so many of your friends all in one place, all happy and with rosy cheeks? When else do you dress up your house with more sparkling jewels than even you own, while Bing Crosby sings “Christmas in Killarney” in the background?

I can think of no other time like it.

Friday, November 17, 2006

we made flan

Most families have food traditions. My family cookbook comprises an eclectic mix of foods like bubble & squeak, fried platanos and spicy aros compoyo, as well as some French and Mediterranean treats that I've picked up in my wanderings.

Mostly, I'd say the recipes that survive--the ones we bring out time and again--are the sweet ones. My mother's figgy pudding every Christmas Eve. Madeleine's flaky Mille Feuilles. Then there's my Puerto Rican grandmother's famous flan, which sadly, has only shown its caramel complexion to me on rare occasions. Because of its scarcity, perhaps, it's become the holy grail of desserts in my mind.

Cousin to my favorite French crème, the flan is an eggier custard so sweet and so balanced in flavor and texture, one has to think the making of it is quite complex. And so we always thought...

My grandmother doesn't make her flan anymore. Perhaps the breaking and mixing of so many eggs is beyond her now. But a couple of weeks ago, my sister and I had the treat of making it for her and my grandfather. We dusted off the old recipe card. We broke all of those eggs. We caramelized the sugar. We baked and baked until it was golden. And we presented the beautiful toasted treat to the table with pride.

Then we tasted. And the taste was there. The texture was there. We found the holy grail and we mastered it.

It was my grandmother's flan. Now it's ours.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

making the day just a little brighter

In France, small rituals add purpose to every day. When you meet someone on the street, be it a friend or just a slight acquaintance, you kiss them on the cheek. And they kiss you back. Not once, but twice, and sometimes three or four times depending on geography. You say hello whenever you enter a shop or bakery. In fact, to neglect doing so is considered quite rude. Coffee in France is a quarter of the size of an American cup and yet the French take four times as long to drink it.

These are not just rituals, they are the unspoken law of the culture.

I was thinking about this today while in a sullen mood, and feeling quite helpless. Sometimes having rules and guidelines makes things so much easier. For then, at least you have something to measure yourself by. In America, interpersonal rules are nebulous, and it that sense, easily forgotten. Sometimes a whole day can pass without so much as a meaningful interaction.

Sometimes I yearn for a two-hour long coffee on a Tuesday afternoon. I want to kiss my coworker on the cheek. Can I do it? Well, perhaps within reason. But there is a way to follow the rules without getting into trouble. And here's the challenge: in everything you do today, do it with purpose and determination. Even if you're just washing the dishes. Even if you're getting yelled at by your boss. Even if your cat just peed on the rug. Even if all you're doing ALL day is writing e-mails. Rejoice in the varied moments of your day. Add your own personal touch. Make it a ritual. Make it last. Your life will be fuller because of it. I promise.

Oh, and if you ever see me on the street, instead of just waving and walking on, please kiss me on the cheek!

/love, p.w.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

the queen's scarf: 4 ways to wear it

If this is the year of the Queen, then it is also the year of the scarf in every form and function, and I couldn't be more pleased. Wear it well, Ladies! Four ways: long, short, back-to-front, twisted-sister.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

the queen's scarf

I saw The Queen last night. Not in person, in the movie. Helen Mirren portrays with fervor a chill likeness to Her Majesty Elizabeth II in the aftermath of Princess Diana's death. I watched half with awe and half with sadness remembering the china bell my mother gave me years ago that had a picture of Charles & Diana printed on the front and a golden handle shaped like a plume. That bell broke with some irony shortly before the couple's marriage ended. But I lovingly glued it together and placed it in a box for safe keeping. I have yet to find that box.

Funny, as infatuated as I was with Diana and her stunning presence, I never once considered the Queen. She meant nothing to me, except for her small resemblance to my English grandmother, though not half as pretty. Queen means next to nothing in today's terms, but Princess. Princess is the stuff little girls' dreams are made of. Right?

Last night was different. I saw the Queen, for what it's worth, from a different perspective. From an empathetic--and sympathetic--point of view. I saw a woman who, when in her darkest moment, donned a gorgeous royal scarf and went to befriend a wild stag in the Scottish highlands. The scarf seems somewhat out of place in the otherwise stoic country-side and on the neck of such a somber lady. It, however, like the stag, has significance. As the stag seems to represent a glimmer of hope before embodying the Queen's broken spirit, the scarf also carries with it layers of symbolism. Like a printed veil, the scarf is a visual depiction of the Queen's fear and vulnerablity, while at the same time representing her strength and determination as one of the most powerful, albeit fated, women in history.

I'm sure that Princes Di wore many scarves in her shortened lifetime, and I'm sure she wore them beautifully. But this scarf, the Queen's scarf, is in a realm all its own.

And have you noticed? HM Elizabeth II is not the only Queen to grace the screens these days. A new enstated awe of the womanly monarchy is sweeping through our film culture. Does the scarf have significance beyond the English Isle? Who knows, perhaps Marie Antoinette wore a scarf to hide the forshadowing across her neckline.

/p.w.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

au lait!

It's now November in Vermont. This is truthfully my favorite time of year. The sky alternates between gray and icy drizzle or bright metalic blue. It's quiet nesting time, but a latent energy is starting to build in anticipation of the holidays.

Today is especially great, because we have a new friend coming to stay. We're adopting my sister's cat Au Lait. Hannah found her this past spring underneath the cooler at the coffee shop. She coaxed the skinny kitty out with a bowl of warm milk, hence the name. Now she's skinny no longer. In fact, she may need to go on a diet, the greedy gut! But we're very excited about the addition to our family. Here kitty, kitty!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Hannah jumps

November sunshine

Even though its name is Winterpark, the town is anything but a chilly scene. Take the Orange Juice man at the weekly market. A splash of color to behold. A warm sweet citrus glow and tangerines piled high. A grove of sunshine lemon nectar.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

fake moustache

Sometimes, it’s best not to ask questions. If a little boy wearing a crown and carrying a scepter wants to draw a moustache on your face, you just say, “Yes.” And you realize the pleasure it brings almost immediately. It makes the boy pleased. It makes people laugh, and it gives them a reason to hug you and kiss you on the cheek. It makes you feel light-hearted. You feel free to let loose. Free to be assertive and, Gasp!, even manly.

Don’t think about how long it will take to wash off. Don’t worry about what people will think. This is about seizing the day. This is about making the most of every second. This is about living life to the fullest in a permanent marker moustache.

.. Photo taken at Jake Burton's fall bash ..

Friday, August 25, 2006

entertaining cottage style

Ah, the cottage life—lazy mornings, fresh air, strawberries in a pretty bowl, colorful conversation. Cottage ambience is fresh and uplifting in so many ways, so creating the look should be just as carefree. April suggests her favorite tips for a quick cottage makeover. The best part is that you don't have to have a cottage or be on vacation to enjoy the feeling; use these ideas in your own home to brighten rooms and live the cottage life all year round—even in your big city apartment!

How-to: Get the Cottage Look

Think colorful eclectic. A cottage can be unpredictable; don’t be afraid to experiment with a lot of bold color. Accent with warm, organic elements: wooden chairs, wildflower bouquets, and fresh fruit centerpieces. Extend it to the porch or veranda with plump pillows on a wicker swing.

Here’s a summer suggestion: Toss those cloths!

Wake up tired rooms the easiest and cheapest way with bright textiles. Beautifully printed fabric can take the place of expensive art and even change the layout of a room. Bring your basket-full of linens to the cottage, throw open the windows, and hang fabric on walls, in doorways, and over cluttered cabinets. Use tablecloths and quilts to cover and brighten dark, old furniture. Frame placemats, cushion covers, or collectible tea towels. Every once in a while, relax, stand back, and assess your surroundings. If there is something you don’t like – throw a pretty cloth on it! The great thing about decorating with cloth is that it can be mixed up and moved around quite easily, and switching a single cloth can have the effect of reinventing an entire room. There are no rules at the cottage – just relax, be yourself, and enjoy!

How-to: Entertain with Cottage Ambience

The lively and entertaining spirit of the cottage—whether it’s a cabin in the hills, or a camp on the lake, or even a jazzy apartment in New York, with the summer breeze coming in through a raised window cottage-style—is a carefree attitude. This happy style presents ideas to inspire your own entertaining when creating an atmosphere of relaxation in your summer place.

Enjoy a fun, eclectic look by putting a few tables together bistro style. Mix up your tablecloths: use a classic floral on one table, a conversation print on another, and on a third table, a jacquard. Adding a check cloth will make the setting more casual and retro in feel. As long as the same colors are threading their way through all of the tables, the total look will be unified. Garnish your dishes with edible flowers (see Flowers on Your Table and on Your Plate). Add the cottage look to your napkins and table settings, by tucking a wildflower into your napkins, or add a jug of black-eyed Susans to your centerpiece. Decorate chairs with placemats and ribbon tiebacks. Make it jazzy in the evening with tea lights and great music. Or play golden oldies that everyone can sing along to. Make sure to provide plenty of plump pillows for a relaxing snooze—an old couch and a cotton blanket are the best part of a cottage afternoon!

In the mornings big bowls of fruit can greet the early risers, in the afternoon lemonade. A slice of watermelon cools the sting of a sunburn, and the cottage is a great place to pull out Grandma’s brown sugar fudge recipe – at last time to relax and enjoy simple activities.

Remember to have a pack of cards on hand – and a book of Hoyle’s Rules to calm the disputes that are bound to occur among summer card players.

Key ingredients for decorating—cheerful color, a mix of old, new, and found, ample food, comfy chairs, and the people you enjoy!

(this article was first published in the spring 2005 issue of April Cornell - The Art of the Everyday)

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

some tips on thrifting

I've been asked by several friends how and where I find my great finds: a pair of Ferragamo riding boots for $10, a vintage Dior scarf for $1, an even more vintage pair of Dior sunglasses for the unbeatable price-tag of 50 pence (that's about 75¢ in American currency). Whether you're looking for a great deal, a great treasure, or both, thrifting is an obsessive hobby that requires a lot of practice and patience. I go by certain guidelines when rummaging through old things and I'm willing to tell you my secrets.

1. Check for quality and wear & tear: Such as linings intact and sturdy seams (few thrift-store items are worth bringing to the tailor).

2. Find fine fabrics: Natural fabrics such as silk, linen, cotton, wool and cashmere hold up better to age and can easily be machine or hand-washed. Say no to synthetic fabrics that require dry cleaning only: these items still cling to all of their 40-year-old smells.

3. Make sure it fits: especially in the shoulders. But sometimes, the fit can be flexible: shorter arms can sometimes pass for 3/4 sleeves (common with jackets from the mid-20th century). Jackets or sweaters that are big in the waste can sometimes be cinched with a belt or broach. Unlined skirts can easily be taken in.

4. Approach accessories first: especially if you are new to thrifting. You don't have to worry about fit there. Plus, accessories are the easiest items to incorporate into any wardrobe. For vintage accessories, steer clear of synthetics unless it's a statement piece: they tend to disintegrate with use. Instead choose leather or faille purses with satin linings.

5. Avoid "vintage" boutiques: they'll charge you an arm & a leg. Instead opt for church basements, yard sales, and estate sales. The down-side of the cheaper places is that you have to rummage through a lot of junk to find anything good and you must be willing to walk away empty-handed. If you don't have a lot of time and don't mind paying more, then vintage stores might be your best bet, because all of the good stuff has already been weeded out for you. IHowever, I still see this as kind of cheating, and less gratifying than finding a treasure on your own, on the cheap.

6. Look for the label: Older, quality woven labels usually signify a vintage item. They are typically better made and boast unique features and retro cuts.

7. Try to bargain: This is a guilt-free and expected practice at yard sales. However, at charity shops and church thrift stores, you should be more sensitive to the organization and its volunteers. If you can afford the asking price then pay it, and even make a donation if the moment so moves you.

8. Be one-of-a-kind: my best finds have been in places where nobody else would have wanted what I was looking for. The funky pieces, for instance, only sell in rural Vermont during halloween, because there's really no market for them there. so, they're pretty easy to find and don't usually cost too much. Fancy items like Gucci heels and black lace dresses are more expensive and much harder to find in places like New York City, because they're more sought after there.

9. Consider the source: who's making the donations? Finding thrift stores in more affluent neighborhoods will sometimes prove a jack-pot of couture labels at thrift-store prices, because the individuals who are supplying the goods are typically quicker to dispose of higher quality items, regardless of their value.

10. Lastly and most importantly: have the attitude that anything goes. Be creative, be resourceful, and don't be afraid to be a little different. It can be a little scary, but it's invigorating and you will be noticed for it.

/p.w.

Monday, August 21, 2006

happy home

An artist friend used to say: "the best home is a balm for busy people to find spiritual replenishment. If you think of your home as food—as nourishment for your spirit and creativity—then you must fill it with beautiful things." I've kept this mantra in the back of my mind for some time now, always assuming that I'd bring it out and dust it off a few years down the road when I'm more mentally and monetarily capable of approaching the subject.

Last week, I got a nudge when I read an article along the same vein in The New York Times (August, 17 2006) entitled "Is this what happiness looks like?" In it, the author lays claim to the importance of living space in shaping one's overall sense of well-being.
"In ['The Architecture of Happiness,' Alain de Botton] argues that physical environment is a crucial contributor to well-being. Like it or not, he suggests, the spaces we live in shape our sense of happiness and of self, so we had better choose them carefully."
It seems to me an obvious deduction; who doesn't want to live in a beautiful space? But what exactly does a beautiful space look like? And how can we choose carefully if we don't even know what to look for? What if attaining that space is beyond our means? After all, beautiful can be as simple as broken sea glass or as intricate and extravagant as a baroque harpsichord. In any case, the article certainly got me to thinking, particularly due to my own recent relocation into an apartment that I consider the most personally fulfilling and functional in my entire living history.

Already, within the first few weeks of moving in, I've noticed my clenched-up self giving way to change. I'm now able to step back and breathe, to ponder situations before acting on them. I enjoy washing the dishes and taking out the trash. Doing laundry is now a ritual. Cooking, though always an important factor in my life, is a new creative outlet and source of personal accomplishment. Most importantly, I am able to sit down and just write, or read, with no other obligations weighing on my mind. Every action that I take has beauty and meaning and pause. And I say this with no exaggeration.

But I never would have guessed that the relatively simple act of changing homes would have such an impact on my personal happiness. I've always been somewhat comfortable in my surroundings, even though that comfortable always carried with it a yearning for something better—perfectly natural, I think, for someone who grew up moving from house to house, with little in terms of material things. The truth is—and we all know this—you don't necessarily know what you're looking for until you've found it. That should be some inspiration to those still searching for the key to kingdom—a space that fulfills through form and function—to look even harder or to work even harder at creating that space. That perfect space is out there, just waiting for you.

For me, it's windows with a view: the power of a beautiful sky is enough to awaken my senses as I begin my day, and to calm them down after long hours at work. My beautiful home is a quiet, simple place of light. I know that now.

But what does yours look like? And more importantly, are you happy?

Saturday, August 19, 2006

hammock land

Wet, verdant, cool grass on my
naked feet
draws me like a leash
into the shade where I
can see the heat,
but the heat can’t see me.
The hammock accepts my fall loosely
wraps me up and holds me
freely.
I float on the breeze that
sings and breathes against my skin.
Back and forth, I sway
like a ship
and my lead body
doesn’t try to prevent
the daisy dust and
heady scent
of wild thyme hugging the slope,
to enter and heal me
and make me more sleepy.
I hear my mummy hum
from the window that’s open
she’s carried away
with the big heavy cars
and the high open wind,
the earaching bugs and
the fine lazy day,
and on the way,
grabs my consciousness’
hand
and takes it away to
hammock land.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

the flying trapeze

Tumbling Series
For the past few years, I've been quite obsessed with circus performers and the flying trapeze. They represent to me all of the vulnerabilities of the human body and psyche. At the same time, they exhibit a power of the mind & body—when faced with these vulnerabilities—to transform in protection against them. Extreme circustances allow for extreme transformations. Much like a chameleon or an actress on the stage, when faced with danger, we put up a front or put on a protective layer, or mask, to distance ourselves from being vulnerable. It's really all just a form of theater.

Recently, I came across a 5-part ink sketch I painted in college called "Tumbling Series." The pictures illustrate the fall of a trapeze artist in quick succession as she metamorphoses into a beautiful tragic form. She’s falling, but she could also be flying, or even jumping. It’s difficult to say. I decided to paste a picture of myself on top of one of those drawings, and with a little manipulation it fit surprisingly well, just like a mask.

At that moment, I felt the significance of being fully—albeit somewhat superficially—in control.

Monday, August 07, 2006

wild honey

Sophie's houseAbout this time one year ago, while on a visit to my beloved Provence, I trekked into the Alpilles countryside to visit my bee-keeper friend, Sophie Berton. We feasted on honeyed delights: pork glazed with rich and potent chestnut honey, plum tarte with delicate lavender honey, beets and oranges flavored with tilleul honey (that of the lime tree blossom), and we tasted countless others collected from all the wild flowers and herbs of provence. It's a sacred thing, honey, with as many varietals as regions in the world, with as many distinct flavors and hues as the blossoms that inspire them.

Honey is also believed to have healing and nutrional values not only for the bee, but for humans as well. It's said to have been found--well-preserved--in Egyptian tombs dating back thousands of years. But what's most fascinating about honey is its power to evoke a piece of nostalgia in all of us.

olive tree and Provence flowersIt's much more than a sweetener to me; it conjurs memories of wild clover, Vermont summer meadows, and long-lost friends; it reminds me of Heath apple orchard just north of the Canadian border where we'd suck the sweet nectar right from the honeycomb and then chew on the beeswax to savor every last drop. Slowly drizzling honey on a pot of fresh yogurt takes me away to southern France, where on one lovely summer day, I lunched on honey, goat cheese, mint, olives, and rosé in an ancient Roman ruins not far from Sophie's home.

These memories and more wafted out of my honey jar last night, and so I say, if you want to savor a moment forever, sweeten it first with wild honey.

Monday, July 24, 2006

paris on my mind

what I wouldn't give for:
a madeleine from rue Vavin
a glass of kir with France
a metro ride to tuilleries
a gallette from Marche Raspaille on Sunday morning
a midnight snack with Gino at hotel de chevreuse
a dance at v.i.p. room
a trip to chinatown
a paris raindrop
a moonlit jardin Luxembourg
my blue pantheon, my pont neuf promenade
bus-ride through Odeon, I see galleries, Japanese teapots, my eyes wide open
oh my city, bon vivant!

le Marais - petite histoire

Old Paris as one might remember from idyllic French movies or past excursions can still be found today in Le Marais. Layers of history enliven this culturally eclectic quarter in the 3rd arrondissement with avant-garde style, color, and an ancient wisdom that goes beyond the facades of bright bistros and funky shops. The energy is entrancing and the artful way of life—the small baker where you go every morning for croissant, the shop owner who sells beautiful paper, the petit restaurant down a hidden side street—unforgettable.

Le Marais, meaning “marsh,” has seen countless transformations: from a river swampland to an elite fashionable district for 17th century nobles, to a deteriorated wasteland after the Revolution. The Nineteenth century and first half of the Twentieth century saw industry, immigrants, and wartime hardship. Finally in the 1960s, the beautiful, historical buildings were rebuilt and placed under protection by the city. Today Le Marais is once again a center of culture, fashion, and growing prosperity.

Essential Visits


Place des Vosges –

Oldest square in Paris surrounded by a picturesque arcade and 17th century mansions, including Maison Victor Hugo.

Rue Franc Bourgeois –

Small designers, shoe shops, galleries, home decorating boutiques.

Centre Pompidou, Beaubourg–

Museum of Modern Art, exhibits, cinemas, library, and restaurant with a fabulous panoramic view from the top floor.

Musée Picasso –

Lavish 17th century mansion housing several thousand diverse works: paintings, sculptures, drawings, ceramics, engravings, and manuscripts, with several works by Cézanne and Matisse.

Mariage Frères Tea Salon–

Teatime luxury elevated to an art: fine teas, elegant colonial décor, and waiters all in white.

Temple, Jewish quarter –

Rue des Rosiers: yiddish markets, bakeries, bookstores, menora shops.

Cacao et chocolat –

36, rue Vieille du Temple. More types of chocolate than you knew existed from all over the world, plus hot chocolate and ice cream.

édéa –

47, rue de Turenne: Beautiful wooden décor from Cameroon, produced in an eco-friendly and ethical way.

Le Loir dans la théière –

3, rue de Rosiers. Small tea salon, amazing quiches (tartes salées) and omelettes for brunch. Funky décor and kid-friendly.


Travel Tip- Visit Le Marais on Sundays when many other neighborhoods are closed—but beware of the weekend crowds. If you prefer less people, choose a weekday.

(this article was first published in the fall 2004 issue of April Cornell - The Art of the Everyday)

Friday, July 21, 2006

hankering for haute couture

I recently saw the movie "The Devil Wears Prada" and walked away wondering what is so wrong with fashion anyhow? The beauty of a well-tailored piece seamlessly styled has the power to make any right-minded individual look--and feel--good. And what's so wrong with looking good these days? In the delirious campaign to shine their light of "inner beauty" from the highest of rooftops, we've lost sight of the importance of outer beauty--the art of self-presentation. It's not an issue of personal tastes; it's an issue of laziness. Anne Hathaway's character in the movie displays a sense of excitement and confidence with her new makeover. That confidence allows her a certain level of independence as she's faced with some tough decisions and circumstances. And yet, though she keeps the heeled boots at the end of the movie, she chooses to lose all of the wonderful clothes as though the clothes themselves were a symbol of her wayward path, and I have to ask why? Is this to teach us a lesson in the superficial? In the needless industry of fine threads? That's just one side of the story. With some imagination and resourcefulness, a nice presentation doens't really have to cost anything. And the result can make you feel like a million bucks.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

new summer cocktail

I love happening upon a treasure and the other day was no exception. While shopping at IKEA of all places, I laid my eyes upon a glistening bottle of elderflower concentrate, stuff which I thought was only available back in Europe. My mind brought me back to summers in the English countryside, in my grandmother's garden where we made bucketfuls of the sweet citrusy stuff and saved it in the larder. So I bought the bottle (a Swedish commercial version of that favorite summer cordial) for $4.59. When I got home, however, the taste--even watered down--was so acrid, I almost tossed it, until I arrived at a brilliant idea: what if I used it to make a cocktail?

So I poured over ice 1 part cordial to 1 part white rum, added a splash of sweetened lime juice, a sprig of fresh mint, and topped it off with sparkling water. Voila. And the result was, well, the New Summer Cocktail (n.s.c). My sister will kill me for divulging the secret. But I had to write it down somewhere. Two days later, the cordial was almost gone, so I watered it down with some Grand Marnier and the result was just as sweet and refreshing.

Here's to summer cocktails.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

elderflower cordial

ElderflowerSummer always brings to mind the elderflower, a wonderfully fragrant English blossom that preceeds the berries of the elder tree. The floral citrusy bouquet of a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, often described as grapefruit or leechee, is in my mind very similar to the elderflower. As a child, my sisters and I would make a sweet, syrupy cordial from the blossoms that grew behind my grandmother's garden on The Avenue in Sherborne, Dorset.

Don’t mistake the store-bought cordials or concentrates for the real deal. The only true elderflower cordial is that which you make yourself.

ingredients:
2kg (4½lb) Sugar
1.14lt (2 pints) Boiling Water
20 Elderflower Heads
80g (2¾ oz) Citric Acid
2 Lemons, grated rinds, sliced

to make:
Shake elderflower heads to ensure they are free of insects.
Place the water into a large saucepan and ring to the boil.
Add the sugar and stir until dissolved.
Add the grated rind and sliced lemon, plus the citric acid.
Place the elderflower heads in a bowl, pour over the boiling water.
Leave for at least 12 hours covered with plastic wrap.
Sieve the liquid, to remove the solids.
Strain the liquid through muslin or even a coffee filter to clarify.
Dilute and add to sparkling water or Gin and soda.

Recipe couresty of the Foody.com

made boutique

Speaking of d.i.y. fashion, check out Made Boutique & Gallery.

Monday, July 17, 2006

d.i.y. fashion

This is the slow food of the apparel industry. Slow down and take a look at the stitching, the unique details, and one-of-a-kind textures. Fashion can be art, can't it? If so, it entails thinking through and with the pattern; it entails putting together every garment by hand. It requires a resourceful nature; an imaginative soul; and an appreciation for old and new, for mistakes becoming masterpieces. Learn to make your own blouse, sew on the buttons, stitch a dart here and there, feel the beautiful fabric. Even an old pinstriped shirt can become something entirely different—a pillow sham, for instance. DIY fashion represents a renaissance of the way things used to be, stitched together with an oh-so-modern stance. It stands for indepence and independents. We need more of it—and them—these days.



Designs courtesy of Heinous Shrew

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

fishing

Just give me a boat, a rod, and a quiet lake, or a meandering river, and I am there. I drink in the sun, close my eyes and feel the warm breeze skirting across the water. Dragging my hands in the crisp liquid, I peer into the depths, where a black narrowing tunnel coils down. It is beyond this, I imagine, where the fish are gazing back up at me dodging in the shadows of our little drifting boat.

I walk, with Father at my side, the entire length of the field behind our house: a paddle propped on my shoulder and a bottle of water in my hand. From there we edge our way down the slope to the beach. Father and I lift the green canoe up from its hiding place among the fir trees and carry it to the edge of Salem Lake. Warm water ripples quiver in the early afternoon sun. The firm boat glides in placidly and I follow it in my flip-flops letting the coolness creep in between my toes and up my bare shins.

“You want the front or back?” Father asks me roughly and then goes on without waiting for a response. “I’ll take the back, it’s kind of hard to steer. The wind’s picking up anyway.” I get in the front and sit down on the stiff cane seat. I loosen my flip-flops: they fall with a sodden thud to the floor. With a last great heave, Father steps onto the narrow boat and into his seat.

“We’ll follow the edge around to the other side, I’m gonna trawl for a minute.” He throws a lure over the back and lets it drag as I slowly row us through the subdued water. He steers us around the edge of the lake with his paddle. I tire easily, but I keep rowing. I love this time with Father. I know he is thinking only of the fish and the boat. He doesn’t even know I’m there. That’s the best time to be around him, because he’s not angry or stressed from work. He’s working the oar, and he’s thinking about the current that runs diagonally where the Clyde River cuts through the middle of the lake, continues lazily through the woods, and sighs into Little Lake Salem on the other side.

We reach the opposite side of the Lake. Looking back, I can see all the summer camps clumped along the shore and in the midst of them stands our house. It sits back on the slope shadowed by the dark pines. Father says, “Ok. Hang on a minute.” He hasn’t caught anything on a lure, and I know that I won’t either. He hands the rod over to me and slowly slides his fly rod out from under the seats. I should be casting, but instead, I set the base of the rod down by my feet, so the tip hangs over the front.

I rest my cheek on my knees and wait and listen. Swoosh, swoosh. The faint whisper of the line sings as my dad throws the rod forward and back. The fly drops to the surface several yards in front of me. It jumps to the right, and then swims toward me a bit, then to the left. I can’t even see it, but I can just make out the ripples that it leaves when it jumps. The fly floats slowly to the edge of the boat and then rises back up and into the air. There it goes again! The rhythmic dance grows in my mind and grows fainter with the darkening sky.

I open my eyes. Father is turning the boat so our house is directly in front of us across the lake. We start paddling back to the beach. I don’t have a watch on. How long have we been out there? Hours? Minutes? Seconds? We have no fish, but I have Father at my back, steering the slow, tired canoe. I’m so sleepy and the trickle of the water that falls from the moving oars hypnotizes me into another dream. I pull my oar in. Father keeps rowing.

“Do you need me?” I ask over a slouched shoulder.

I don’t even wait for the answer. I am sleeping even before he can say to me, “I got it.”

Monday, July 10, 2006

about me

Growing up in a Pentecostal household, one is regularly faced with the question of sacred vs. sacrilege: what promotes good Christian behavior and what is the Devil’s work? One has a mental checklist—horoscopes are bad, as are school dances, New Age music, trick-or-treating, low-cut blouses, lottery tickets—and the gravity of the crime is determined by the size of its punishment. The first time my oldest sister led my middle sister and me in a séance, we were all grounded for a month, but not before my imminent death was proclaimed over a bowl of skinless grape eye-balls. I was sure we were going straight to hell.

Yet here I still am, 26 years old, the youngest of three daughters of a Puerto Rican preacher and a runaway English nanny. My mental list of dos and don’ts looks somewhat different now, as is normal when one grows a mind of one’s own. But despite my constant questioning and revaluing, one thing hasn’t changed. It’s the one thing that holds me together, and at the same time inspires me to break away. The one thing I can point to and say, this is me, this is why I’m here: it is my family.

Perhaps it is the strong tether I have to my family that provides me with the courage, indeed the faith, to stray so far beyond my safety zone. For, if I ever stray too far, if I am lost and begin to question myself, I know to look to my oldest sister with her heart of a thousand mothers, and to my middle sister, with the fearless strength of one hundred presidents, to find myself, the youngest sister with the mind of just one woman. Together we form a triad of Courage, Heart, and Mind—just like the Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Soldier—one does not exist without the others.

Ours is a bond, which some have expressed as unusually lucky, and which others have tried to mimic and attain—and some to break—without success. I don’t chock it up to luck. Nor do I believe that being a preacher’s kid makes it any easier to love and forgive. Indeed, others with the same lot in life have ended up quite the opposite. To be sure, the adoration and respect I have for my sisters, and they for me, was not always thus. My sisters and I are as different as they come, forging our identities from our dissimilarities: the eldest, beautiful in her thoughtful dissidence, the middle sister in her brave and bullish nature, and me, in my academic aspirations. Yet, we’ve learned to complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses, rather than compete with them.

Throughout our childhood, we didn’t have the latest toys or name-brand cereals and we were always moving about to the next church and town. But even in the worst moments, as we wondered where the next meal would come from or where our next house would be, I remember my mother and father always saying that through faith we would be blessed. In time, I learned this to be true.

My faith, however, looks somewhat different from theirs; less the Bible kind, my faith is a confidence formed from courage, heart, and mind. If my sisters and I represent each of these parts, my mother and father represent their entire sum—so strong is their undying devotion and perseverance. Surely, the risks that they’ve taken, the questions they have studied and pondered, the passions and relationships they have formed along the way—all have inspired me to explore this larger world of ours, develop my own passions, and ask those necessary questions.

After graduating from college in 2002, I ventured far from my home to Arles, France to be an Au Pair for a culinary family and their two sons. During my five-month sojourn, I came to behold everyday life raised to an art form—tactile and different, it began with the food and led to beautiful daily rituals and cultural emblems. The mint tea that was served at the Hammam in La Roquet steamed my face sweetly just like the hazy rooms of the public bath there. The gold-leaf and glass mug in which the tisane was served recalled the hand-painted tiles covering the walls and floor. The eddying desert music resounded just like the echoing voices of the Moroccan families who came there to bathe. There was no end to the sensory and intellectual stimulation, and as I searched to ground myself in that foreign land—by embracing the ancient architectural structures, by tasting the food, and by connecting with the individuals there—I kept a journal of my experiences and found my real grounding in the words I created from them.

Arles has remained my muse and I continually resource my writings and recollections from my time there for inspiration and insight in my creative writing for clothing and linens designer, April Cornell. April’s printed fabrics refer with detail to her travels: a benefit concert in India, a candlelit dinner in Portugal, a nature walk in the Boreal Woods of Northern Quebec. Through her writing, April has taught me the power of the eye to see, the mind to travel, and the word to convey.

Recently, I returned to Arles. Perhaps it was the heady Provencal air and the cicada’s summer anthem that sent my mind into a tizzy one night, causing me to sit down before the mysterious Madame Ferrari, Medium and Fortune-Teller, and against all my learned faith, allow her to read my cards. With a quick flip of the tarot and a single calculation on paper, she breathed a clue into my future: I will be a writer. I will write my stories. I will forever be drawn to Arles and its people, and I will always be drawn back home again.

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