In mid-September, Grace Talusan, Fulbright Scholar, English professor at Tufts University in Boston, and winner of the 2017 New Immigrant Writing for Nonfiction by Restless Books, contacted me to let me know that the Boston Filipino-American Club (BFAB) was going to be reading my novel, A Village in the Fields, for the month of October. Grace, whose memoir, The Body Papers, will be published in the Fall of 2018, asked if I would be willing to Skype with the members at their October 29th meeting following their traditional brunch. Absolutely, I let her and book club founder and artist Bren Bataclan know.
Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me the chance to do my very best.
– Isak Dinesen, Danish author, from Babette’s Feast
I first met Joanne Bailey, owner and chef of J Gourmet Catering, when my husband, David, reached out to a good friend for recommendations for a caterer for my 50th birthday celebration at our home five years ago. He and his wife had known Joanne for a decade and highly recommended her services. We wanted simple but memorable and flavorful food, and Joanne did not disappoint. Our same friend had Joanne cater his wife’s 50th birthday celebration recently, so I was able to connect with this wonderful chef, who I then recommended to cater our LUNAFEST East Bay VIP event, which precedes our LUNAFEST film festival on Saturday, March 18th.
Family food memories
Joanne’s life has always revolved around food, which brings up wonderful memories of family and her hometown of Richmond, Va. She recalls Sunday dinners at her maternal grandmother’s home with no less than 20 people at the table for traditional Italian meals and bottles of homemade wine. When her father was ill, she and her brother would eat meals at her aunt’s house. They’d pull out the leaves to extend the dining room table and iron the linen tablecloth before setting the table with cloth napkins and silverware. Her grandfather would be picked up to join them and sit at the head of the table. As one of the youngest children of the large extended family, Joanne was often in the kitchen, washing dishes and laughing and chatting with family members. “I grew up in the kitchen,” she noted. “The food was always amazing, and food was always an event in our family.”
Her father was a member of the First Families of Virginia, a designation bestowed upon those whose lineage can be traced back to Colonial Virginia. As such, her paternal grandmother was a “very proper” Southerner, and meals were no exception. For example, breakfasts were two-hour events, which included being served bacon and eggs and even ice cream and sherry glasses filled with Manishewitz Blackberry wine. Joanne remembers the sweet potato pie, greens, and leg of lamb that her paternal grandmother would serve during the holidays. She didn’t give out her recipes. “You had to be there if you wanted to learn,” Joanne said. In fact, her grandmother didn’t use cookbooks. “You learned by feel. That’s how you learned how to cook,” she explained.
After her father passed away, her mother took her brother and her and joined her best friend and her two kids on vacation. They rented a house along the Rappahannock River, a river in eastern Virginia that runs along the entire northern part of the state, from the Blue Ridge Mountains in the west, across the Piedmont, to the Chesapeake Bay, south of the Potomac River. The two mothers sent the four kids out on a boat with nets, freshly broken chicken necks, and bushel baskets, and tell them to come back when the baskets were full. “In the South, oysters, king crab, and fish were common fare,” she explained. Her mother continued the family tradition of instilling in Joanne the love of cooking and the importance of flavor. “My mother never heated up any food (out of a can or package,” she said.
Fast forward to the early 1980s, when she met and married her husband, who purchased and remodeled homes in San Francisco, then resold them, which now we call “flipping” homes. “Believe it or not, there were a lot of burned-out, abandoned, and reasonably priced homes in San Francisco in the 70s and 80s,” she recalled. During that time, Joanne had been involved in working in restaurants, but when her husband bought a restaurant for her, he encouraged her: “You’re a great cook. You should use your skills.” They hired a chef, whose specialty was fish, and thus began her culinary training. He taught her so much, from roasting a whole pig and making all sauces including demi-glace to mastering knife skills. The experience was exhausting and all-consuming in and of itself, so when her son was born a year into launching the restaurant, she realized that she didn’t want to miss out on raising him. So she and her husband sold the restaurant.
When her husband passed away, Joanne took her two kids and moved to Sonoma County. She started a successful housecleaning business, which enabled her to work but be home in time to be with her kids. She also turned the five acres of her land into a huge garden and for a while raised chickens. “We grew all of our food,” she said. Even when she and her kids went camping, they would make their own food. Her time in Sonoma was healing, with cooking playing an important role. “We took joy in small things,” she explained.
The kitchen comes calling
In the late 1990s, Joanne decided to move back to the San Francisco Bay Area and opened J Gourmet Catering, though she brought her housecleaning business with her. The husband of one of her clients, who was pregnant and on bed rest with a serious condition, hired her to cook for them, which resulted in her catering business booming simply by word of mouth. She’s been busy ever since, catering weddings, birthday parties, special occasion events, and other celebrations for more than 15 years.
Joanne is passionate about some of the work she takes on, especially with WestEd, a San Francisco-based nonpartisan, nonprofit, mission-focused organization that helps schools, districts, and states improve education through innovative research, evaluation, and consulting. One of WestEd’s missions is training pre-school teachers. Joanne caters breakfast and lunch for the teachers in the training program. “It just amazes me how much these teachers care about these children,” she marveled. “Teachers don’t get paid very much, so I try to do something amazing for them.” One menu she created for them included chicken masala sandwiches, sweet potato and red bell pepper soup with red dahl coconut milk, and tofu, carrot, and ginger cake.
Her latest obsession is flavor layering. “It’s so exciting,” she enthused, as she explained the time-consuming process for making the chicken masala for the sandwiches. The different steps involved different ingredients – first soak the chicken overnight in buttermilk or thick yogurt, then toast the seeds, fennel, ajwain, cumin, and coriander and grind them all, add ginger garlic paste, roll the chicken in paste and then in cornstarch. Yet another sauce will accompany the final dish, she explained, adding more flavor. “The different components involve different layers of flavoring,” she said.
I recalled how friends enjoyed the food at my birthday party, as did I and other attendees at my friend’s birthday party. “I feel so grateful that they love it,” Joanne said, of the compliments. “I do it for them. They want a wonderful meal, and I want to give it for them.” Joanne insists on getting the best ingredients that she can, no matter what the budget is. “Whatever I do, it’s going to be the best for whatever the budget,” she said. “Whatever I make for them, it’s going to be amazing.” Joanne enjoys picking out what’s in season and figuring out how to combine those ingredients for a memorable meal.
Joanne has passed on her appreciation of food and cooking to her children. Her daughter lives in England, but when they get together, she enjoys cooking with her son-in-law, who also loves to cook. Her son works with her and is a “really good cook,” according to Joanne. While she likes to move on to the next meal, he can transform leftovers from a meal into new creations.
She’s thankful that she didn’t follow through when she went back to school to earn a degree in accounting. “I love math, but you have to be practical. I didn’t want to make money for other people,” she said, of her change of heart. “Owning a business is hard. You’re always wondering about the next job, the next process. But I love challenges, and I’m really happy.” When you listen to Joanne talk about food, you hear joy in her voice – joy in life, as well. “Life is too short,” she shared. “The most important thing are your kids, your family. The rest is just the rest.” So be happy and try to do what you love best. Joanne certainly is living her motto. And her food is prepared and infused with that same love and joy.
Note: For more information about LUNAFEST East Bay’s screening on Saturday, March 18th, 7:30pm, at the El Cerrito High School’s Performing Arts Theater, click here.
The sky in Seattle is so low, it felt like God had lowered a silk parachute on us.
– Maria Semple, American novelist and screenwriter
As part of Filipino American History Month, I embarked on a book tour in Seattle and Yakima Valley. Here is Part 2 of my chronicles of my time there.
While in Seattle, I stayed with my good friends, John and Kris. My husband, David, and John have known each other since pre-school. John was one of our groomsmen, and he is also the godfather of our son, Jacob. Friday morning, October 21st, John dropped me off at the Eastern Cafe in the International District, where I would later meet up with Marissa Aroy and our tour host Maria Batayola. a few doors down from the Eastern Cafe was the Eastern Hotel, which has a small Carlos Bulosan exhibit. It’s no longer a hotel, but apartments. I was able to get in and take pictures when one of the residents was leaving the building.
Marissa Aroy and I met up at the Luke Wing Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience (719 S. King Street, 206.623.5124) in the International District, upon recommendation by and as guests of Maria Batalyola, with Pinoy Words Expressed Kultura Arts (PWEKA) and the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) National Office, who were also some of our sponsors for the trip.
I’m grateful that such a museum exists. It’s a beautiful building and space, but more importantly it celebrates so many underrepresented and underappreciated ethnic groups who made lasting and continuing contributions to American history and culture. The Wing is “dedicated to immersing you in uniquely American stories of survival, success, conflict, compassion and hope. Through our guided tours and ongoing exhibitions, you can experience real life stories of the Asian Pacific American community.” An exhibit on Bruce Lee and a sobering and harrowing history of Cambodia’s “killing fields” and emigration from the country are currently being shown.
In the afternoon, Maria gave us a mini tour of historic sites in the International District. Maria was instrumental in the creation of the Filipino American Historical kiosk, “Honoring Filipino Americans in Chinatown International District, 1911-2010,” at the corner of S. Weller Street and 6th Avenue South. The kiosk will be formally dedicated in early November.
Later, we crossed the José Rizal Bridge, which “carries 12th Avenue South over South Dearborn Street and Interstate 90 in Seattle, connecting the International District to Beacon Hill.” One of the first permanent steel bridges in the City, the beautiful verdis green bridge was originally called the 12th Avenue South Bridge or the Dearborn Street Bridge before it was renamed in 1974 in honor of the Filipino patriot and national hero José Rizal. The bridge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, however, under its original name. Dr. José Rizal Park, on the west side of Beacon Hill boasts a view of south downtown, Elliott Bay, Safeco Park – home of the Seattle Mariners MLB team – and the Seattle Seahawks’ CenturyLink Field. The 9.6-acre parcel of land was purchased by the Parks Department in 1971 and dedicated in 1979.
Maria also gave us a tour of the historic Panama Hotel, located in the International District. Designed by Japanese-American architect Sabro Ozasa and built in 1910, the Panama Hotel, a National Historic Landmark and National Treasure, housed a Japanese bath house, businesses, restaurants, and sleeping quarters for residents and visitors. Jan Johnson, who is the third owner of the hotel, restored the building to its condition before the Japanese in Seattle were evacuated. From what I understand, a number of Japanese American families stored their belongings in the basement of the Panama Hotel, with the hope of returning home, which many did not. Johnson closed off the basement that holds the belongings of the Japanese families to the public, and has installed a glass panel in the floorboards for visitors to view the artifacts from above. It’s quite moving.
We made my first trip to the FANHS National Office (810 18th Avenue, #100, 206.322.0204), located within Lake Washington Girls Middle School. Although I saw Dorothy Cordova, Executive Director and Co-founder, with her late husband, of the Filipino American National Historical Society, at the 2016 FANHS Conference in New York City, this meeting represented my first introduction to “Auntie” Dorothy. I presented my novel to Auntie Dorothy as a gift to the FANHS Library.
Marissa and I were treated to a visit to the FANHS archives, also known as the “catacombs,” where specially built shelves house hundreds of boxes of files on Filipino Americans. While Marissa looked through her file, I doubted that I had a file on me. To my surprise, I found two files – under Patty Enrado and Patricia Enrado – with correspondences that I had written to FANHS in 2005-2006, among them requesting contact information for a project on the Filipino Manilamen, which I ended up abandoning. I also sent a link to my short story, “We Are Thinking of You,” which had won an award in 2002 from Serpentine e-zine, and a journal that had published one of my other short stories. I didn’t save the online short story as a pdf, which was a shame because at some point this year the site was taken down and the link broken, forever erasing the existence of the story as is (I had various revisions of the story but no final Word version that matched the printed version). I was ecstatic, therefore, to take pictures of the printed story, and now I’ll have to figure out a way to get it up on my author website.
Originally, Maria was going to treat the three of us to dinner at Kusina Filipina (3201 Beacon Avenue S., 206.322.9433), but the place closed just as we walked up. The silver lining, however, was choosing Bar del Corso (3057 Beacon Avenue S., 206.395.2069, www.bardelcorso.com), a pizzeria, restaurant on Beacon Hill, as our backup destination a block away. Maria let us know that the wife who owns the restaurant with her husband, Jeff Corso, who is chef and general manager, is Filipino. Auntie Dorothy pointed out that a framed Filipino family photograph hangs in a hallway in the restaurant. Gina Tolentino Corso, the marketing and creative manager, is a freelance graphic designer, a painter and illustrator, and “lover of good food.” Her artwork – big, bold, and colorful paintings – hangs on the walls of the restaurant. Maria had announced to our waiter Auntie Dorothy’s presence and her title. So it should not have come as a surprise that Gina came to our table and said, “You must be the table of Filipino American women.” She was a delight to meet. When told of my book, she expressed interest in reading it. And although I didn’t ask where she was originally from, she attended UC Davis. Ah, the Aggie connection again in the Pacific Northwest!
I have to talk about the food because it was phenomenal – simply and deceptively prepared but complex and flavorful in taste. We ordered two salads, one of which had bits of crunchy savory crackers. We also ordered Polpettine (house-made meatballs in tomato sauce), Vongole Alla Marinara (Manila clams, garlic, controne pepper, cherry tomatoes, white wine, extra virgin olive oil, and parsley), Grilled Octopus (with corona beans, lacinato kale, spicy ‘Nduja salame, and extra virgin olive oil), and a pizza – Funghi, with crimini mushrooms, house-made sausage, cherry tomatoes, pecorino, and fontina. Family-style serving enabled us to sample everything. We ate everything and were happily sated. The next time I’m in Seattle, I’m returning to Bar del Corso.
Friday evening, as part of Celebrating 2016 Filipino American History Month, Marissa screened her film and I read a short excerpt at the Centilia Cultural Center at Plaza Roberto Maestas (1660 S. Roberto Maestas Festival Street, Seattle). The center recently opened after restoration of an old school house and the building of affordable housing and community-use buildings. What a beautiful project El Centro de la Raza took on! El Centro de la Raza, “the Center for People of All Races,” is “a voice and a hub for the Latino community” as they “advocate on behalf of” its “people and work to achieve social justice.” The evening’s theme reflected the mission of the nonprofit. Maria and Estela Ortega, executive director of El Centro de la Raza, welcomed the audience. Estela related that she had worked in the fields in Texas and was active in the United Farm Workers union but never knew that the Filipino American farm workers initiated the Great Delano Grape Strike of 1965 and were instrumental in the formation of the UFW. One of the goals of the evening of reading and screening was to highlight Filipino-American contributions to the farm labor movement, strengthen ties among Filipino and Latino workers, and honor Larry Itliong’s Northwest labor leadership and contribution with the local IBU salmon cannery workers.
A panel discussion followed, which included Auntie Dorothy, Marissa, Ray Pascua, farmworker organizer and President of the Greater Yakima Valley Filipino American Community, and Rick Guirtiza, Vice President of the International Boatman’s Union Local, Maritime Division of ILWU. I met the University of Washington students who are members of the Filipino American Student Association (FASA) and a handful of audience members who were interested in my book. Maraming salamat to Alaskero Foundation, 4Culture, Seattle Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, FANHS National and PWEKA, who sponsored the Friday evening reading.
(to be continued….)
Seattle, the mild green queen: wet and willing, cedar-scented, and crowned with slough grass, her toadstool scepter tilted toward Asia, her face turned ever upward in the rain…
– Tom Robbins, American author, from Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life
Back in early spring, Alan Lau, Arts Editor for the International Examiner, “Seattle’s Asian Pacific Islander newspaper for over 42 years,” contacted Eastwind Books of Berkeley to let my publisher know that my novel had just been reviewed. He asked if I had any book readings in Seattle, as he would publish the review in tandem. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any readings scheduled, although I had reached out to local bookstores when my book was published in September 2015.
Alan proved to be a big-hearted champion and a model of persistence – in response, he put me in touch with local Filipino American groups to coordinate and sponsor a few events. Maria Batayola, who is a well-known leader in numerous organizations in the Seattle and greater Seattle area – including Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) and Pinoy Words Expressed Kultura Arts (PWEKA) – emerged as our main contact person and champion of the arts.
Working with a number of organizations, Maria helped to coordinate what evolved into the themed “tour” of the Delano manongs and the Delano grape strike of 1965, which comprised screening Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Marissa Aroy’s 2014 documentary Delano Manongs: The Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers Movement, which was nominated for a Northern California Emmy, and a reading of my novel. Obviously, Marissa’s documentary and my historical novel complement one another. Thus, began our tour.
New favorite Seattle bookstore
Third Place Books, Seward Park (5041 Wilson Avenue South, Seattle) opened up the first event of our tour on Thursday evening, October 20th. Before the reading, Maria hosted dinner for us at Raconteur. The building formerly housed a local co-op grocery store. Third Place Books, which has three locations (6504 20th Avenue NE, 101 S. Main Street, and 17171 Bothell Way NE) opened a fourth location in Seward Park and partnered with Raconteur, which comprises a restaurant and espresso bar on the main floor and a full bar downstairs. The property also boasts outdoor seating. It was a lively scene at both the bookstore and restaurant for a Thursday evening, with families with young children and friends meeting after work for dinner and book lovers.
A little bit more about Third Place Books. It is the “deliberate and intentional creation of a community around books and the ideas inside of them.” The bookstore got its name from sociologist Ray Oldenberg, who suggested that “each of us needs three places: first is the home, second is the workplace or school; and beyond lies the place where people from all walks of life interact, experiencing and celebrating their commonality as well as their diversity. It is a third place. In his celebrated book, The Great Good Place, Oldenberg discusses how the cafes, pubs, town squares, and other gathering places make a community stronger and bring people together.” I want to give a shout out to the folks at Third Place Books: Wendy Ceballos, Director of Events and Marketing, Kalani Kapahua, Events Coordinator, and our evening host Michelle provided us with a lovely experience, from their interest in my book with the initial inquiry to the enthusiasm and warmth given to us that Thursday evening.
Marissa and I were honored to be joined by local poet and playwright Robert (Bob) Francis Flor, who recently published chapbook of poems, Alaskero Memories, chronicling his coming of age during the 1960s summers he worked in the Alaska canneries. Devin Israel Cabanilla, who had conducted a session on geneology at the FANHS National Conference in New York City this past June and is an active member of the FANHS Greater Seattle chapter, served as our master of ceremonies.
I read a scene in which my main character, Fausto Empleo, meets other pinoy immigrants on the ship that was bound for Seattle. I let the small but appreciative crowd know that my father had landed in Seattle in 1926 and spent some time working in a lumber mill in Cosmopolis, Wash., located about 110 miles southwest of Seattle. Marissa shared the beginning of her documentary after my reading, and Bob followed her screening with reading a handful of his poems. Afterwards, Devin kicked off the Q&A session with his own questions and then opened it up to the audience. When someone asked what our current projects are, I was excited to hear that Marissa is working on a documentary on the Philippine-American War, which is also the subject of my novel-in-progress. I’m looking forward to sharing sources with Marissa.
One of my best friends from high school and one of my careful readers of A Village in the Fields (from draft to near-finished product – covering some 16 years off and on), Kathy Brackett, and her husband, Peter Verschoor, made it to my reading, so we had a mini – albeit short – reunion. And my hosts and dear friends, John Buettner – groomsman at David’s and my wedding 18 years ago and godfather to our son, Jacob, and Kris Kingsley, supported me, as well, by their attendance. I enjoyed meeting people at the book signing. I met writer Donna Miscolta, who heritage is Filipino and Latino. She is the author of a new collection of short stories, Hola and Goodbye, which will be released November 1st. Her name and her face were familiar to me, but I couldn’t place her until I discovered that she is an alum of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. A father wearing a UC Davis shirt let me know that his daughter had attended Davis on a rowing scholarship. In UW Husky territory, I was excited to see an Aggie shirt.
Most touching was meeting Devin’s eight-year-old daughter, Vita, who asked me to autograph her book – her first signed book and her first encounter with an author! She asked me what my book was about, and I stumbled a bit because I was trying to shape it in a way that she would appreciate and understand. I believe I said that it was about a farm worker who came from the Philippines to America with high hopes; while he had a difficult life that he was at first unprepared for, he lived a good life in the end. I wish I had added that he found family and community, which gave him hope when there was no hope, and how we should all be there for our family and community. Next time! Vita informed me that she and her dad were going to read my book and learn new words. I thought about the scenes that weren’t appropriate! Luckily, the following day, I bumped into Devin and he assured me he would censor inappropriate-for-children scenes! I hadn’t given a bookstore reading in about a year, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Happily, I was pleasantly surprised, seeing old friends and meeting new ones in what turned out to be a great, invigorating evening.
(To be continued….)
In the life of each of us there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness.
– Sarah Orne Jewett, an American novelist and short story writer, best known for her local color works set in or near South Berwick, Maine, from The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories
Happily and luckily, I’ve been coming to Maine for a week in the summer for the last 10 years. The company that I work for – HIMSS Media – was originally MedTech Publishing, which was co-founded by my good friend, Jack Beaudoin in 2003. He and his business partner, Neil Rouda, lived and still live in Maine, which is why the Summer Summits were based there. Every first week of August, the remote workers – I was a freelance writer until I became an FTE in 2010 – would descend upon the company headquarters in New Gloucester and have editorial and sales and marketing meetings. While the out-of-towners stayed at the beautiful Merrill Farmhouse on Pineland Farms, I stayed with Jack’s family. We had wonderful employee-bonding activities such as geocaching (the non-technology kind) and cheese and wine tasting on the Pineland grounds and having a lobster bake on Peak’s Island, a ferry ride away from Portland.
In time, the company was renamed MedTech Media and then sold to minority owner HIMSS and later became HIMSS Media. Jack moved on, and the Summer Summits ceased in 2013. Thankfully, I still return to Maine, but as part of the Summer Sales Meetings, which are now held in July. Every time I return, I am reminded of my initial wonderment when my plane first descended into Portland and I saw these quaint cottages and summer mansions perched on the banks of the many islands off of Casco Bay. And how I fell in love with the land and the lifestyle. It gets me every time.
I’m told that Portland boasts more restaurants per capita than any other city in the United States. I will take it. There are wonderful restaurants around every corner. And there are great little shops all clustered together, which makes for a great Sunday afternoon of wandering around and checking out local and state artisan goods. Love, Portland.
After a very packed Summer Sales Meeting week, I met up with Jack and family dog, Holly, and we set out for a three-hour drive northeast to their second home in Stonington, a quaint and beautiful town on a bridged island in Penobscot Bay. The road to Stonington, once we got off the highway, is not really winding as it is up and down, which didn’t sit well with my stomach. Let’s just say that Jack drove much more slowly and cautiously than he’d normally drive, and taking Dramamine on the return trip to Portland eliminated my motion sickness.
Jack tells the story of how he and Fay would rent a house in Stonington for vacation early in their marriage. They fell in love with the town and a few years ago bought the home of the former town librarian, who is still alive at the young age of 104 years. They have been slowly and lovingly remodeling the house, which is a stone’s throw from the popular Friday farmer’s market, the downtown area, and the coast. Fay did a beautiful job with the landscaping – everything looks lush and healthy. She has a great eye and is an avid gardener.
One of the things I really enjoyed about Stonington is that it is a destination for true rest and relaxation. Like my hometown and our visits with my cousin Janet and her husband, Tim, when I am there, I forget about yesterday and tomorrow. I am in the moment, and I take deep breaths and immerse myself in enjoy mode. So it was with Stonington. What I very much appreciated was staying up late Friday evening and Saturday afternoon talking about novels and writing with Jack. Talking shop, as he called it. I don’t have a writing group back home. Most people I trust are the ones with whom I spent two years in Syracuse, who know me and my writing, and who have my best interest at heart. But they are all dispersed. When I was at Syracuse, I was, really, just learning how to write, so I looked up to my more worldly, wiser classmates. But there were only a few writers whose class discussions about craft I listened to with rapt attention and took plenty of notes. Jack was one of them. I valued his commentary on my short stories because he cared and wanted you to do right by your stories and characters. And that’s because Jack is a wonderful writer whose prose is beautiful and precise and whose human insights are startling and real. He believes in the beauty, power, and integrity of story, of fiction. One who has such a writer for a mentor and a friend is twice blessed.
At any rate, here, to have that time talking about, say, structural issues with our current work and discussing how our favorite authors have handled plot or character was magical and so very instructional. I appreciated the immediacy of talking one on one versus communicating via email. So thank you for that, Jack. It made me want to read more and get back to my novel-in-progress.
Just a little bit about the town of Stonington. The lobster and fishing industry support the economy of Stonington and the nearby town of Deer Isle. Many of the fishermen revert to being carpenters or contractors in the off-season. I’m told that these two towns lead Maine in pound and dollar value of lobster landings. The two towns’ waters support some 300 lobster boats during the season. The island is also known for its granite quarries, which go back to the late 1800s and are still being mined today. The granite from John F. Kennedy’s memorial at Arlington National Cemetery was supplied by Stonington’s quarry.
One of the things I loved about our walk to the downtown was the historic homes that bore the names of their original owners. Some were weathered, giving way to their age. Others were happily restored to a gleaming white, which blazed in the July sun, and stood out against the blue sky, blue bay, and green hills. There were B&Bs, a wine shop, art houses and galleries, little shops, and the historic Stonington Opera House. But there were no touristy shops – the shop that did sell t-shirts and the like was low-key and, I dare say, dignified.
A “Mini Village” is nestled beneath a pine tree downtown. The sign on the tree tells of its origins: “Stonington’s Mini Village set up in this little park area was the creation of Everett Knowlton (b. April 7, 1901, d. March 17, 1978) who began building the houses in 1947 as a hobby. He continued to build them at a rate of one a year and slowly grew his ‘perfect peaceful village’ portrayed in these old pictures and portrayed in its original entirety at the Knowlton homestead. After Everett’s death, the new owner of his home donated to the town the Mini Village where each year residents take home the little houses for the winter and bring them back in spring for people to enjoy.”
On Saturday, we timed the low tide so we could walk to one of the islands. It was a beautiful day, if a tad bit warm. We traversed a woody and ferny path of tangled roots and spongy soil, breathing in every now and then the smell of aromatic pine, before reaching the sand bar that led us to the island. The cloud formations were spectacular, especially against the blue skies and waters. This was quintessential Maine. The water was cold, the island rocky, the pines plentiful. Breathtaking. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
On my last night, Jack, Fay, and their daughter Genny treated me to dinner at Aragosta (27 Main Street, Stonginton), the farm-to-table restaurant overlooking Stonington Harbor whose chef, Devin Finigan, is Vermont born and raised. Aragosta is cozy inside – wide-plank wooden floors, sofa seating along the walls, white-washed wooden walls – with a stunning view and a walk-down expansive outdoor deck. Stonington lobster ravioli was calling my name. As I took in the views, savored every bite, and enjoyed relaxing dinner conversation, I kept thinking how David would have loved this restaurant, to say nothing of the views. Aragosta, by the way, is the Italian word for lobster. Of course.
I will admit that photos are a poor substitute for being there. Photos can’t let you hear the lively rain at night or the early morning shower that gently wakes you up. They can’t let you breathe in the lavender in the garden and the pine all over the island. What they can do is make you say: This is where I want to go next. And come back to again and again. Thank you, Jack and Fay, for the beauty, the shop talk, the meals, the rest and relaxation I craved and received with open arms.
And New York is the most beautiful city in the world? It is not far from it. No urban night is like the night there…. Squares after squares of flame, set up and cut into the aether. Here is our poetry, for we have pulled down the stars to our will.
– Ezra Pound, expatriate American poet and critic
On our fourth day in New York, we changed our itinerary when we found out that our friends Jack and Fay Beaudoin, who live in Maine, were in town for the premier of their daughter’s play. More on that later. So we opted to see the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue), on the Upper East Side neighborhood of Manhattan. The Guggenheim Museum, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, is home to a growing collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, early Modern, and contemporary as it rises to the top of its ceiling skylight – is meant to convey “the temple of the spirit.” When you walk into the atrium, you are immediately taken by the lightness, the sun through the skylight, and the spiraling whiteness that seems to lift you up as you begin your journey.
The museum’s namesake belonged to a wealthy mining family and collected traditional works from the old masters going back to the 1890s. When he met artist Hilla von Rebay in 1926, she introduced him to European avant-garde art, he changed his aesthetic. When his collection outgrew his Plaza Hotel apartment, he established the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in 1937 to “foster the appreciation for modern art.” We took the audio tour, and I have to admit that many of the interpretations struck me as pretentious. I’m not what you would consider a true art aficionado; I like what I see, which is the way our artist friend Gary Stutler told us many years ago we ought to view art. At any rate, I recognized many famous artists, including Constantin Brancusi, Marc Chagall, Vasily Kandinsky, and Piet Mondrian. At least I could appreciate them, thanks to my college art history class. At any rate, here are photos of interesting paintings and exhibits.
And now for the more recent art installation pieces. Two exhibits struck me deep. Untitled (Ghardaïa) by Kader Attia, who was born in France but works in Algiers, Berlin, and Paris, was installed in 2009. According to the information on the piece, “Attia sculpted a model of the Algerian city of the title in couscous, a regional culinary staple. The fragile and ephemeral structure is accompanied by two prints portraying foundational Western modern architects Le Corbusier and Fernand Pouillon, and by a copy of a UNESCO certificate that officially designates the city of Ghardaïa a World Heritage Site. Attia’s work calls attention to the fact that both designers borrowed from and reworked the Mozabite architecture native to the city of Ghardaïa, and to the ancient Mzab region, without acknowledging their inspiration, itself derived from France’s 19th century colonization of Algeria and subsequent exploitation of its resources.” Wow, what a powerful statement that resonates in today’s dangerous and sad world.
The other exhibit that really caught my attention was Flying Carpets by Tunisian artist Nadia Kaabi-Linke. The following is background information on her inspiration for this stainless steel and rubber artwork: “Illegal street vendors – primarily of African, Arab, and South Asian origin – often congregate at Il Ponte del Sepolcro in Venice to sell counterfeit goods to tourists. To avoid unwanted encounters with authorities, they are often required to scoop up their wares in the rugs that they use for display and flee across the bridge. This journey to temporary safety is not only physical but also metaphorical insofar as it encapsulates both the whimsical orientalist fantasy of the flying carpet and the harsh realities experienced by undocumented immigrants who cross the Mediterranean in search of better lives. The proportions of Kaabi-Linke’s sculptural meditation on this scenario – a complex assembly of suspended grids – come directly from those of the vendors’ rugs.” After having read the backstory, I saw her installation – at a glance, just steel and rubber – transform before me and take on a deeper meaning that is, again, so relevant and heartbreaking in today’s world.
We decided against eating museum food and instead hopped on the subway to get to the Grand Central Terminal (the out-of-towners say Grand Central Station) (89 East 42nd Street) and take pictures of the famous station. The terminal was built in 1903 in the Beaux Arts architectural style and is made primarily of granite. According to a 2013 article in World Nuclear Association, because the building is made with so much granite it actually emits relatively high levels of radiation. Good thing we are only passing through! In 2013, 21.9 million visitors passed through the terminal, making it one of the world’s most visited tourist attractions. Grand Central Terminal covers 48 acres and has 44 platforms – more than any other railway station in the world. The other interesting fact about the terminal is that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority does not own it – private firm Midtown TDR Ventures.
We were also advised by a number of friends to eat at the famous Oyster Bar. Instead of sitting down at the bar, which resembled a 1950s luncheon counter, we opted to eat in the restaurant. The food was good, reminding us of Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto in Berkeley, which has a 1950s ambiance to its decor. Let’s just say that this was the most expensive meal we had in New York! But our seafood was fresh!
After our late lunch, we decided to take a leisurely walk to where we were going to meet Jack and Fay. First, we headed to the New York Public Library (5th Avenue at 42nd Street), which is a grand building. Founded in 1895, the NYPL is the largest public library system in the country, comprising 88 neighborhood branches and four scholarly research centers. With 51 million holdings, including books, e-books, DVDs, and important research collections, NYPL serves more than 17 million patrons yearly, and millions via online access. Behind the library is Bryant Park, home to Project Runway’s runway finale. From there, we hiked to Times Square for a brief sprint, just so the kids could see where everyone gathers on New Year’s Eve. Time Square, which is located in Midtown Manhattan, begins at Broadway and Seventh Avenue and spans out from 42nd Street to 47th Street. We couldn’t get away fast enough. It was a hot day and there were too many people and cars in the area.
We kept walking downtown on Broadway, taking note of how the neighborhood was changing from the glitz of Times Square to some gritty areas. At any rate, one of the points of destination was the Flatiron Building (174 5th Avenue), which David and I had seen in 2008 but did not have a picture of since we didn’t bring a camera on that trip. At the time it opened in 1902, the 22-floor, steel-framed triangular-shaped building was considered to be a groundbreaking skyscraper. We took a little respite at Madison Square Park (at the intersection of 5th Avenue, Broadway, and 23rd Street), a.k.a. a nap, before continuing on our walk.
We met up with Jack and Fay, daughters Camille and Genny, and Genny’s friend, for drinks at Narcissa Restaurant (25 Cooper Square). We had a great time, marveling at the fact that we could end up in New York City at the same time and being able to get together.
Afterwards, since we were already downtown or in Lower Manhattan, we walked all the way back to Little Italy. I can assure you that we easily logged ten thousand or more steps that day. Our friend Sandy recommended The Egg Shop (151 Elizabeth Street, 646.666.0810) since it was in our neighborhood. Her mother, who had recently visited New York, had gone to and liked The Egg Shop. So we had a late dinner at this cute little café that serves – you guessed it – all kinds of dishes, especially creatively concocted sandwiches, made with organic and locally sourced eggs. It was a quiet way to end another packed day of walking and touring.