Flowers in the fall: from October to Thanksgiving and into December

A garden to walk in and immensity to dream in – what more could he ask? A few flowers at his feet and above him the stars.
– Victor Hugo, from Les Misérables

It’s almost Christmas, and I have not posted the last of the season’s bouquets. This year, thanks to soil amendment, a drip system, new flowers in the garden, and good care taking, I created bouquets right through autumn and up to Thanksgiving. In truth, although by early November I was only getting a bouquet a week, I could probably eek out a bouquet here and there still.

But all good things come to an end, and the joy of gardening will be the return of spring next year. So in the meantime, here are the final bouquets of the season to enjoy and to carry me through winter.

An October 11th bouquet for my friend Joann next to an autumn gourd made by my cousin Janet.

Close up with the last of the dahlias (yellow) and baby’s breath and the purple scabiosas.

The other side of the bouquet, topped by monster straw flowers, which are still going strong, albeit more petite than in the summer.

Even in October, the miniature roses from Trader Joe’s were going crazy.

Bi-color miniature roses in bloom.

An October 14th bouquet with fabric pumpkins.

Lots of zinnias and my favorite scabiosa.

A vase full of African daisies,which are still producing in December.

An October 16th bouquet for Joann.

Zinnia close-up with yellow stars.

October 23rd bouquet for Joann.

I love this peachy-pink miniature rose in the middle of the bouquet.

Another miniature rose, this one cream colored, peeking out of the lip of the vase.

Hot pink and deep purple complement one another.

An abundant October 27th bouquet for Joann. Lots of zinnias and straw flowers.

Another view of the zinnias, spread out like colorful open umbrellas.

The Halloween – October 31st – bouquet!

Just one more zinnia close-up.

No, this zinnia close-up….

The first November bouquet, which looks like a splash of spring colors!

Those scabiosas and zinnias again.

The other side of the November 6th bouquet, with dianthus.

The dianthus is hanging in there still.

Another full bouquet, November 11th, for Joann.

A fall flower, the rudbeckia.herta, cherry brandy.

A close-up.

The other side of the November 11th bouquet.


Looking down on this bouquet – deep purples, pinks, blues, and oranges.

A Thanksgiving bouquet.

Thanksgiving bouquet, November 23rd, with white echinacea.

We hosted Thanksgiving this year. When my in-laws went home the next day, we gave them this bouquet.

Another close-up.

Thanksgiving 2017 comes to a close.

Well, it’s December 2nd, and we are hosting our annual birthday dinner for our friend Soizic. No bouquets to be had, but a platter of miniature bouquets will suffice nicely. This time with a holiday backdrop.

The lovely ruckbeckia hirta, cherry brandy and purple echinacea.

Another close-up with baby’s breath, miniature roses, straw flowers, dianthus, rudbeckia, scabiosa, yellow gaillardia, and helenium auturnale red shades.

And now our platter of miniature bouquets sits next to the beautiful birthday cake from Masse’s Pastries in the Gourmet Ghetto in Berkeley. A treasured tradition!

In the morning, the top view of the miniature bouquet. Until spring….


48-hour whirlwind East Coast weekend: the Boston Book Festival and the Boston Filipino-American Book Club

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
 – Robert Frost, American poet, from “The Road Not Taken”

Waiting for my red-eye flight to Boston at Oakland International Airport.

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.

At some point in October, my husband, David, suggested that I use up points and fly to Boston the weekend of the book club meeting. At first, I dismissed the idea. I’m not spontaneous, I pointed out, echoing a famous line of mine from my college days. But as the days went by, I started to warm up to the idea. However, I didn’t want to burden anyone with my visit. When I finally reached out to Grace and Bren, they were enthusiastic and welcoming of the visit. So I booked my flight and was looking forward to the trip. My job has been very stressful these past few months and I pulled two near-all-nighters the week before my planned visit. In fact, that Thursday evening, I worked until the early morning. I wasn’t sure then if it was a good idea to be going away. But David noted that I needed to get out, that being around book lovers would be a welcome change and just the community that I needed to be in the midst of.
So I took the red-eye from Oakland to JFK in New York and caught the next leg to Boston. (An aside: It turned out that the woman sitting across the aisle from me was headed for the Boston Book Festival. Her publishing company, New York-based Other Press, was hosting a tent, which is where she brought up recognizing me on her flight. She noticed that I was reading Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere.) Grace and a good friend of hers picked me up at the airport, and we had a nice breakfast at the Eastern Standard, an elegant French-period appointed restaurant on Commonwealth Avenue in the heart of Kenmore Square, which is on the other side of the highway from Fenway Park. Afterwards, Grace dropped me off at Copley Square, site of the Boston Book Festival, a one-day event of talks and panels, tents filled with myriad publishers, and book signings! I was in heaven and the weather was perfect – fall chill in the air, changing colors of the trees. There were multiple sessions that overlapped, so I had to make some difficult decisions.

Fall at the entrance of the Eastern Standard restaurant.

Of course, I had to get a picture of me near Fenway Park (courtesy of Grace Talusan).

Rapping with Shakespeare.

My introduction to the festival was listening to The Shakespeare Time-Traveling Speakeasy. During 2016-2017, Shakespeare to Hiphop (literary performers and TEDx Boston alumni Regie Gibson and Marlon Carey) partnered with the Boston Public Library to celebrate the great bard. The result is The Shakespeare Time-Traveling Speakeasy: “an all-new presentation combining American jazz-funk-country-pop and hip-hop with poetry, song, storytelling, rap, and Shakespeare’s own words.” Their performance was entertaining and crowd-pleasing.

Checking out the different tents and publishers.

Food truck at Copley Square.

I walked around the tents, checking out the various local presses, and then I walked over to the Church of the Covenant to hear the fiction keynote featuring Claire Messud and Jacqueline Woodson discuss their recently released coming-of-age novels, The Burning Girl, and Another Brooklyn, respectively. Both read excerpts from their novels. According to the book festival program: “The mutability of memory, the swift passage of time, the use of stories to make sense of experience, the treacherous landscape of female adolescence, and the simultaneous vitality and volatility of teenage girls’ friendships – these are common threads that run through these narratives, as both writers draw perceptive, unsentimental portraits of young women growing up and growing apart.”

Church of the Covenant.

What a thrill to hear Claire Messud and Jacqueline Woodson read from their new works, and in such a beautiful setting as this old church.

I couldn’t stay for any book signings afterwards. I would have had to stand in a long line, considering how packed the church was for their keynote. I dashed back to Trinity Forum to catch the “Voices of American: The Immigrant Experience Through a Writer’s Eyes” session, which featured Ha Jin, Marjan Kamali, and Grace. I have read Ha Jin’s books, including Waiting, which won the National Book Award for fiction in 1999. I picked up Marjan’s novel, Together Tea, which is about the matchmaking exploits of an Iranian woman’s parents. And I look forward to Grace’s memoir to come out next year. Grace read an excerpt about her father’s childhood in the Philippines that was gripping, heartbreaking, and beautifully written. My heart was literally in my throat as she read, which is how I define meaningful storytelling – the kind that stays with you, that you turn over and over in your head at night and for days. The three panelists talked about being immigrant writers, and while Marjan wished to be thought of as a writer and not “labeled” as an Iranian-American writer, I applauded Grace’s response: There are few Asian-American writers; she is more than happy to take on that mantle to draw more attention to the stories of Asian Americans, of Filipino Americans.

A very packed room for Ha Jin, Marjan Kamali, and Grace Talusan.

Marjan Kamali signing books after the session. I forgot to take Ha Jin’s up-close photo!

Once I briefly met Ha Jin and Marjan, I dashed to the Boston Public Library. I wasn’t able to catch the session “Fiction: Missed Connections,” with Eshkol Novo, Celeste Ng, and Lily Tuck, but I decided that getting their books signed was more important. I ended up reading a good chunk of Celeste’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, on my long plane ride back home the following evening. It’s a beautiful novel, both in character revelation and insight and in her writing. I wasn’t familiar with Lily Tuck, but I picked up her latest novel, the slim Sisters, which I read in one sitting that night. I appreciated the structure of what I consider a novella, and I learned a lot about crafting intense short scenes/chapters. Another writer to read more of her previous works!

The front of the Boston Public Library.

Courtyard in the Boston Public Library – a building we didn’t go into when my family and I vacationed in Boston in 2010.

Lily Tuck signing her slim novel, Sisters, for me.

Celeste Ng signing her new novel, Little Fires Everywhere, for me.

I completely missed “Freeman’s: The Future of New Writing.” John Freeman, literary critic, poet, and former Granta editor, is a childhood classmate of one of my favorite local proprietors, Jen Komaromi of Jenny K. I wished I could have attended, but it was time for me to head on over to Bren’s place in Cambridge. I caught a Lyft and met my gracious hosts, Bren and Bob, in their beautiful turn-of-the-century flat. The trees had already changed colors and it was cold. Perfect fall weather. Bren grew up in the Bay Area and is now a successful painter and muralist. He and Brian share the distinction of being one of the first couples to be married in Massachusetts when same-sex marriage was legal. While they had a dance performance to attend that evening, I was perfectly happy to cozy up on the couch and read Sisters in one sitting. And then cat-nap and catch the World Series.

Thinking of my daughter, Isabella, as I took a picture of the hare statue in Copley Square minus the tortoise.

Old South Church across from the Boston Public Library.

In the morning, after my error of telling Bren and Bob that the weekend before Halloween was Daylight Savings time was discovered, we had enough time to right the ship, get ready, and head on over to hosts Rory and Jane’s home to enjoy a Sunday brunch and discuss my novel. I was in awe of all the great food that was on the table. What a wonderful tradition of a having a potluck brunch with Filipino food such as puto and a rice dish that was supposed to feature Spam (Anna, who brought the dish apologized for not being able to find the tin of Spam in her kitchen). I met some wonderful people and new friends. I felt so welcomed. Rather than drain me, my short whirlwind weekend energized me. I was surrounded by books, book lovers, writers, my Filipino American community, warm hospitality. What more could a writer ask for? Maraming salamat, dear new friends!

Meeting host Rory Dela Paz and Anna (courtesy of Bren Bataclan).

Enjoying Filipino food and conversation (courtesy of Bren Bataclan).

New and long-standing members of the Boston Filipino American Book Club (courtesy of Bren Bataclan).

Talking about my book (courtesy of Bren Bataclan).

Members of the Boston Filipino-American Book Club and their tasty spread hosted by Jane and Rory Dela Paz.

Saying goodbye to this artistic couple, photographer Alonso Nichols and memoirist and fiction writer Grace Talusan (courtesy of Bren Bataclan).

Celebrating Cesar Chavez Day, University of CA, Office of the President

On Wednesday, March 29th, I was the guest speaker at a lunchtime event sponsored by the Latino Staff Association/Asian Pacific Islander Association affinity groups at the University of California, Office of the President (UCOP). The event, entitled, “When Mexicans and Filipinos Join Together: The Farmworker Movement and Unity in the Making,” was in celebration of Cesar Chavez Day. After reading an excerpt from my novel, A Village in the Fields, I sat down with Belinda Vea, Policy and Program Analyst in Student Affairs for UCOP who did her graduate work on Filipino literature, in an “in conversation” question-and-answer session. Belinda is also co-chair of the Asian Pacific Islander Association.

Among other topics, Belinda asked me about the research process and my family’s story within the novel. The floor was opened up to questions from the audience, which numbered between 45 and 50, which was really nice to see. It was gratifying not only to respond to such thoughtful questions, but to see the interest in people’s faces. In addition to UCOP employees, the event was also advertised to employees from Kaiser Permanente, whose building was across the street in downtown Oakland.

I’m posting photos taken of the event, with gratitude to the photographers, Juliann Martinez, Employee Relations Specialist and chair of the Latino Staff Association, who kindly extended the invitation to speak, Alina Tejera, Pamela Palpallatoc, and Ben Tsai, co-chair with Belinda of the APIA.

The flyer advertising the event.

A wonderful poster welcoming the audience.

A nice spread of Filipino and Mexican cuisine.

A very nice slide show of Filipino and Mexican farm workers was shown before the event.

Reading an excerpt from my novel.

A close-up of my reading.

Belinda Vea “in conversation” with me after my reading.

Belinda at the ready with her questions.

One of the things I talked about was the value taking Asian American Studies classes at UC Davis both in my personal life and in my writing.

An animated me answering a questions while the audience leans in.

A beautiful basket of vegetables and two of my books were raffle prizes at the end of the event.

Me with Pamela Palpallatoc, who works for UCOP and is a UC Davis alumna.

Talking beyond the lunch hour about Filipino American history.

My hosts – Belinda Vea, Ben Tsai, and Juliann Martinez.

LUNAFEST East Bay – 10 years, by the numbers

I think the best role models for women are people who are fruitfully and confidently themselves, who bring light into the world.
– Meryl Streep, American actress

As LUNAFEST East Bay wraps up its LUNAFEST season, it’s worthwhile to look at the committee’s impressive 10-year run.

Our VIP event.

Nineteen filmmakers have attended our film festival since its inception in 2008.

In 2015, Emily Fraser and Katherine Gorringe, were our guest filmmakers.

LUNAFEST screened a total of 89 short films “by, for, about women.”

The Lunafest filmmakers for the 2014-2015 season, at the San Francisco premiere at the Palace of Fine Arts.

Two hundred attendees came in 2008. Last year, 377 filled the El Cerrito High School’s Performing Arts Theater. The final numbers haven’t come out yet for this year, but we’re looking at approximately 325 people.

A full house once again!

LUNAFEST East Bay has raised $32,053 in its 10 years for the Breast Cancer Fund, now called the Breast Cancer Prevention Partners.

Jeanne Rizzo, RN, president and CEO of the Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, spoke at our 2015 event. She is amazing, energetic, and inspiring!

The committee raised $13,984 for El Cerrito High School’s Information Technology Academy (ITA), which has purchased, among other things, a 3D printer for the ITA students. LUNAFEST East Bay began funding the ITA in 2012.

The ITA students served food and greeted guests at the VIP event. They sold raffle tickets, checked in ticket holders, helped with the raffle prizes, and did so many other tasks during the evening that made for a smooth event. Thank you, ITA and committee members Melody Shah and Crystal Ngo, who oversaw the students.

At least 151 attendees filled out our 2017 survey. While many attendees hailed from El Cerrito (62), Berkeley (20), Richmond (17), Albany (14), and Oakland (13) were well represented at our event. For 31 people, it was their first LUNAFEST. Four people have attended all 10 screenings. Twenty people have gone five times, while 24 have gone three times, and 26 have gone twice.

Happy campers anticipate the 2017 screening.

How did our attendees find out about LUNAFEST? For 74, word of mouth made a difference. Emails drew 31 attendees, while the infamous “other” lured 47 attendees. One-hundred forty-four affirmed that they enjoyed the films, with 150 saying that they would tell a friend about next year’s LUNAFEST. So if you came this year or came in previous years but had a conflict this year, be sure to come next year and tell a friend. We’ll see you next year!

LUNAFEST in review – oh what a night!

Every accomplishment begins with the decision to try.
– John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States

Ten years ago, LUNAFEST East Bay was created, chaired by the indefatigable, ever resourceful, community leader Joann Steck-Bayat. This year, LUNAFEST toasted its first decade of bringing the traveling, fundraising film festival to El Cerrito. What a major accomplishment. And we are the richer for it. In the course of watching fabulous, funny, thought-provoking, moving short films “by, for, about women,” we have learned about environmental risks for breast cancer and supported research done by the Breast Cancer Fund, our main beneficiary.

As we enlarged our world view by watching films by women filmmakers all over the world, we raised money for El Cerrito High School’s Information Technology Academy (ITA) to purchase such equipment as a 3D printer and supplies. We were moved and exhilarated watching the short film that the ITA students put together to let us know how the money we raised for their program enriched them and enabled them to realize their creative dreams and carry out their technological projects.

We got to know, as one of this year’s guest filmmakers, Diane Weipert, noted, some “kick-ass” women who are making important films that speak to a woman’s point of view and are making noise to be heard. We hear!

The morning after, as I looked at all the photos that I and my behind-the-scenes LUNAFEST partner and husband took, I knew that I would let the photos tell the story of yet another successful LUNAFEST film festival. I ran into a friend as I walked our dog Sunday afternoon in the neighborhood. She called out, “Brava!” Another fine show. Thank you to my LUNAFEST committee members, our guest filmmakers – Lara Everly and Diane Weipert – to our families and the ITA students who helped us out, and to our wonderful community who welcomes us every year.

LUNAFEST filmmaker Diane Weipert and her son, Theo.

Welcome to the LUNAFEST VIP event! Our bubbly committee member Jeannine Pagan is ready to check you in.

Tanner Nevill, committee member Stephanie Nevill’s husband, is ready to hand VIP’ers their glass of champagne to toast 10 years of LUNAFEST East Bay.

Our ITA student greets our VIP guests.

Our LUNAFEST VIP event was catered this year by Joanne Bailey, owner and chef of J Gourmet Catering.

ITA servers offer vegetarian stuffed mushrooms and pulled pork sliders with coleslaw.

VIP attendees getting their raffle tickets.

LUNAFEST committee member Peggy Murphy is excited about the 10 raffle prize packages.

Our scheduled piano player didn’t show up, but one of the ITA students tickled the ivories in a pinch. Note the tip jar – a LUNAFEST East Bay VIP event staple!

Nice spread of fruit, veggies, cheese and bread and crackers, thanks to LUNAFEST committee member Stephanie Nevill.

The weather cooperated and many guests enjoyed the outdoors.

Our cheerful bartenders and runner – LUNAFEST committee member Rebecca
Boe’s son and husband and Hossein Bayat, committee chair Joann’s husband.

Our veteran raffle ticket sellers at the VIP event – Dylan and Wyatt, sons of committee members Anja Hakoshima and Peggy Murphy.

Anja’s husband, Tom, and son, Dylan, assist VIP guests on which raffle packages are the most popular – such as the $100 gift certificate to Chez Panisse.

Selfie with LUNAFEST filmmaker Lara Everly and Elease Lui Stemp, producer of Lara’s film, Free to Laugh.

Committee member Carol Seuferer and former committee member Rhoda Haberman.

Chatting it up outside where the temperature was pleasant.

Peggy, Stephanie, and Hazel Nevill – her first LUNAFEST as raffle ticket seller!

It’s time to head to the El Cerrito High School Performing Arts Theater. ECHS alumna Anna Schumacher, who was also a LUNAFEST filmmaker last year, was our master of ceremonies, and our guest filmmakers were Lara Everly and Diane Weipert.

Time to interview Diane and Lara on stage before the film screening (photo credit: David Rossi).

Diane discusses what inspired her short film, Ninera – her experience as a new mom amid the Latina nannies who were taking care of children other than their own (photo credit: David Rossi).

Lara talks about wanting to highlight an underserved community – women who were formerly incarcerated – in her short film, Free to Laugh (photo credit: David Rossi).

I really enjoyed how passionate Diane and Lara were when talking about their film projects and why they are so relevant in today’s world (photo credit: David Rossi).

Diane listens with rapt attention as Lara talks about her next project, Patriettes, about an undocumented girl who gets kicked out of the mock government summer camp. Lots of respect for each other’s work – and deservedly so! (photo credit: David Rossi)

Lara agrees with Diane about how politics is central to what they are creating – and how important it is to be vigilant about these issues, especially in today’s political climate (photo credit: David Rossi).

During intermission, the ITA table was covered by ITA lead teacher and LUNAFEST East Bay committee member Melody Shah and English teacher and committee member Crystal Ngo, with one of the ITA students.

Last chance to view the raffle prize packages!

Attendees knew where to go to get the scrumptious Braxtons’ Boxes baked goods in the lobby.

The best baked goods ever by Pamela Braxton and her son Zachary of Braxtons’ Boxes.

The films are done and now it’s time to announce the raffle ticket winners! Peggy entertained us while the ITA kids helped out. Side note – that’s my son, Jacob, trying to be cool on stage.

Somebody went home with this gorgeous and enormous bouquet of flowers.

The Pine family – Tim and Anne Marie and daughters Charlotte and Maddie – make it a family night at LUNAFEST. Thanks for coming out and supporting our film festival!

Joanne Bailey: cooking from the heart and home

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.

J. Gourmet Catering catered my 50th birthday party. The food is ready to be served (photo credit: Kelly Whitney).

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.”

The food is all gone – no surprise (photo credit: Kelly Whitney).

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.

Joanne Bailey by her works of art – at my friend Raissa’s 50th birthday party in January (photo credit: David Rossi).

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.

Joanne loves to talk about food – here with Raissa’s husband, Mike (photo credit: Kelly Whitney).

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.