Monday, January 8, 2024

My Sycamore

Another selection from Food, Clay, Wood 

A grand sycamore stood sentinel by the sidewalk at the front lawn of the colonial revival house where I grew up in central New Jersey. The entire Levitt planned community was planted with this and a handful of other species, and they must have been fairly large in 1967 because I could easily climb them a decade later. I would hang out in one particular sycamore along the sidewalk. It had low limbs, evenly spaced, and was very easy to hoist up and into. I went as high as I possibly could, hugged the main trunk and let it sway in the breeze as I twisted along with it. My neighbors claimed that I would sing opera up there, which may be true. Eventually I nailed a plank of wood into the main V-section about 20 feet up as a seat. It’s still there, the wood grew around it, and 45 years later is almost completely engulfed. The lowest limb is now maybe 40 feet up; it’s a massive tree today.

What I liked most about my tree was its resonance. You could rap any limb, with your ear up against the bark and it would offer distinct mellifluous tones. You couldn’t get a conventional scale out of it, but definitely worth slapping and knocking. I like to imagine that the tree knew me, responded to my moods, maybe even hugged me, as I definitely did its limbs. I came to know that strange mottled bark so intimately and even saved pieces as they peeled off.

After college, when I moved home between degrees, I spent more time in the tree. I wrote up there. I even threw parties in it. At one point there were 6 or 7 people in the tree, drinking cocktails hoisted up in Ziplock bags, and snacks in little bowls. I started dating the woman who is now my wife right up in that tree. I went away of course, eventually so did my parents, literally. Until recently, I still visited the tree, thousands of miles from the other coast where I live now. The last time I saw it was long before I started carving, and a limb fell off. I took a few tiny pieces. What I would give now for that whole limb! Sycamore, as it turns out, is utterly gorgeous wood, with a clear set of rings, but also tiny vertical lines cutting across them that create a gorgeous pattern in carved wood. Even the smell of that tree I think I could recognize blindfolded.

I say all this because I think people can have very intimate relationships with other living beings that don’t react like pets, but in a very different primordial way. When I encounter a huge old copper beach or a valley oak where I live now, it’s more awe inspiring and intense than seeing a large animal. Just knowing they were alive hundreds of years ago thrills me. In the case of the towering redwoods in the California foothills, they were around at time of Plato. They stand as living witnesses to the past - if you are willing to listen.

I say all this because I have a deep empathy for wood. So it felt strange the first time I carved it. Some trees have deep pink striated flesh that resembles tuna or rare beef. Sometimes wood will be so fresh and wet that it seems to bleed, or practically splashes with the fall of the axe. This isn’t a bad feeling. It’s no different than butchering an animal. I’ve never killed a large mammal but taking one apart I truly enjoy, cutting around the bones, following the sinews connecting to muscle tissue. The same is true of wood and its own internal structure. When a limb falls down in a storm, I’m happy to make use of it. Or when a tree needs pruning.

That’s exactly how I got into carving in the first place. Two olive trees – Scylla and Charybdis, so named because I planted them too close together. Today they not only can’t be disentangled, but steering between them is treacherous, especially when trying to pick the olives. A really low branch needed to come off as it stuck out over the sidewalk, and I thought, this is such nice wood, something must be done with it. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I had a pocketknife. And I so wish I hadn’t ruined so much of that beautiful wood. But a few of these early olive wood spoons I still use. It carved so wonderfully that I believe I have never worked with a finer wood.

All this is to say that a tree you know well, have harvested fruit from, see every day perhaps, or best of all planted with your own hands, is one whose wood you will respect and cut with care. Even those in my neighborhood, I treat with a certain reverence, and knowing full well that a branch will end up chopped and used as compost, gives me great satisfaction knowing something else might be done with it. At times I’ve been tempted to knock on people’s doors, not to ask if I could take some wood, but to say I already did pick up a branch on the curb, and carved it, and here’s a spoon, thanks so much. There is actually no feeling better than giving someone a spoon or anything handmade for that matter, and knowing they will be using it for a long time to come.


Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Food Clay Wood: An Excerpt


This week I started writing a new book, and I thought I'd share a brief essay from it. Here goes: 

Beauty and the Graceful Line


It sounds a little silly nowadays to be talking about Beauty with a capital B in universal terms. We are so used to setting everything in historical context, being careful to understand the culture that produced an object without our own blinkered prejudices. We do this for good reason: it’s difficult to escape the way our own culture shapes our judgement, since we are so embedded in our own time and place and so swayed by the forces of fashion. We are hesitant to judge at all after so many centuries of revering great masters as canons of taste. Swinging in the complete opposite direction, the Romantics insisted that only the direct imitation of nature, even if gruesome, can serve as an objective standard, that which evokes emotion because it strikes us at the core without the intervention of intellectual rationale, or taste – which is just a byword for status. This was the complaint the energetic Baroque had with the cool intellectualism of 16th century Mannerism, and how 19th century Romantics rejected the Enlightenment, by turning to nature.

Nature does indeed offer lessons for craft, if not precisely in the way a painter approaches a landscape or a human body. We find objects beautiful precisely because they are well fitted to carry out specific functions. In nature, a flower is beautiful because it offers color, aroma, inviting form to the bee, who finds it beautiful and spreads pollen for the plant. WE find it beautiful for the same reason, though of course with added cultural baggage.

So too is there beauty in objects. It is not so simple that form should follow function as architect Louis Sullivan insisted, but that certain material dictate certain shapes, or they simply collapse or refuse to work. A teapot may be gorgeous but if it doesn’t pour, it’s not a teapot – I’ve made a few of those. It may be art, but that’s an entirely different topic. Here I am concerned with the relationship between objective standards of beauty and the utility of everyday objects. If we simply say everything is beautiful, then there are no standards and we are subjected to hideousness and filth.

What then constitutes Beauty? Let’s begin with the line. They come curved, straight, bent, twisted and curled. Each exists in nature and for quite specific reasons. In my own backyard there are grape vines that stretch out and tightly grab anything with little curled tendrils that support the plant’s desire to stretch outward. The leaves thus achieve maximum exposure to the sun, and the result is sensuous curvaceous vines. The bamboo has an entirely different strategy, it busts straight upward as fast as it can in a week or two growing 50 or 60 feet, and then pops out leaves that are so high up, nothing can shade them. The higher it goes, the thicker the stem needs to be and some can be a foot in diameter. Each is beautiful in its own very unique way.

Leonardo da Vinci appreciated this. He drew the swirls of the horsehair equisetum plant and wondered why the whorls were similar to the eddies in gushing rivers, and the flow of blood coursing through our bodies. I think he was considering precisely what physical properties can be considered universally Beautiful. Skeptics of course will point out that appreciating such forms is a cultural value, even nature itself is culturally constructed. What one people find beautiful is strange or meaningless to another. The Enlightenment philosophe Voltaire quipped about this in his Philosophical Dictionary when he asked what is the To Kalon, or ideal form of beauty. To a frog it’s a green complexion and bulging eyes. He was calling for a relativistic approach, to each his own. But Voltaire entirely misses the point, that frogs are eminently beautiful – their slippery skin, their bulging legs perfectly designed for jumping, their circumspective eyes.

How does this relate to human made objects? Let’s turn to pottery. If you lift the walls of a clay vessel, either wheel thrown or hand built, straight upward, eventually the form will twist and buckle and then probably collapse. To prevent this you have to make the walls so thick that the vessel is blunt and too heavy to use. But if you give the pot a shoulder or hip (ceramic forms are often anthropomorphized) so it bulges toward the top or bottom, the pot gains structural integrity. But it also becomes beautiful, the line becomes sensuous, much like the bend of a spoon, and it becomes stronger, lighter and more functional. An acute angle in a pot wall or spoon compromises its use. A bent spoon will spill soup in your lap. A pot that flares out at the top too sharply will flop down through the force of gravity. The “well wrought urn” is not curved because that’s the way the Greeks did it, but the Greeks did it that way because they had to. So did the Chinese masters of the Song Dynasty and potters of Seagrove, South Carolina. The vase turns out to be a great example of Beauty.

I hear your objections. Aren’t there awkward angles in pots, and forms intended to disturb or shock the viewer/user? Obviously in museum art, but I’m not so sure about utilitarian wares. Think of food, it must be palatable, meaning it can’t contain sherds of glass or metal, and it can’t be laced with arsenic, or it’s no longer food. But don’t some cultures adore foods that others abhor? Yes, but anyone can learn to overcome those culturally learned preferences, just like they can learn to like coffee or whiskey, or unlearn our instinctive predilection for sweetness. I mean, a baby would happily eat a worm if offered by a parent. Does that mean that there are some foods that are universally Beautiful for all cultures and all times in history. Of course there are, just as there are dreadful foods people learn to love – I’ll take a marshmallow peep or gummy candy any day.

I argue that certain flavors, combinations of ingredients, cooking and preserving methods are universally tasty. Maybe some don’t like too much heat, or are genetically averse to cilantro, but think of that innate preference for sugar. Or think of how smokey flavors are hardwired into our limbic brain after millennia of  cooking over fire. Or even take a food spread around the world – like pasta, which is universally Beautiful. If anyone tells you they don’t like pasta, they are either on a low carb diet or lying. I would say the same for an elegantly sloping bowl, just holding it in your hands gives instinctive pleasure, as does the graceful arc of a well carved spoon. These transcend all time, space and cultural prejudice.

Tuesday, November 8, 2022


I realize I haven't posted in months! This is what I've been up to. Carving spoons. It took me a long time to get decent at it. Today I counted, 80 spoons so far since the spring. I intend to get a book out of this, provisionally called FOOD CLAY WOOD. I just started writing. Stay tuned. In the meantime the Gelatin book is in the warehouse and ready to be shipped! And the cookbook now entitled OPULENT NOSH is about to be contracted. All ready to go. 

Monday, February 7, 2022

Macaron Tartare avec creme de raifort et roquette

 My first shot at macaron and a bit lumpy, no smooth top and no "legs" but they taste very good, with raspberry jam everyone ate them happily. But mine I filled with this chopped filet mignon. It has very little flavor when cooked as a steak, only softness. But that makes it ideal for eating raw. 

The sweet almond flavor of the macaron with meat makes me think of medieval flavor combinations, and if there had been a little spice to it, definitely so. As it was, the compliment of the bitter green and pungent horseradish went perfectly. 

Friday, November 19, 2021



I can't imagine I'm the first person to stumble on this wordplay, but the flavor combo is truly delightful. Takoyaki with octopus of course, in a taco with pico de gallo, cheese, mayo and sauce on top. 

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Plum Crumble in Bourbon Campari Jello with honeyed yogurt.

Recipe: 1 c whole wheat pastry flour, 1 c unrefined sugar, 1 stick butter. Crumbled up. 4 sliced black and green plums on top, baked 350 1 hr. 3/4 c bourbon, 1/4 c campari, 1 tbs gelatin. Dissolve gel in 1/4 liquid, heat the rest, pour over, let cool. Pour over chilled pie. Chill. Dizzyingly luscious. The bottom is like a sugar cookie, crunchy on the outside and chewy inside.