My “Dad’s” Garden

Each Wednesday we share a classic post from the Eat Sunday Dinner vaults. This piece originally posted on June 17, 2010.

Zucchini, corn, and tomatoes in my parents’ garden. Credit: Winston Lutz

This morning my dad sent me a series of photographs of his garden and although I’ve seen his garden many times over the years, I was still pretty impressed.

Truth be told, this is not just my dad’s garden.  It is my parents’ garden.  They started it when my grandparents moved in with them and my grandmother needed something to do once she left the farm she had lived on for over 50 years.  My parents’ backyard was too small to plant a garden large enough to occupy my grandmother for any length of time, so they bought an empty house lot down the street and planted a large garden.

The garden is divided into two parts– one for vegetables and one for flowers.  The vegetable garden is my father’s domain.  Of course, my mom does a huge amount of work watering, picking, cleaning, and canning the vegetables that come out of it, but it is still under my father’s ultimate control.

The cutting garden at the front of “the lot” belongs to my mom and she uses it to grow flowers for flower arrangements. The flower garden up at the house is for show, but this is where she grows the bulk of her cut flowers.  It’s a wild little garden and it’s not meant to be pretty, although I like the strange mixture of plants that flourish there at different times of the year.  It’s the place my mom can grow plants that aren’t necessarily attractive in and of themselves, but produce beautiful flowers.

A second view of my parents’ garden. Credit: Winston Lutz

My parents occasionally have turf wars, and it always cracks me up.  I hear stories like, “Your father dug up the green beans yesterday because he was tired of picking them, but I wasn’t done with my canning!” or “Your mother wants me to extend the fence around her garden, but she doesn’t use all the flowers she already grows, so I’m not in any hurry to do it”.  I don’t know why I find these stories so hilarious.  Maybe it’s because “the lot” is such a good metaphor for my parents’ marriage (although I’m sure they’d both be horrified by this idea or any discussion of their “relationship”.)  Their garden is well-tended, fruitful, and a little crazy– but in an amusing and creative way.

For years my parents have raised a lot more produce than they can eat themselves and they always share their garden’s bounty with neighbors, friends, relatives, and the occasional “varmint”, as my father calls the creatures who eat his vegetables.  The gift of produce smoothes the way with difficult neighbors and encourages visits from friends and family… especially during tomato season.  It’s amazing to see how much comes out of their garden and how much they get out of the process.  I only have space for a tiny vegetable garden in my yard, but every year I find myself digging out a new little patch to grow just one more row of tomatoes or a few cucumber plants.  These experiments don’t always work out, but they do give us all something to talk about and get my family out into the yard, working together and hoping for the best.

Continue Reading

The Last Halloween Pumpkin

Each Wednesday we share a classic post from the Eat Sunday Dinner vaults. This piece originally posted on June 14, 2010.

Bye, bye, pumpkin! Credit: Susan Lutz

Well, it finally happened.  We had to say goodbye to the last of our Halloween pumpkins.  This one outlasted the others by a good six months, but nine months after we blew out the candle in our Jack-o-lantern, we bid a fond farewell to our last uncut pumpkin sitting on the window ledge.

Continue Reading

Choose Two of These Three Things

Each Wednesday we share a classic post from the Eat Sunday Dinner vaults. This essay originally posted on May 3, 2010.

When making Sunday dinner, you can successfully accomplish two of these three things.

  1. Prepare a delicious meal.
  2. Have a nice, relaxing time.
  3. Photograph your dinner.

I’ve learned the hard way that you can not do all three.  Or at least I can’t.  Yet.  I hope one day I’ll be able to produce a quick photographic record of our Sunday dinner meals without destroying the festive spirit of the day.  But I’m not there yet.  The time we set aside for Sunday dinner started out great.  We picked our first radish from the small self-watering planter we usually ignore because we put it by the side door we rarely use.  It was an exciting moment since the radishes were the first crop we planted from seed this season and Violet remembered putting the tiny seeds in the ground.

radish
Radish from our first crop in our Spring garden. Credit: Susan Lutz

We all played around in the back yard for a while and Tim found two beautiful grapefruits in the small tree wedged in the corner of our yard.  (Who knew that sad little tree could even bear fruit!?!)  The girls collected a wagon-load of loquats, as they usually do.  We didn’t even have too much trouble convincing Annabel that she shouldn’t shove whole loquats into her mouth as she collected them.

grapefruit_SusanLutz
Backyard grapefruit on our kitchen table. Credit: Susan Lutz

I thought I’d planned well for this meal by cooking a turkey meatloaf earlier in the week and freezing half for today’s meal.  I’d roasted onion and peppers to spruce up the leftovers and we made a really nice potato and green bean salad.  The girls and I had carefully selected new potatoes, string beans, and a bag of lemons at the farmer’s market the day before and I made a simple lemon and olive oil vinaigrette while Tim and Violet snapped the green beans.  It was the first time Violet had ever taken on this important task and it still makes me smile to remember how proud she was of the “work” she was doing.  Meal preparation was going well and it seemed natural that this good-feeling would build on itself.  Boy was I wrong.   I decided to take a couple of quick photos of our meal and that’s when the trouble began.

In her excitement about seeing the freshly pulled radish, Violet tried to snatch it off the table just as I was taking the photograph and I snapped at her to “leave it alone!”.  This started a flood of tears and I felt terrible about squashing her excitement about our home-grown produce.  Tim insisted that I continue to take photos and as sweet a thought as that was, it didn’t turn out to be a popular idea.  Annabel joined in the crying game and by the time we sat down to dinner everyone was grumpy.  Lesson learned.

NOTE: Seven years to the day after I originally wrote this piece, I still cannot accomplish all three things, but I have gotten better at sneaking in a photo or two during meal prep.

Continue Reading

Stir Fry Awaits: 5 Location Tips for Suburban Foragers

bittercress-stir-fried_Susan_Lutz
Bittercress is brilliant stir-fried. Credit: Susan Lutz

The concept of foraging brings to mind a post-apocalyptic landscape and survivalist rations, so I wasn’t expecting to start a foraging walk on the manicured lawn of a lush suburban park just north of Washington, D.C.

I squatted on the lawn, watching a bearded man dig through the thick ground cover with a small spade until he pulled up a clump of green by the roots.

“Bittercress,” he said. He pulled off a sprig and put it in his mouth, then passed the rest around to my fellow foragers. “Try a piece. It’s got a little bite, but it’s amazing stir-fried.”

forager-matt-cohen-photobysusanlutz
Forager Matt Cohen discovers the skunk cabbage, a harbinger of spring. Credit: Susan Lutz

I pulled off a sprig and put it in my mouth, surprised by both its sharpness and its raw freshness. Forager Matt Cohen encouraged us each to paw through the grass in search of our own clump of bittercress, helpfully pointing out the important details: several stalks all growing from a central point, five-to-nine paired leaflets, and a single leaf at the tip of the stalk.

Cohen’s quest expanded into the rest of the park lawn, uncovering chickweed, dandelions, onion grass and garlic mustard. He crushed the leaves of the garlic mustard and encouraged us all to do the same: The aroma is unmistakable. It’s also one of the few clear signs that a plant is safe to eat, Cohen explained. If it smells like garlic or onion, it’s usually not poisonous. In fact, it can be delicious: “Garlic mustard makes an incredible pesto,” he said.

Cohen began his career as a forager 20 years ago, when he abandoned his career as a computer programmer to become a full-time landscaper and avid amateur wild-plant forager. He counsels people to begin foraging as he began, by finding edible plants in the most common areas, suburban lawns.

Cohen supplied us with specific methods for identifying edible plants, but also gave us bigger-picture tips for someone just beginning to investigate wild foraging. Like so many things, foraging begins with the concept: location, location, location.

Matt Cohen’s Top Five Location Tips for Beginning Foragers:

  • Start in your own backyard if you have one. Learn the most common weeds and find out which ones are edible.
  • Next, move on to vacant lots, waste areas and spots that are neglected. There are lots of weeds there, but be careful to avoid possible sources of contamination, such as areas frequented by dogs and dog walkers.
  • Learn about invasive plants, which are usually free for the taking. Public park officials often hire volunteers to remove invasive species from the local ecosystem. You can help the environment while creating a delicious meal.
  • If you live in a city, check out community gardens. Gardeners are often excited to have help with the never-ending task of weeding.
  • Always know the land you want to forage and get permission from the owner.
fairy_spud_spring_beauty_photobysusanlutz
Mature fairy spud (spring beauty) in late winter. Credit: Susan Lutz

We walked further into the Maryland woods in search of wilder fare. We passed a large patch of snow, when suddenly Cohen excitedly spun around. “Skunk cabbage!” he said. The foul-smelling purplish plant poking through the snow heralds the coming of spring.

Further in the woods Cohen pointed out a series of small, bright green shoots, spreading out in the undergrowth. He explained that its common name is spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), but foragers have a different name for it. They call it fairy spuds. Cohen revealed why when he showed us the diminutive potato that dangled within its roots. It’s a wild food eaten by Native Americans and early settlers alike.

tree-tapping-for-sap-photobysusanlutz
Two primitive methods of tapping a tree for its sap. Credit: Susan Lutz

Then Cohen stopped at a bare, leafless birch tree. Using a pocketknife, he drilled a small hole into the trunk, then stuck a small bamboo stick into the hole. We waited patiently, staring at the unmoving stick, until a small crystal drop of  birch sap appeared at its end. We each took a turn touching our fingers to each drop as it appeared, then tasting the wet sweet sap.

Cohen then revealed a steel maple tap he had placed in a maple tree just an hour before. Beneath the tap was a jar nearly overflowing with a clear liquid. We passed the jar around and when it came to me, I lifted the light clear liquid and drank. It was like fresh spring water, with an edge of sweetness. It was one of the most amazing things I’d ever tasted — water from inside a tree.

It brought back to me the recent cross-country move I had made, from warm, always-sunny Southern California to the bare, early-spring chill of the East Coast. The lushness of Los Angeles may seem alluring, but it’s easy to become accustomed to abundance and take it for granted. In a world with winter, the first stalks of skunk cabbage are greeted with pleasure. Tiny clumps in the lawn can become a stir-fried delicacy. And deep inside a tree, gathering all winter, a hidden fountain of water courses through the trunk, sweet enough to turn into pancake syrup.

My new home is full of surprises.

Bittercress Stir-Fry

Courtesy of Matt Cohen

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ cup field garlic (also known as onion grass)

4 cups bittercress

1-2 tablespoons tamari

Directions

1. Heat up the olive oil over medium heat.

2. Chop field garlic bulb and greens.

3. Cook for a few minutes in olive oil.

4. Finely chop bittercress and add to field garlic.

5. Add tamari to taste.

6. Cook another 5 minutes and serve as a side dish.

Continue Reading

My “Secret” Recipe

Each Wednesday we share a classic post from the Eat Sunday Dinner vaults. This essay originally posted on June 22, 2008.

People think I have a secret recipe. I maintain that I do not. The recipe is for “Coconut Cake with Seven Minute Frosting”. It came from my Grandma Willie, who lived in the Shenandoah Valley, and anyone who’s tasted its magical fluffy goodness wants the recipe. I have a strict policy that I will not give anyone the recipe because I know people will have trouble making it and call me to complain. So I tell anyone who asks that the “secret” is in the frosting and that they can look up a recipe for Seven Minute Frosting in any cookbook made before 1960. If the person is insistent, I politely say that I don’t give out the recipe, but that they can come over to my house and I will show them how I make the cake. In the decade that I have been making this cake, nobody has ever taken me up on the offer.

The real secret to my “secret” recipe is that there is no secret. It’s just that Seven Minute Frosting is no longer popular and most people have never tasted it. It isn’t hard to make once you’ve seen it done, but somewhat challenging to learn through a written recipe. I watched my grandmother make her coconut cake for 20 years before it occurred to me that I should try to make it myself. It took me an entire day, several batches of droopy frosting, and numerous phone calls from LA to my grandmother and mother in Virginia before I finished a version of the cake that was edible. My grandmother and mother are patient women who love me, but I realized I didn’t want to be on the receiving end of these phone calls now that I was in on the secret.

There is an art to making this cake and after ten years of trial and error, I can now make my grandmother’s coconut cake without thinking about it much. It’s easy for me to bake the cake after a long workday and ice it the following evening. (I do it this way because the cake is perfect when it’s made 12 to 24 hours in advance. Any less and the icing doesn’t have time to work it’s magic. Any more and the cake starts to get soggy.) By Day Three, I’m ready for any Birthday Party/Christmas Meal/Easter Picnic. But it was a long road to get there.

There are some things that cannot be explained in words. Baking a coconut cake is one of them. It is something that needs to be witnessed to be perfected. There are many ways to make a good cake. Each recipe is particular, often a little peculiar, and delicious, as most things made with love and a certain level of obsession tend to be. So if you want my secret recipe, it’s yours. Just tell me when you want to come over.

Continue Reading

City-Style Ranching

seville_oranges_WaldoWard_SusanLutz
Seville oranges ripen on a 100-year old tree at E. Waldo Ward’s orchard. Credit Susan Lutz

I read books and magazines about urban farming the way many people read cookbooks.

Sometimes I intend to use the information I read, but usually I’m just daydreaming. I love visiting urban farms for the same reason. I justify these trips by saying they’re good for my children’s education. But what I’m really after is to see how urban farmers have managed to carve out a bit of undeveloped land to grow crops, raise chickens or wrangle livestock in the midst of the city.

The E. Waldo Ward Ranch in Sierra Madre, Calif., is not an “urban farm” in the usual sense. That is to say, the ranch is not the product of urban land reclamation for agricultural purposes. It was here first, long before suburban sprawl took over. E. Waldo Ward started his ranch in 1891, and the city grew around it.

The ranch is situated in a quiet, “un-ranch-like” suburban neighborhood of Craftsman homes. But behind a stately house with a large lawn, you’ll discover barns, tractors, pick-up trucks and a “backyard” that stretches to the next block. It’s like a farm that’s been carefully camouflaged by surrounding it with suburban homes.

The barn at the E. Waldo Ward Ranch Museum. Credit: Susan Lutz

An empire built on marmalade

We parked behind the house and I went inside the small gift shop for our tour. I was greeted by Jeff Ward, fourth-generation rancher. Jeff pointed out the ranch is still a working ranch, even though it’s only 2.5 acres, and it still produces the same product that his great-great-grandfather (E. Waldo himself) started producing more than 100 years ago.

Our first stop on the tour was the original processing room, built in the early 1900s, where the company’s first product was tested. On the day we visited, soft winter light filtered through the many windows that wrapped around the room. It was here that E. Waldo Ward launched an empire based on marmalade.

Edwin Waldo Ward imported two Seville orange trees from Spain in 1891. He planted these new trees in the rich soil of the San Gabriel Valley. As a luxury food salesman, E. Waldo knew that the best marmalade came from Seville oranges, and no one in America was making high-end marmalade.

E. Waldo slowly built a grove of more than 600 trees that covered 30 acres using his two Seville orange trees as grafting stock. By 1915, he believed he could take the big step — quit his job, and launch his product.

Within a few years he was selling massive amounts of his high-end marmalade to his old sales clients, the railroads. He was harvesting oranges, making marmalade and packaging the product in his canning “factory” behind his house.

Jeff_Richard_Ward_SusanLutz
Jeff and Richard Ward in front of a 100-year old Seville orange tree. Credit: Susan Lutz

Into the modern era

Jeff walked us past pallets and a small lift truck to the barn that E. Waldo built in 1902. Today it’s part store-room, part museum — a treasure chest of crazy old machines and relics of early 20th century preserve-making. One side of the tiny museum showcases examples of kitchen tools and family photos of the ranch over the past 100 years. The other side contains a workbench that looked (and smelled) just like my grandfather’s workbench on his farm in Virginia. In these quiet corners it is easy to feel that E. Waldo’s spirit is still very much alive at the ranch.Marmalade jars in the Ward ranch gift shop

After leaving the barn, we entered a series of much more modern processing and packing rooms. It is here that Jeff, and his dad Richard, spearhead the marmalade and jam processing operation that still bears E. Waldo’s name.

Jeff also applies the family’s know-how to help others create their own commercial food products. The company now offers consulting and co-packing services, helping small-time entrepreneurs take a handcrafted food product to market, just as E. Waldo did in this same spot more than a century ago.

The tour ended back in the gift store where we were offered the ranch’s high-end jams, marinades and sauces. I managed to taste, and ultimately take home, a number of delicious goodies, including blood orange marmalade and sweet spiced peaches.

EWaldoWard_museum_SusanLutz
Ward Museum apple peelers. Credit: Susan Lutz

As we packed up our jars of preserves and headed back down the path to the city street, I watched my daughters scamper amid the orange trees playing hide and seek. I remembered hiding behind the gnarled old apple trees in my grandfather’s tiny orchard in Virginia in much the same way. Although I was 3,000 miles away from my family’s farm, I couldn’t help feeling that I was giving my daughters a glimpse of their own agricultural roots. This tiny piece of old California rancho history conjured up the spirit of 19th century while creating a vivid memory of the pleasures of living in Southern California today.

And the sweet spiced peaches were delicious.

Continue Reading

Fridgeir Helgason

FridgeirHelgason_photogrpaherandchef_photo courtesyFridgeirHelgason
Fridgeir Helgason, Photographer and Executive Chef at Sequoia High Sierra Camp, Summer 2010. Photo courtesy Fridgeir Helgason.

This Sunday Dinner Questionnaire originally posted on October 20, 2010.

Fridgeir Helgason is a photographer, chef, and Viking, though not necessarily in that order.  When I spoke to him, he had just ended his second season as Executive Chef at Sequoia High Sierra Camp and was days away from a cross-country move back to New Orleans, after living in Los Angeles for a  number of years.  He’ll be cooking at  Eiffel Society, the latest New Orleans nightspot to bring together food, music, art, and even urban farming.  (We’re looking forward to Fridgeir’s full report on the restaurant and we’re hoping for a few photos to post on the site.)

Fridgeir and I met the day after he came down from the mountain, which was in the midst of a giant hail and snowstorm.  He told me it was like the mountain was saying, “Go Home!”  And he did.  But from June through the beginning of October, Friedgeir cooked three meals a day for guests at the camp and hiked in between meals.  When I asked him what he cooked for breakfast, he said, “Everything.  I make a breakfast buffet with my own homemade granola, fresh fruit, apple-smoked bacon from Wisconsin, hash browns, and eggs any style, except poached.  I once worked at a place where I made too many poached eggs.  After that I took an oath that I would never poach an egg again, and since I’m a Viking I can’t go back on my oath.”  Fridgeir smiles when he says this, and although he can be very funny, Fridgeir is also true to his Viking heritage and says EXACTLY what he means.

I met Fridgeir first as a photographer, then as a chef, and I eventually realized that what I’d been seeing all along was his Viking personality shining through both of these personas.  Fridgeir recently had an incredible solo exhibition at the Reykjavik Arts Festival which merged his love of photography and his Icelandic heritage.  He received a grant from the city of Reykjavik to photograph the neighborhood in which he grew up and his love of his home country is clearly apparent in this work.  It is also clear that Fridgeir sees  beauty in forgotten and abandoned places, a theme which can be found throughout his photographic work. 

Fridgeir’s photograph hangs in my kitchen. Credit Susan Lutz.

Several years ago I went to an exhibition of Fridgeir’s photographs at his mother’s couture dress shop in Los Angeles.  During the opening Fridgeir and his mother entertained guests with stories about Iceland and served cups of Icelandic lamb stew that Fridgeir had made to celebrate the occasion.  Eating this rich, warm stew while viewing the work made the  remote Icelandic landscapes and abandoned buildings come alive.  The combination of great photography and delicious comfort food created a sense of place that allowed me to enter the work in a tangible way and it was irresistible.  

I am now the proud owner of Fridgeir’s photograph of an abandoned herring factory in Djupavik, Iceland, where his mother once worked.  At the opening, Fridgeir’s mother told me her story of working in the herring factory.  Like the photograph, her story was rich, complex, and unusual.  When I look at the photograph I think about what it must have been like to clean fish day after day in a remote Icelandic village and I am reminded that my life could be worse.  Or better.  The answer depends on the day.
The Official Sunday Dinner Questionnaire:  Fridgeir Helgason

1.  What is your favorite food to eat?  Why?
Soul food.  Because it’s yummy and unpretentious.  It’s also my favorite food to cook.

2.  What is your favorite food to cook?  How often and under what circumstances do you make it?
Every time I cook I make soul food.  It’s all about the love, man.
3.  Who or what is your greatest culinary influence?  Why is he/she/ it an inspiration to you?
Annie Kernney, Gerard Maras, Greg Sonnier, and Wendy Jordan.  All chefs I’ve worked for.  Because they busted my balls.

4.  What is your favorite kitchen utensil and why do you love it?
Zester.  It’s all about the zester.  I love to zest.  The zest [of citrus fruit] makes it sing when it comes into your mouth.  I have a cheap zester and then I chop stuff up.  (Editor’s Note:  Fridgeir is not a fan of the microplaner.)  And a spoon.  You have to taste everything you make.

5.  What did you eat for dinner this past weekend?
I don’t remember.  But I can tell you what I cooked.  The Sunday menu was carrot fennel soup, then for the appetizer I did my Icelandic fish cake, which is based on my grandmother’s recipe.  It’s THE quintisensial Icelandic peasant comfort food that every mother or grandmother or wife made for whoever was killing the fish.   You make it by poaching haddock in white wine, adding beshamel sauce, garlic and onion, and boiled potatoes. Then you cool it down, make it into cakes and dip it in an egg wash and coat the cakes in panko bread crumbs.  Panko is IT, everything else is shit.  Then saute them in canola oil and then pop them in the oven for 5 minute.  I served them with a creole sauce.  

For the main course I made andouille and pecan-stuffed pork chops with carmelized brussel sprouts, apple-smoked bacon, and sweet potatoes.  The sauce I invented for that is a root beer glaze.  (Ed. Note:  Fridgeir is obsessed with root beer and orders it by the case.  He says his root beer sauce was created accidentally.  One day he was standing at the stove drinking a root beer and decided to pour it in the pan when he was making a beurre blanc.  Fridgeir says, “It’s the bomb.  Tastes like christmas.”)  For dessert, we had something called Lemony Goodness.  It’s a lemon custard thingy.  I don’t do desserts.  Most chefs don’t, actually.

6.  When you were growing up, did you eat Sunday dinner or another meal that brought your friends and family together on a regular basis?  If so, what you you eat? 
My grandmother, bless her heart… I love her but she’s the worst cook on planet earth, would cook a leg of lamb every Sunday.  There were no fresh vegetables in Iceland when I was growing up except for rutabega and potatoes.  It being a sunday dinner, she would open up a can of green beans and carrots and another can of red cabbage.  She would cook the leg of lamb until it was the consisency of a shoe.  A couple of years ago, I roasted a leg of lamb for my grandmother and her sisters.  I cooked it a perfect medium and they thought I was trying to kill them with raw meat.

 7.  Do you have a garden?  If so, what do you grow in it?
No.  I live in downtown LA.  But I’m moving back to New Orleans and hoping to get a place with a garden.  (Ed. Note: Fridgeir is going to be working at Eiffel Society, a new restaurant where they grow most of their own vegetables and herbs.)

 8.  What is your ultimate food fantasy?
To work at French Laundry in Napa Valley, El Bulli (in Catalonia, Spain), Noma in Copenhagen.  Why eat there when you can work there?

9.  If you could choose to have any person living or dead prepare a  meal for you, who would it be?  What would you want to eat?
Paul Bocuse.  A twenty course classic french dinner with lots of butter and fois gras and truffle.

10.  Fill in the blank:  “The most important element of a good meal is ________.”
Love.
Continue Reading

How Do We Take Our Coffee? Cup Thoughts and the Swedish Fika

Each Wednesday we share a classic post from the Eat Sunday Dinner vaults. This essay originally posted on January 31, 2010.

Tea Cup from Nadfly, Barnsdall Art Park, Los Angeles, CA. Photo copyright Susan Lutz, 2010.

I recently went to an amazing event at Barnsdall Art Park called “Cup Thoughts”.  I don’t get out of the house much these days, but I was so excited about this event that I wrangled a babysitter and requested to go to this event in honor of my birthday re-do.  (My original birthday celebration had been cancelled because we all came down with a nasty stomach flu!)

Cup Thoughts was essentially a giant communal coffee break with fellow artists, and hosted by a gracious and fantastically kooky artist named Nicola Atkinson.  Officially, it was a public artwork by Nicola Atkinson Does Fly.  Nicola and I will hopefully be having an e-mail correspondence to discuss the event and the concept of communal meals that I can post on this blog in future, but in the meantime, check out Nicola’s website  Nadfly Cup Thoughts  for more information and additional photos.

Cake and teacups by Nadfly, Barnsdall Art Park, Los Angeles, CA. Copyright Susan Lutz 2010.

The idea behind Cup Thoughts was simple, but its execution required a vast network of collaborators and participants.  Nicola hosted two separate events at which two different groups of people in two different countries would enjoy a cup of coffee from the same set of cups.  She served coffee from cups she made herself, and a special cake, which she prepared from a recipe she created for the event, and sang a song she wrote in honor of the event.  The project took place over a two year period and were based on the idea of the “Fika”, which is a Swedish tradition of enjoying a public coffee break with friends, family or colleagues.  As Nicola describes the project:

The starting point of Cup Thoughts is a simple question– how do we take our coffee?  Do we have it “to  go” as we pursue our busy lives or do we prefer to take a break and engage in a more socialized ritual?  What if we took a proper break with our work fellows for ten minutes every day?  What if we detached ourselves from our computers, iphones and Blackberries?  How much more productive and creative would we be together?  This art project sets out to discover the effects of the “Fika” on people and their work environment.

The first fika took place in Lidköping, Sweden, and the second event, which I attended, was part of the Fika Shop that Nicola created in the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park.  Throughout the run of the show, visitors could buy coffee and cake, but on this night, a group of about 100 people got together to enjoy an evening of food, conversation and entertainment.  The overall feeling was that of good-natured excitement and slight confusion that is bound to occur whenever a group of artists are asked to participate in bringing someone else’s idea to fruition.  Before the event, Nicola sent out an e-mail reminder, along with a note encouraging us to communicate with the other people at our table about table decorations.  She told us that when she hosted the event in Sweden, she brought flowers from her own garden to decorate the tables, and thought it would be nice if we did the same here.  

My table-mates and I were quite active in gathering flowers, candles, and hand-made pottery vases to decorate our table and it turned out great.  Decorating the table gave us a goal and way to learn a bit about each other in a non-threatening, less awkward way than starting with the usual “Uh… so… what do you do?”  I met a number of fellow local artists as a result and thoroughly enjoyed myself.  The concept and entertainment was just unusual enough to force us all to  set aside our preconceptions about what art should be and get into the spirit of the event.

Nicola Atkinsonsingsatfika_creditSusanLutz
Nicola Atkinson sings for guests at the fika. Credit: Susan Lutz

Nicola helped encourage this communal spirit throughout the run of the show.  She offered haircuts to anyone who wanted one and on the day I visited, she was out on the gallery’s balcony giving her first haircut.  (There seemed to be a complex payment schedule based on a first-come, first-served basis, but the haircut I witnessed cost the recipient a dollar.)   We all chatted as she worked and I was asked to give an opinion about the haircut, which was quite nice and suited her client well.  Then I loaned them my compact mirror so the newly coiffed artist could check out his new do.

When the event was over, we were offered the opportunity to buy the cups we drank out of.  Apparently the fika participants in Sweden were jealous that we could buy the cups, but that didn’t stop me.  I now own Cup #35 and drink out of it every once in a while, but only when I have a rare moment alone.  Drinking out of this cup is not for the frenzy of my daily life with two toddlers.  I like to drink from this cup when the girls are napping and I can drink in peace, contemplating the event and wondering how I can incorporate more fika-esque moments into my life.  

Continue Reading