Around the World with Paola, By Heart

She was born in Columbia and raised in New Jersey before she moved to the Netherlands where she now writes about France. Meet Paola Westbeek, the international adventurer who followed her heart halfway around the globe to find a lifestyle that fit her perfectly from the inside out.

Meet Paola and her adorable pup, Pastis!

Diving into a European culture and lifestyle as an American isn’t easy but Paola makes it look like a piece of cake, two times over. She not only moved abroad but fell in love, went to school, had a baby, learned two new languages and started a journalism career steeped in the history of her foreign country. Living and working in the Netherlands and France, Paola’s journey through the past twenty years is an inspiring example of letting your instincts lead you to the people and places that will ultimately define you best. In today’s interview, we learn the courageous story of how Paola discovered life in the Netherlands and then discovered herself in France. She also offers some travel suggestions for anyone interested in exploring the cities beyond Paris and shares a recipe for one of her most favorite wintertime soups. It’s a bon vivant adventure of the most bright and beautiful sort as Paola lovingly discusses her “heart’s home,” how she got there, and how she plans to stay creatively wrapped up in her world of intuition.

In The Vintage Kitchen: So you live in the Netherlands but you write about France. How did all this come about?

Paola: Well, first of all, I married a Dutchman! In 1997, I left New Jersey as a nineteen-year-old girl and moved to the Netherlands to be with my then boyfriend. A year later, we were married and I knew I wanted to stay here. I fell in love with the European way of life. Everything just seemed more laid-back. And I became fascinated with the culture and history of the Netherlands. So much so, that I studied Dutch language and culture at the University of Leiden, one of the top universities in the country (very proud I got accepted!). In four years’ time, I had read almost every significant piece of Dutch literature (even 17th-century writers such as Vondel and P.C. Hooft), I was a regular at almost every major museum, and in 2007 I received my specialization in Dutch art history of the Golden Age. I had always imagined I would end up working at the Rijksmuseum, but instead, I followed my heart and started writing.

The lovely city of Leiden.

As a child, my biggest dream was to become a writer. I remember putting together little books and magazines, and making the covers out of cracker boxes. At the beginning of my writing career, I mostly wrote about food in Dutch art and culture, but also about travel, lifestyle and even wine. After a few years of writing for the magazine, DUTCH (published in Canada and the U.S.)…

I was offered the job of editor-in-chief a wonderful opportunity to use all the knowledge I had acquired during my studies in Leiden. And I even worked as a recipe writer and contributed more than 350 recipes for the top women’s Dutch weekly, Vriendin.

Though I briefly studied at the Journalism School in Utrecht (Hogeschool voor de Journakistiek), my writing career developed mostly through passion and motivation. In the last two years or so, I’ve started to really focus my writings on one of my other passions France!

Recently Paola launched her own website devoted entirely to her love of France. Visit her here.

What is it about France that makes you love it so much?

What do I love about France? Everything! I feel like more of myself when I’m there. Quieter. Centered. More relaxed. I also love French food and wine, of course. And the music (I am beyond madly in love with Charles Aznavour and will be seeing him in March excited!). 

Oh, and by the way, France has some pretty amazing beauty products. Walk into any random French pharmacy and you will find the best creams, lotions and potions to look beautiful without ever even having to think about Botox! 

On your website, you mention that you were born in Colombia and were raised in the U.S. How very cool! Where did you live in the States? Do you still feel connected to Colombia in any way?

My parents emigrated to New Jersey when I was a baby, and I only visited Colombia once when I was six years old. However, my parents were very much Colombians and never forgot their roots. I feel more American than Colombian though, even though I am now Dutch but my heart is French! Sorry to confuse you! Haha!

{Side note: In a very strange case of coincidence, through this interview, Paola and I discovered that we lived in the very same town (a small hamlet, really) in New Jersey. At the same time Paola was moving to the Netherlands to be with her love, I was moving to New Jersey to be with my love. New Jersey never gets recognized as a conduit of romance, but maybe it really is!}

Tell us a little bit about life in the Netherlands. In what ways does it make you feel different than when you are spending time in France?

I love the sense of freedom in the Netherlands and that the Dutch are so down-to-earth. Life is pretty good here, but the only thing I don’t like that much is that the country is small and crowded. As soon as I cross the border into France, I feel like I can breathe!

Paola’s gorgeous French vistas.

What keeps you in the Netherlands as opposed to living in France full-time?

My daughter is still in high school and a move isn’t really smart at this point. Plus, my husband has a great job and it would be foolish to leave that behind. For now, we’re just going with the flow and seeing where life takes us. Perhaps there will be a permanent move in the future or perhaps we will divide our time between the Netherlands and France. In the meantime, I’m there every chance I get whether with the family on vacation or for work.

For first-time travelers to France, what top 5 places (sites, cities, attractions, etc) would you recommend they experience first?

The Cote Chalonnaise region of France. Photo courtesy of mlc-vins.fr

As much as I love Paris, Paris isn’t all there is to France. If you really want to experience France, head to the countryside where life is good and lunch (complete with a glass of wine and dessert!) lasts two hours and costs very little! I would recommend you visit the Côte Chalonnaise’s vineyards (they produce pretty fantastic wines at a fraction of the price of the bigger Bourgogne wines from the Côte-d’Or)…

Read more about Paola’s excursions to Bergerac, France over on her website here. Photo courtesy of Paola Westbeek.

the beautiful city of Bergerac for a meal of magret de canard (duck breast) with a glass of Pécharmant,

The coastal town of Arachon, France

Arcachon for some oysters or…

Le Touquet-Paris-Plage, a gorgeous getaway town for Londoners and Parisians. Read about Paola’s favorite restaurants here.

Le Touquet-Paris-Plage (a ritzy coastal town in the north) and…

The medieval village of St. Marten located in the Ardeche region of Southwestern France.

the Ardèche’s picturesque villages.

If you could pick one city in which to live fulltime, which would you choose and why?

The gorgeous village of Duras – Paola’s ideal place.

Easy. Not a city, but the village of Duras in the Lot-et-Garonne. I was smitten by Duras when we first visited a decade ago, and we have spent our summers there every year since. It almost feels like I’ve lived there in a past life. It’s my heart’s home.

Does Pastis accompany you on all your travels?

Pastis!

Absolutely! He’s my second ‘child’ and I wouldn’t dream of leaving him anywhere. He gets a lot of attention in France because of his good looks, and because of his BIG mouth! Doxies are LOUD barkers!

Tell us a little bit about En Route magazine.

Paola writes a culinary column for En Route magazine . Her latest piece was this article about cheese from the Loire Valley.

En Route is one of the top magazines about France in the Netherlands. The magazine covers everything from French culture to travel and food and wine. I had been reading the magazine for quite a while and had even been interviewed by them before a meeting with editor Andy Arnts in 2015 resulted in getting my own culinary column.

I was over the moon! In my column Question de Goût, which I write in Dutch, I explore the history of French food and drink. I have written about the history of Bresse chicken, quiche, Agen prunes, salted caramel, kir, Brillat Savarin cheese and much more. Each column requires extensive research, which I love because I have always been a bit of a nerd. I learn so much! Recently, I also started writing travel articles for the magazine.

Last September, Paola focused her culinary column on Sainte-Maure de Touraine cheese.

What do you think are some common misconceptions about French food?

That it’s difficult to cook, too complicated and time-consuming, and too rich and heavy. Granted, it does take some skill to produce perfect sauces for example, and there’s nothing light about cassoulet or choucroute, but you have to remember that French cuisine is extremely varied. Whereas in the north they love their butter, cream and more substantial dishes, in the south (Provence, for example) they give preference to olive oil, sunny vegetables and seafood (the Mediterranean diet). If you want to cook like the French, it’s not so much about the traditional dishes, but about the style of cooking and eating. For the French, food is almost a religion. They are very picky about choosing the best products (they have amazing markets where you can find the freshest produce, beautiful meats and cheeses and fragrantly fresh herbs and spices), they prefer to eat according to the seasons and food is something which is fully enjoyed, meaning that you sit down at the table and savor every bite preferably with a glass of wine. I love that.

Paola’s French Onion Soup. Find the recipe on her site here.

Recently you posted a few photos on Instagram of your homemade French Onion soup. I know there are two versions – the brothy kind and the thicker, creamy kind that looks more like a potato soup. Tell us about your preference and why you make your soup the way you do.

Mine is somewhat in between. I have tasted my share of onion soups in France and I created this recipe based on my memories of the best ones. The key, as you can read in the recipe, is to cook the onions slowly so they release all their natural sweetness and infuse the broth with flavor. And my secret? A shot of Armagnac! I adore Armagnac and often drink it in France with an espresso after a dinner out.

If you could have a lengthy several course dinner in your beloved France with five famous people (living or dead) who would you choose and why?

Paola’s dream dinner companions: (clockwise from top left: Edith Piaf, Thomas Jefferson, John Lennon, Charles Aznavour, and Rembrandt

Charles Aznavour, bien sûr! His music touches my heart deeply. I could be having the most terrible day, and if I put on one of his records (yes, I prefer records!), it’s like instant happiness. The man is 93 years old and just as vital and beautiful as ever. Then in no particular order, Thomas Jefferson because he was such a HUGE Francophile and food and wine lover (see my blog post!), Edith Piaf because her life fascinates me and I love her music, Rembrandt because his work always moves me to tears (not joking, it’s pretty embarrassing to stand in front of one of his masterpieces the tears just start to flow!) and John Lennon because he’s my favorite Beatle and I am a major Beatles fan.

What is your most favorite French wine? Which types do you prefer to use in cooking and what would you recommend for an everyday table wine?

Grapes on the vine in a Cotes de Duras vineyard

The wines from Côtes de Duras are my favorite. The appellation produces quality wines which are somewhat similar to Bordeaux wines but much more affordable. There are reds, whites, rosés and sweet wines made by more than 200 passionate wine growers. Of course, the wines are especially dear to me because they come from ‘my heart’s home’.

One of Paola’s favorites.

Every time I sip a wine from Duras, I feel as though I’m back there. I serve them with weekday meals but also fancier dinners. As far as cooking with wine use good wine, it doesn’t have to be expensive, but it has to be good enough to drink! And never use special ‘cooking wine’ that is not meant for drinking!

ITVK: If you could write one article for En Route and you could choose whichever topic you liked, what would write about and why?

For my food columns, I pretty much have free reign, which is fantastic. One of my career dreams is to interview Charles Aznavour, for any publication interested! Although I wonder how I would ever keep it together!

ITVK: How has living in multiple foreign countries changed your viewpoint about the definition of the word home?

I consider myself a cosmopolitan woman. I often say that France (Duras) is my ‘heart’s home’… but my real home is with my family.

Paola, at home in her favorite place – Duras.

A very big thank you to Paola for sharing her passions and her kitchen stories with us. You can keep up with her daily adventures on instagram here as well as her French lifestyle blog, here.

Inspired to begin your own culinary exploration of France? Pop over to the Vintage Kitchen shop where you’ll find French treasures like these ready for new adventures…

From top left: Vintage 1970’s French cookbook, Vintage European Linen Napkins, Haviland Family Dishware and Antique Paris Street Maps

{Old} House Stories: An Interview with Ken Staffey

The Ephraim Burr Beers House, circa 1810 – Clapboard Hill, Westport CT. Read more history about this house here. Photo by Ken Staffey.

Nora Roberts once wrote “it was a mistake to think of houses, old houses, as being empty. They were filled with memories, with the faded echoes of voices. Drops of tears, drops of blood, the ring of laughter, the edge of tempers that had ebbed and flowed between the walls, into the walls, over the years. Wasn’t it, after all, a kind of life? They carried in their wood and stone, their brick and mortar a kind of ego that was nearly, very nearly, human.”

Recalling those faded voices, those human experiences, those memories, the forgotten details and the covered over contributions of the places that Nora nuanced, in today’s post we are tackling a discussion about the very interesting life found in and around old houses of early America as discovered by a modern day history lover. If you are a fan of any old house photo feeds on Instagram, chances are you have come across Ken Staffey’s gorgeous account simply called House Stories.

Ken features primarily photographs of historic homes in the Northeastern United States and dives into the interesting family histories behind them with a mix of interesting facts, personal details, and quirky insights. Most often he features houses from the 18th and 19th century that tell the story of how New England grew up. The places where merchants, farmers, sea captains, doctors, writers, politicians, extraordinary people and everyday citizens raised their families and found their footing among the blooming new frontier called the United States.

Located in Marblehead MA, the Sandin House was built in 1714 for fisherman William Sandin and his wife Joanna. Marblehead was once deemed the greatest town for fishing in New England.

From the bones that make up the frames of these centuries-old places, Ken has pulled stories about past occupants, owners, and architects; about city plans gone awry and country enterprises gone right; about dreams found and opportunities lost, about big events and tiny details, all of which remind us how the past is still very much present in our modern daily lives. We’ve caught up with Ken interview-style to learn more about his passion and his process of bringing history home. Included are his top-picks of places to visit for any architecture enthusiast and his thoughts on where current trends are headed when it comes to living with old houses in a new world.

{Note: Ken’s house photos have been featured throughout this interview. Click on each image to read Ken’s Instagram enties.}

In The Vintage Kitchen: What ignited your idea of posting house stories on Instagram?

Ken Staffey: In the beginning, I posted random photos like everyone else. I found that the house photos seemed to get the best response.  Then I started to add a bit of history along with each home and eventually it evolved into what it is today, House Stories – history told one house at a time.

This house was part of a planned community built in the 1870’s as imagined by Alexander Turney Stewart, a dry goods entrepreneur who emigrated from Ireland to New York.  Read more about this house here.

ITVK:  How do you decide which houses to feature?

KS: I pretty much photograph whatever catches my eye.  Later the challenge of finding some history that goes with the home is a big part of the fun. Just about all the homes I have featured date from the colonial period to about 1920.

In Ken’s post about the 1871 Wells-Catlin House, in Brookline, MA  he talks about the history behind the name of the town. Read more about it here.

ITVK:  Explain a little bit about your process of researching these old houses. Do you find that their histories are pretty easy to obtain or do you find yourself knee-deep in archive vaults and old records?

KS: Thankfully, I am never knee deep in archive vaults and old records, but I am often in deep with virtual equivalents, which is much easier thankfully.  Many old directories and records have been scanned and are now online.  Usually, I will just start with the address and see what I come up with there. Often once I get past the online real estate listing for a home, I can find something interesting about the home or its early occupants.  And thank God for historical societies and preservation groups that have not only saved these wonderful old homes but also recorded a good deal of their history.

Yale graduate Nathan Hale taught school in this shingled house in New London, CT in 1774, a few years before he was accused of being a spy and hung by the British Army during the Revolutionary War. The schoolhouse has been moved several times around town but through the support of the Connecticut Society of the Sons of the American Revolution it is being well maintained and offers tours for visitors.

ITVK: Do you ever speak with the property owners to learn more about each house? If not, do you think that most homeowners are aware of the interesting histories their homes have?

KS: Typically I do not speak with the property owners, but I have had a good handful of requests from owners to feature their homes.  They often know a bit of the history about their homes, but that sometimes can be inaccurate. One family had been retelling stories from their home’s history.  Once I dug a bit, I found that the history had been twisted in the retelling over the years, so it was fun to set the record straight for the owners.

City streets and neighborhoods, in particular, are home to a slew of fascinating stories with so many people moving in and out and coming and going. Ken writes about the history of this street in NYC’s West Village here.

ITVK: Do you live in a historic house yourself? If so, does your house have a fascinating story too?!

KS: I grew up in a house that was built in 1940 and since college, I have always been drawn to apartments in older buildings, most of them over a century old.  The home I now own is 89 years old and was built as part of a wave of new housing to accommodate the thousands of factory workers who found work in the once-thriving factories here in Bridgeport, Connecticut. My home is not historic and the funny thing is that I have never even tried to find any history. I do know that the same family owned the home for decades and people have told me a bit about them here and there.

ITVK:  What are three things that modern architecture lacks that all these great old houses contain?

KS: I am a big fan of all types of architecture, but I am partial to the homes of the past.  I think modern architecture has a style all its own, but what modern homes lack is a history and stories about the people that lived there and the surroundings.  Over time even the most modern of homes will have a story to tell.

One great example of a modern house having a fabulous “new” story to tell was Ken’s post on the First Year Building Project designed by students at the Yale School of Architecture. One hundred years from now (fingers crossed that it survives that long) this house will have made a  marvelous contribution to its neighborhood. Read more about the project here.

ITVK: If you could live in (or own) any one of the houses you have featured to date, which would you choose and why?

KS: I am not sure about a particular house, but I was enamored by the recreated New England village circa 1820-1830 at Sturbridge Village. It is a living museum with interpreters who go about their business as New Englanders did two centuries ago.  The buildings were moved there from around New England, so you can see a village that is free of modern structures and vehicles, which gives you a good idea of life in that era.  Also, you can watch the interpreters engage in activities like farming and weaving as they would in Early America.

Old Sturbridge Village – an 1830’s living history museum.

ITVK:  If you could have cocktails with any famous person, living or dead, in any house in the world, who and where would you choose and why?

KS: It would be interesting to have drinks with someone from the colonial era.  Many of the colonists brought the tradition from England of having beer as a drink instead of whatever and a review of their habits show that it was not unusual for them to have a beer with breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The White Horse Tavern in Newport RI was founded in 1673 making it the oldest operating bar in the US. See more historic libation stations on the oldies list here.

ITVK: One of my most favorite houses you’ve featured so far is the Jonathan and Abigail Starr house in Guilford, CT that was built in 1732…

The Jonathan and Abigail Starr House, Guilford CT built in 1732.

You shared this information about the house:

“This Church Street home was built for Jonathan and Abigail Starr in 1732 on land obtained from Jonathan’s father, Comfort Starr. Jonathan was a fourth generation New Englander. His great- great-grandfather was a surgeon, also named Comfort Starr, from Ashford, England, who sailed to America aboard the ‘Hercules’ in 1634. Joining him were his wife, Elizabeth, their three children and three servants. Dr. Starr’s parents clearly had a preference for unique names. His sisters were Suretrust and Constant and his brothers were Joyfull and Jehosaphat. The Starrs of Ashford lived a comfortable life with an estate about 60 miles southeast of London, but their move may have been motivated in part by grief as the grave of their son was said to be “not yet grass-grown” when they set out from the port of Sandwich for the “Plantation called New England in America.”

Do you have any other fun details about this house in particular?

KS: I do not, but I did love the names of the Starr children.  I featured the Comfort Starr house (below) a few days after the Jonathan and Abigail Starr post.

Portrait of Comfort Starr and one of his daughters alongside Ken’s photo portrait of Comfort’s house built in the mid 1650’s and a detailed side view sketch of it’s traditional saltbox style.

While known as the Comfort Starr House, this Guilford home was actually built for Henry Kingsworth around 1646. Mr. Starr, a tailor, purchased the home from Kingsworth’s heirs in 1694. He and his wife Elizabeth raised eight children here: Abigail, Elizabeth, Hannah, Comfort, Submit, Jonathan, Jehoshaphat, and Amy. The home was in the family for almost 200 years. Among the last to live here were seven Starr sisters, who were nicknamed ‘Pleiades’ for the seven sisters constellation. When the last sister, Grace, died at 83 in 1874, the home was sold outside the family. Today it is one of the oldest homes in Connecticut that is still a private residence.

ITVK: Is there one New England town, in particular, that should be on every house enthusiasts must-see list?

KS: I think that depends on what type of architecture you like. If you are a fan of first-period homes (1625-1725), Ipswich, Massachusetts has the highest concentration of those homes in the country.  There are enough clustered together that it is not too hard to imagine what the area looked like centuries ago.

Ipswich, MA. Photos courtesy of the Ipswich Visitor Center.

If Victorian architecture is your thing, you could head to Willimantic, Connecticut.  The town saw rapid growth as the textile mills expanded there.  Because Victorian architecture was in style at the time, there are many Queen Anne homes along with other Victorian treasures.  In both cases, the prevalent style reflects a period of growth followed by an economic downturn, which is why the homes were not updated or replaced with more recent styles.  But those are just two examples, you can find architectural gems just about anywhere.  Once you start looking, you’ll be surprised how much you’ll find.

A collection of Victorian, Greek Revival and Queen Anne styles houses that can be found in Willimantic, Connecticut

ITVK: What is your most favorite style of architecture, and why does it appeal to you?

My tastes have definitely changed to favor the simple early American homes.  If you had asked me two years ago, I would have said Victorian homes, but I have grown to appreciate plain design with few distractions from the colonial period. Also, the history from that period is fascinating.  Life was harder in so many ways in terms of having to work hard to get things done, but there was also simplicity to life without all the distractions of today. That being said, I enjoy modern conveniences as much as anyone else, but I can appreciate a simpler existence.

In addition to telling house histories, Ken also incorporates fun facts and other interesting tidbits relating to holidays or customs or historical pop culture which keeps each post from being formulaic.  Read more about this 1720 Brookfield, CT house here.

ITVK:  Have you had the opportunity to look inside any of the houses you’ve featured? And if so, do you have any memorable kitchen stories from them?

A visit to Louisa May Alcott’s family home, Orchard House, in Concord, Massachusetts is a treat. Because 80% of the furnishings are original to the home when the Alcotts lived there, you can see how the author and her family lived.

Orchard House – home to Louisa May Alcott. Read more about her and her house here.

They often endured lean times, but Louisa and her sisters enjoyed putting on shows for guests right there in the parlor. Upstairs, you can see the small desk where Louisa wrote her best selling books. It’s really nothing more than a shelf along the window, but it was there that she produced works that touched readers the world over.

The kitchen at Orchard House where the entire family spent time together. Photo courtesy of louisamayalcott.org

The kitchen is another wonderful window on the past. It was here that the Alcott women cooked, cleaned and drew water from the pump beneath the trap door in the kitchen floor.  The author herself says, “All of the philosophy in our house is not in the study, a good deal is in the kitchen, where a fine old lady thinks high thoughts and does good deeds while she cooks and cleans.” I highly recommend a visit to this house museum.

ITVK: So many old houses revolve around the idea of family, whether they were built to accommodate them, or given as wedding gifts or passed down through generations. Because we are such a transient society these days, and on average only stay 7-10 years in a house before moving on, do you think we are slowly losing a sense of place in our modern day world that connects us to the history of our land? Do you think this is why, fundamentally, old houses still hold so much appeal and nostalgia for us?

KS: Overall we have definitely shifted to a more disposable society, but if you look more closely, there is a quieter celebration of the past. People are still restoring our treasured antique homes and many others will furnish their homes in a throwback style such as farmhouse, colonial or even midcentury modern.

This house was built in Fairfield, CT in the 1990’s but the exterior contains elements of classic French chateau, colonial and federal styles that could give the impression that it is older than it actually is. Read more about it here.

 

This house in Westport, CT was also built in the last 20 years. New to look old, it was modeled after early colonial designs. Read more about it here.

Also, there are more people drawn to be what we now call “makers.”  They may be crafters, foodies, or designers and together they have recreated an echo of the cottage industries of our ancestors.  Two centuries ago, artisans worked and sold their goods out of their homes and today there are plenty of people working, living and creating from their homes.  So, I think we are more connected to our homes than we realize today.

The Roe House, built in the 1680’s, now serves as the Port Jefferson, New York Chamber of Commerce. Read more about it here.

 

In New York City’s Soho neighborhood this building originally hosted a tobacco shop in the early 1800’s. Now it’s a clothing store with a 19th-century murder story to tell. Read more about it here.

 

This house built in 1781 in Litchfield, CT has been home to a number of cottage industries throughout its life including an apothecary shop, a grocery store and now a doctor’s office. Read more about it here.

Does place dictate who we are or who we have the potential of becoming? Not always.  But it certainly does have the opportunity to indulge us and to nurture our life’s pursuits just like Orchard House had done with Louisa May Alcott who drew so much of her own environment into her works of fiction. Had Louisa never grown up in that brown clapboard house would Little Women have been the same book we know today?

Orchard House photographed sometime between 1860-1920. Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Images.

Like dipping your toe into the pool of history and watching the ripple effect the entire body of water, Ken’s House Stories are mini in content but mighty in impact. He shows us that behind every person stands a physical structure that was impacted by them or for them. He reminds us that a person’s individual history, although singular at the time eventually becomes our collective history as a nation. One country formed by billions of individual contributions. Big, small, humble, grand.. the old houses stand as truth showing us where we have been and where we have the potential to go.

A sampling of houses Ken has featured on House Stories that range in age from the 1670’s to the 1860’s.

A very big cheers to Ken for spotlighting the stories of our country’s founding families. Find him on Instagram here. And cheers to all the people who loved, saved and protected our early American architecture from re-development and decline and continue to do so every day.

Other historic architecture-related posts from the Vintage Kitchen can be found here…

Other interviews by artisians, craftspeople, collectors and interesting characters from around the world can be found here.

Three Recipes, Three Kitchens, Six Cooks – It’s The Wiggly, Jiggly Vintage Gelatin Cooking Challenge

It’s either fondly loved or fearsomely loathed. It’s a hodgepodge of color and creativity. It’s wiggly and jiggly. It’s sweet or savory, saucy or solid. And depending on how you prepare it, it’s silky and smooth or chunky and lumpy.

Today in the Vintage Kitchen we are talking about gelatin. That powdered concoction of collagen that originated in the boiled hooves of calves back in the 1700’s and now can be found in slim paper envelopes, dry and granular, in grocery stores around the world.

Vintage Jell-O ad

Food suspended in a translucent, quivery clump doesn’t necessarily sound or look appealing to our modern selves but there was a time in history when this type of dish was considered the essence of elegance. For centuries, gelatin has been used in cooking but in the 1930’s aspics, mousses and molded gelatin salads began to rise in mass popularity among both the upper class and the lower class for two entirely different reasons. Affluent, upper-class society enjoyed such dishes for their delicate and artistic composition while lower working classes, struggling to get through the Great Depression, valued gelatin as an inexpensive source of protein that came with an added bonus of being able to disguise and transform leftovers.

1933 Jell-O Cookbook

Here in the Vintage Kitchen, we are not big on wasting food nor on cooking up unappealing vintage recipes for the sake of mocking their unpleasant attributes. For decades throughout the 20th century people of all ages, income levels, races and genders ate and adored gelatin recipes, so it is in that vein, that we set out to explore these beloved concoctions to see how they might stack up in today’s foodie-conscious culture. Will our modern palates love them just as much as they did decades ago? Or have we become more finicky in the way we approach, prepare and taste our contemporary everyday fare?

In this post, we are diving head first into three vintage gelatin recipes steeped in the culture of mid-century America. Gelatin may have seen its rise to fame in the 1930’s, but its absolute height of popularity came in the 1950’s where two of our recipes originate.  In that decade, more women worked outside the home than ever before making time a newly juggled commodity. Gelatin-based salads, desserts, and main entrees were quick to prepare, could be made well in advance of the dinner hour and retained their shape and consistency for days in the refrigerator. This was the perfect meal-planning solution for busy women acting as wife, mother, career professional and caretaker all in one. Companies like Kraft Food (makers of Jell-O) responded to the demands of mid-century women by continuously creating and rolling out a plethora of newly invented flavored gelatins during the 1950’s that, in-turn, spawned thousands of unique recipes ranging from sweet to savory. It was a heady decade full of potential and possibilities for both gelatin companies and creative home cooks!

Vintage Jell-O Ad

By the 1960’s, the novelty of putting odds and ends into a gelatin mold had worn slightly.  Gelatin aficionados were getting a little bit more sophisticated in their creations as well as their flavor pairings. They weren’t as apt to throw-in the leftovers, or disguise a boring vegetable but instead were creating recipes that were more about flavor than thrift. Food pairings were suggested, wines were recommended and serving situations thoughtfully addressed.

Tomato aspic filled with potato salad and served alongside corn bread muffins circa 1961

It is these two interesting decades in food culture that became the foundation for our very first experimental food challenge featuring four blog readers (plus two from the Vintage Kitchen), three states (representing the East and West Coasts) and three mid-century gelatin recipes.

Our goal for this challenge was to fully embrace the experience of making and tasting these past populars.  Would we discover that they were difficult, time-consuming and confusing?  Or would they be effortless, creative and full of flavor? Each team received the same recipes with the same ingredient list, but each team could choose whatever food brands they wanted and whatever specific types of ingredient they wanted. For example – one recipe called for 1 1/2 cups of shredded cheese, which left it open to interpretation as to what type of cheese.  Finished product presentation was also left up to each team, even though some recipes offered serving suggestions or style notes.

MEET THE COOKBOOKS…

MEET THE VINTAGE RECIPES…

– Jellied Cheese Ring Salad (from the Silver Jubilee Super Market Cook Book, 1955)
Molded Cucumber Mousse (from The Blender Cookbook, 1961)

Spanish Cream (from the Silver Jubilee Super Market Cook Book, 1955)

MEET THE TEAMS…
 

The only requirements for this project were that each team take one photo of the ingredients they used in each recipe and one photo of their finished product. They also answered a set of questions about the experience, since working with gelatin in this format was something rather new for everyone involved. The teams did not communicate with each other at all during the process of making each recipe, nor had any collaborative influence over food styling or interview interpretation, which made for an interesting variety of visual appearance when it came to the finished products. Let’s look!

RECIPE No. 1: MOLDED CUCUMBER MOUSSE (from The Blender Cookbook, 1962)

 

Harpie & Manny, RetroRevivalists from New Jersey,  made their Cucumber Mousse using bottled lemon juice and dried parsley and decorated it in a ring of cucumbers with sliced tomatoes.

Here in the Vintage Kitchen, we used fresh lemons and Mediterranean sea salt along with parsley and organic cucumbers from the farmers market. We added our own bit of color by styling it with purple cabbage and fresh parsley. Just like Harpie & Manny we also used cucumber slices in the finished presentation.

Note how Harpie & Manny’s cucumber mousse has a lovely even consistency throughout. Our mousse in the Vintage Kitchen, had a two-toned effect with a bright green gelatin ring at the top. Not sure, why this happened but it did give our mousse an extra dose of wiggle.

Overall this recipe was very interesting. It was light, airy and creamy.  Harpie thought it was a breeze to whip up in the blender but found the ingredient interpretation a bit tricky when it came to the onions. “The directions are challenging to interpret: should we add a slice of a medium onion, or slices of a medium onion? I settled for something in the middle.”

In the Vintage Kitchen we struggled with this same issue, was it one thinly sliced medium onion or one thin slice of a medium sized onion? For the VK version we finely sliced a whole medium onion, but after tasting the finished product, would definitely cut way back on the onion to about one slice. All that onion led to a strong taste which wasn’t terrible just tangy! Having said that, if you are a fan of cold cucumber soup then you would love this recipe. It’s refreshing and summery and pretty in color. The original recipe suggested pairing it with cold poached salmon or trout, which would be really good. It would also be delicious served on of top of smoked salmon and crackers or smashed with avocado on multigrain bread with lemon and fresh herbs. Both Harpie and Manny and the Vintage Kitchen would make this mousse again, experimenting next time with a bit less onion. Harpie thought it made an excellent alternative to lettuce leaf salad.

RECIPE No. 2: JELLIED CHEESE RING SALAD (from the Silver Jubilee Super Market Cook Book, 1955 edition)

 For this recipe, you’ll note that the cheese was left up to interpretation. Marianne and Olivia,  a mother/daughter duo from Redmond, WA used honeyed goat cheese and topped their ring with orchard peaches, prosciutto, and fresh basil.  Very creative!
 

In the Vintage Kitchen, we made our ring salad with Havarti Dill cheese, organic farm eggs and milk and smoked paprika. We also chose not to ring this one since we initially thought about cubing it and serving it on top of crackers. We decorated it with a simple sprig of rosemary and served it on an age appropriate plate made by Garden City Pottery in San Jose, California in 1951.

We loved how Marianne and Olivia added a bevy of extra flavors to their cheese ring, which really opens up the possibilities of offering a sweet or savory appetizer or hors d’oeuvre. In the Vintage Kitchen, we hemmed and hawed over various cheese possibilities (blue, cheddar, gouda, cream cheese, brie, camembert, parm etc etc etc) for this recipe for an entire day before deciding on Havarti dill. There was a lot to consider here as far as color, texture, and taste, and while we had big hopes for it, the jellied cheese turned out to be pretty uninteresting in the flavor department. The Vintage Kitchen version had the consistency of a slightly damp sponge and had absolutely no smell. The combo of the smoked paprika and the dill made it taste sweaty like room-temperature buttermilk or old socks. Definitely not quite what we were expecting!

Marianne and Olivia said their version featuring goat cheese made the ring somewhat grainy, so that wasn’t ideal either.  While they didn’t hate it they wouldn’t rush to make it again. Perhaps it’s easier and more delicious to just eat a piece of cheese, in this case, instead of ringing it in jelly! But here in the Vintage Kitchen, we love a good challenge. We haven’t quite given up on this guy yet. The right cheese and the right mix of spices might yield something magical, so we are going to continue working on this just to see if we can come up with something palatable for football snacking season.

RECIPE No. 3: SPANISH CREAM (from the Silver Jubilee Super Market Cook Book, 1955)

Creativity really ruled the roost with this recipe  Harpie and Manny added an elegant drizzle of chocolate sauce and fresh strawberries to theirs.

Marianne and Olivia topped theirs with a dollop of homemade blackberry jam and served it on a gorgeous antique plate.
 

Here in the Vintage Kitchen, we topped our Spanish Cream with the last of this season’s sweet Ranier cherries. We served it on a vintage JAJ Floral Pyrex plate that was made in England in the 1960’s and dusted each piece with a sprinkling of cinnamon.

Each team agreed that the Spanish Cream was by far their most favorite recipe of the three and definitely one to be made again and again. Harpie loved that it was sweet but not too sweet in taste, silky smooth in texture and refreshingly cool in the heat of summer.

Marianne liked the fact that this recipe was made up of a few simple ingredients that turned into an eye-catching, delicious treat. “I think jellied foods first appealed to people because they were pretty and a bit of a novelty. Take the Spanish Cream for example. All you need is milk and a few eggs to make a really special looking dessert. Top it with some fresh berries or jam and you have an elegant dish from ingredients most would have on hand.”

Here in the Vintage Kitchen, we loved that the consistency of the Spanish Cream was light and airy, making it a great dessert choice following a heavier meal. In taste we found it to be most similar to flan or rice pudding but not as dense in texture. Marianne likened it to a cold marshmallow or even a tapioca pudding.  Because of its simple combination of basic ingredients, there is lots of available room to add your own creativity by adding extra flavor enhancers and playing around with the styling, which makes this dessert completely customizable to each cook’s preference.  Next time Marianne and Olivia make it,  they will be experimenting with a coffee version. Harpie and Manny will throw in an extra dose of vanilla and top it with maraschino cherries. And next time we make it in the Vintage Kitchen,  we will be experimenting with a local honey and Greek yogurt version.

So enjoying two out of three of these vintage recipes wasn’t so bad! Each of us embarked on this challenge with our own pre-conceived notions about jellied foods. Harpie and Manny weren’t sure that a gelatin dish could taste good if it was anything other than sweet. “Could savory jello recipes be tasty? Or are we too ingrained in that jello is supposed to be sweet and fruity? Coming from the 1990’s baby background that the Retro Revival staff was born in, jello desserts were only fruit flavored. Anything that wasn’t fitting of that description was considered unpalatable. Once we tried the cucumber mousse (which was the first recipe we made), our feelings immediately changed. Unlike what we expected – suspended savories in a flavorless blob – we got a light and tasteful alternative to boring green salads.”

Marianne addressed the preconceptions about the congealed consistency factor.  “I think many people are afraid of gelatin or they don’t realize that it can be used to create something of a creamy texture. The expectation is that it will create something solid and jiggly. But it has so many uses beyond fruit gelatin desserts. Initially, by participating in this challenge, I was interested to see what kinds of textures would be achieved. Would jellied cheese be better than it sounds? Would I find the next “wow” dish to bring or serve at my next dinner party?”

Here in the Vintage Kitchen we were excited too at the possibility of discovering something new in these old recipes. We were curious to find the attraction of this type of cooking and to understand why people would prepare and eat jellied foods. We went into this project thinking that vintage gelatin dishes were going to be primarily a flavorless mix of strange ingredients.  We were pretty certain that our modern palate, so trained on enjoying and seeking out fresh whole foods, would reject the idea of tucking into a quivery conglomeration of cold cut-ups.

 Surprisingly though, after completing the challenge, we were all pleasantly enlightened.  Gelatin was no longer the oft-putting substance we once thought it was and it taught each of us a new way to look at how it ties together the consistency of food in a variety of formats. It was also really fun to work with. Each recipe was quick to make and exciting to style. Like blank canvases, gelatin offers an artistic form of expression combining simple, tactile arrangements of food, texture and color. As you can see from our above photographs each team presented their finished dishes in entirely different ways. Other than decorating a cake there are not that many types of food that yield such widely diverse creativity in the presentation department.

 

Marianne brought up a good point about the availability (or in this case the non-availability of ingredients back in the 20th century that aided the aspect of artistic merit. “Vintage cooks used everyday ingredients to make something special. Today we are so accustomed to getting exotic ingredients from all around the globe. Vintage cooks didn’t have that option. So, for special occasions, they used what they had and elevated them to a new level with gelatin. Appearance must have been very important. By today’s standards, the original recipes aren’t what most people think of as visually appealing but you have to admit they are all kind of show stoppers.”

Would we rush out and buy boxes and boxes of gelatin tomorrow and eat it every day from here on out? Probably not. But we wouldn’t run away from it now either. In this cooking experiment, we discovered a valuable place for the humble gelatin recipe. The powder package still holds up (no pun intended!) carrying with it the same essence of possibility and potential that it had in the 1950’s and the 1930’s and the centuries before.

Harpie and Manny thought we were still a few years away from seeing a gelatin resurgence in popular American cooking. Marianne and Olivia thought that with a good marketing campaign and better names for dishes (for example, Honeyed Goat Cheese Mousse with Yakima Peaches, Sliced Prosciutto and Basil instead of Jellied Cheese Ring Salad) that people would be more willing to experiment with and accept a jellied food dish. Here in the Vintage Kitchen, we think this is the perfect time to see gelatin rise in popularity again. Watch any episode of Chef’s Table…

and you’ll see professional cook’s experimenting with all sorts of materials to elevate their food to a new level of sensory experience. Gelatin has all the attributes of attaining something truly marvelous with a modern approach. We may not be as apt to enjoy Jellied Eggs with Prunes or Olive-Studded Ham Loaf but we don’t HAVE to eat those combos anymore either. As Marianne said we have the world at our finger tips so the set of ingredients for our next jellied dish is limited only by our imagination. And that, dear readers, is the true novelty of a good gelatin.

Cheers to our brave and industrious kitchen experimenters Harpie & Manny and Marianne & Olivia, for joining us on this fun-filled cooking challenge through the wiggly world of gelatin. Keep up with Harpie and Manny on their Retro Revival blog here.  Find both of the vintage cookbooks (plus many more unique mid-century ones!) in the shop here.

A Special Note on the featured cookbooks in this post: The Blender Cookbook (1962) features over 275 pages of vintage recipes intended entirely for creation in the blender. You will never believe the wide range of inventive and innovative recipes that these two Paris trained Gourmet magazine food editors turned authors came up with for all meals of the day! The Silver Jubilee Super Market Cook Book (1955) celebrates the 25th anniversary of the opening of America’s first supermarket. We previously featured this cookbook in a post about supermarket founder Michael J. Cullen, which you’ll find here.

The Colorful World of Collecting: A Vintage Tea Towel Interview

Martex Textile Champagne Tea Towel, 1950’s

Chances are you probably haven’t given much thought to your kitchen linens. You’ve got them tucked away in a drawer somewhere that you access only when you have a party, a holiday or a big giant spill to clean up. They sit in those drawers in an assortment of sizes from small to large. Place mats, tablecloths, towels, drink coasters, napkins, tray coverings either plain and functional or decorative and delicate. They are hand-me-downs your grandmother made back in 1920 or they are ones you bought last week on sale at Target. They are in pristine condition because you barely use them or they are spotted and shabby because that one celebration that one time was the wildest party of the year.

Kitchen Towel featuring Household Staples, 1940s

You haven’t thought about them much because they are always there – new and old and reliable. You use them to impress and inspire and make an impact on a bread basket or a tea tray or the handle of your oven. They sit under drinks and dessert plates,  line the cocktail cart and add some color to the picnic basket. You gift them and grab them in a last minute flurry of preparations and like any good coat of paint, they instantly brighten up the atmosphere, and you think to yourself… why don’t I use these more?

Main Street Table Cloth 1950s

Designed to sit pretty and decorate and then clean up afterwards,  kitchen cloths are the unsung heroes of cook spaces around the globe.  In today’s post we discuss the colorful world of mid-century kitchen linens with Cindy from Neatokeen, the internet’s best-kept vintage linen shop and discover her passion for mid-century tea towels. This is a bright and whimsical slice of the vintage kitchen that showcases the creative, quirky styles of the 1950’s and 1960’s that have evolved with charm and individuality to fit modern day appeal.

Iconic American chair designer Charles Eames  once said…”The details are not the details. They make the design.” This is particularly true of the bold graphics and jaunty sentiments of mid-century fabrics. Today, Cindy explains her favorites, what she looks for when stocking her shop and why these vintage kitchen helpers are still so compelling to our modern sense of style.

What are some common misconceptions about vintage linens? 

Linens were mass-produced in the mid-century and there is an assumption that they are plentiful and easy to find. If you look on Etsy and Ebay, that appears to be the case; however, it is extremely difficult to find them in excellent or mint condition. Most of them that saw heavy kitchen duty were relegated to the rag pile. Many linens that you see today are flawed with spots and holes. The real trick is to find those that were unused and stored away in a drawer or cupboard for 50 years. I am super picky about the linens I buy and probably pass by 99.9% of those I see. 

Do you have a favorite designer? 

It’s difficult to choose one! I will name my top three:

 

George Wright

 

Milvia

 

Tammis Keefe

I also have to give a shout-out to all of the uncredited artists and in-house designers who created amazing designs but were not able to sign their work.

Is there a type of linen or a specific company that you prize most and, if so, which and why? 

I began collecting all types of vintage linens: tablecloths, tea towels, napkins, handkerchiefs and table runners. Storage space for my collection was at a premium, so I had to make a difficult decision. I decided to hang onto my tea towels. I love the compact printed designs. I am particularly fond of the cheeky designs from the Dunmoy Linen Company and the detailed designs of the Ulster Company.

 

Dunmoy Linen Company, Flower Truck Delivery, 1960’s

 

Ulster Linen Company – Medieval Renaissance, 1960s

 

Tell us a little bit about caring for vintage linens. Do you have to store them differently or use special washing procedures? 

 

I learned early on that I was rubbish at removing spots in spite of the copious amount of stain removal advice and tips on the internet. This is what lead me to collect linens in near mint or perfect condition. I typically do not wash my linens and simply press them gently, if needed. I store them in a closet with open shelving covered by white cotton cloths. I know a lot of people store them in plastic bins, but I’m a bit skeptical of contact with plastic over time.

  

Which are the top three favorite items in your shop right now?

I love the London People towel – the characterization of 55 people and animals is charming. Another favorite is the “Wine & Spirits” towel by George Wright for the interesting composition and bold color choice. I really enjoy Hilary Knight’s angel towel. He was the illustrator of Eloise and I believe it’s the only towel he ever designed.

 

Wine & Spirits Series by George Wright, 1950s

 

Hilary Knight Christmas Angels, 1950

Why are vintage linens so appealing to people?

 They evoke a feeling of nostalgia and the printed designs can be gorgeous, whimsical, striking or even comical.

 

 

In your shop bio you mention that you sell to a wide variety of customers from gift-givers to celebrities to collectors. What is a fun buyer story that you can share?

 

I’m fiercely protective of my customer’s privacy, but I’ve sold linens to several movie and theater companies. They always need the items “yesterday” and have requested express shipping every time. In fact, the shipping has been a lot more expensive than the items themselves!

 

Dinner Party Scene Tea Towel, 1950s

Rare 1950’s Mid-Century Modern Tablecloth

If you could invite any person to luncheon (living or dead) and serve them on one of the tea towels currently offered in your shop which would you choose and why?

I would invite my late father and serve him dinner on the amazing Calder-esque mobile tablecloth that is in my shop. We would talk about the abstract design and then we’d discuss the act of collecting. My dad was an inveterate collector of many things and I never collected anything while he was alive. I’m fairly certain the collecting gene was transferred to me when he passed away. I now completely understand his compulsion to find the next best thing, the perpetual upgrading of a collection and the quest for a holy grail. He would get a big kick out of my passion for linens.

Cindy with her dad in 1964

Were linens a prized possession in your family growing up?

 My mother sets a beautiful table and has some lovely lace tablecloths, but printed linens were something I discovered much later in life.

 

Matching Linen Placemat/Napkin Set – Red Cherry Design, 1950s

Would you prefer to see one of your vintage tea towels in active daily use or framed behind glass?

 

When I started selling my linens on Etsy, I was taken aback at what people did with perfectly good linens; however, I have really mellowed and now enjoy learning about the creative ways my linens are used. I’ve seen pillows, children’s clothing, tote bags, quilts and even copies printed on canvas. Most people buy them to collect or use and I’m happy they are being enjoyed and not languishing in a forgotten drawer. Framed behind glass is good too!

 

Which types of linens are your bestsellers? And what makes them a bestseller – is it fabric, color, graphic appeal, size, age etc.?

 

I’ve sold 99% of my tablecloths and hankies and steer away from buying more because there are so many sellers that carry them. I specialize in vintage tea towels which is a more unusual category. Tea towels are my bestsellers. I think the colors and graphic appeal of the designs are what attract people initially.

 

Floral Linen Tea Towel, 1950’s

Other than traditional serving/entertaining purposes, framing and gift wrapping have you come across any non-traditional ways in which we could use vintage linens in our modern-day lives?

 

I mentioned a few above, but the most inventive use of linens I’ve seen is a winged armchair upholstered with vintage souvenir tea towels from London. The effect is a feast for the eyes.

 

Alternate ways to use vintage tea towels (clockwise from top left): as an apron, windows curtains, framed wall art, market bag/tote, footstool cushions.

When you are sourcing your materials for your shop do you generally find them one at a time or do you uncover treasure troves of personal collections?

 

I usually find them one at a time or occasionally in pairs. I’ve actually never found a big collection of linens which is the stuff of my dreams; hence, the hunt continues. I look high and low from estate sales to flea markets, near and far from coast to coast and I will continue to seek linens as long as it remains fun!

 

Tammis Keefe Angel Tea Towel, 1950’s

One of the things I like about vintage linens is that each and every one seems so unique. I don’t think I’ve ever come across the same design twice (matching sets not included of course!).  Have you seen a lot of repeat patterns come through your shop?

 I primarily sell duplicates of towels that I have in my own collection. Some designs are relatively easy to source e.g. the Tammis Keefe angel towel is common, but there are several designs that I’ve run across exactly one time in my 12 years of collecting. Since I’ve been collecting a relatively long time, it’s become easy for me to tell if the design is rare or fairly commonplace.

 

Are there any types of vintage linens that don’t appeal to you and if so, why?

 

I like all types of linen, but I’m partial to printed linens. I steer clear of damask, lace and embroidered linens. There are plenty of experts in those categories. Also, I think floral linens are lovely, but my eye tends toward unusual or quirky designs. Thankfully, they are often the ones left behind.

 

Mother’s Apple Pie Ingredients, 1950’s

According to the school of thought that one thing always leads to another – have you discovered any new interests or passions (or collections!) that have stemmed as a direct result from your pursuit of seeking out vintage linens? 

 

Yes! I really like the kitschy mid-century graphics found on vintage wrapping paper and novelty fabrics. I felt myself slipping down the collecting rabbit hole again but was literally saved by Pinterest. I started “pinning” items to designated boards. Pinterest feels like having an organized collection but without spending a dime…brilliant!

 

Modernist Textile Fabric, 1960s

I don’t know about you dear readers, but I’d be fine following Cindy along on her trail of discovering vintage wrapping paper and more vintage fabrics. She has a wonderful eye for the lighthearted unusual – the fun side – of finding old artistic illustrations that still seem so relevant today. Perhaps in the future we’ll be lucky to see more along those avenues. In the meantime I hope this post encourages you to take a look at your own kitchen linen drawer and march all those retro patterns out into everyday use regardless of their age. Don’t save them for a special occasion or a holiday, give your kitchen space a happy exclamation point by incorporating your tea towels and tablecloths, napkins and tray liners into everyday life.  If you have yet to own any vintage kitchen linens, I hope this post inspires a new collection.

 

Vintage Bridge Score Pads from the 1920’s

In addition to decorating your own space, vintage kitchen linens also make great gifts. As we roll through the month of May with Mother’s Day and Memorial Day just around the corner, Cindy is offering readers of the blog an additional 20% off all orders using the coupon code VINTAGEKITCHEN.  In her shop you’ll also find delightfully interesting mid-century (and earlier!) collectibles and paper ephemera with fantastic retro graphic appeal like the art deco bridge score pad above.  Keep up with Cindy on Pinterest, Instagram and in her shop. You won’t regret any moment spent learning more about vintage linens.
 If you have any additional questions or comments for Cindy or thoughts on vintage linens themselves please post a message below.

 

This was the set design for Julia Child’s kitchen for the movie Julie and Julia. Notice the proud display of kitchen linens!

Culinary Creativity: Recipes From Our Prize Winner!

By day they are executives in New York City but by night (and most weekends too) they are culinary wizards adventuring their way around the inventive kitchen. Meet blog reader Michael, one of the winners in last month’s Spartan Souvenir giveaway and his lovely wife Renee.

reneemichael

As soon as their prize of Greek olive oil and wild mountain oregano hit their mailbox they started day dreaming about what they could make. Possibilities abounded of course, but it didn’t take very long before they settled on two Mediterranean style dishes that highlighted their new winnings and captured the simple fresh flavors of their farmers market palates.  In a lovely spirit of community, these two home chefs not only sent back a follow-up note on their gift receipt but also included recipes and photos of everything they made with their Sparta samplings. Fantastic! Here is what they made…

greekdishes2

“The olive oil has such a nice  fruitiness and the oregano is slightly floral and delicate,” shared Renee. “We love it!”

Long-time connoisseurs of make-it-yourself pizza they first prepared a Mediterranean style Greek pizza with homemade dough and an inventive brussels sprout topping. Next, (just in time for Fish Friday) they made a simple Greek style baked cod using local fish and an array of herbs.

Michael and Renee’s recipes couldn’t have come at a better time in our calendar year. If you are still entertaining holiday house guests the Greek Pizza makes for a fun party pleaser and can be doubled or tripled in size to fit all appetites.  Or if you find yourself ready to put the heavy plates of the holiday season behind you then the Greek Baked Cod would be just the ticket for a light and refreshing meal. Both recipes highlight the unique flavor of the olive oil and oregano from Sparta, Greece which you can find at thespartantable.com All other ingredients can be locally sourced from your grocery or market.

pizza3

Greek Pizza

Note: Michael and Renee followed Jim Lahey’s lead on the pizza dough preparation. You can find a step by step guide here which includes a casual video on the making of it all. If you have never made homemade pizza dough before don’t feel intimidated, it’s very easy and this is a no-knead recipe which makes it even easier. If you can’t sacrifice the time for the dough, start out simple with a pre-raised dough ball from Trader Joe’s or the fresh bakery department at most supermarkets.

(for the dough)

3.5 cups all-purpose flour ( M&R veered slightly from the dough recipe and incorporated some whole wheat flour as well. This recipe reflects their version.)

1/2 cup whole wheat flour

1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast

2 teaspoons fine sea salt

1 1/2 cups water

(for the topping)

1/2 red onion, thinly sliced and placed in a bowl, covered with water for at least 30 minutes, then drained and dried

1 Serrano chili pepper, thinly sliced (remove the seeds and veins if you are adverse to heat or if your chili is super strong)

8-10 raw brussels sprouts, shaved

1/4- 1/3 cup (plus more for topping) Parmesan cheese, freshly grated

1/2 teaspoon Spartan Table wild mountain Greek Oregano

5 ounces Spartan Table Extra Virgin Greek olive oil

Salt and Pepper to taste

Prepare dough as directed. Preheat oven to 475 degrees. Add pizza stone about one hour prior to baking. Mold the dough into a circle on a pizza peel lined with semolina flour to prevent sticking and for easy sliding.

Place all topping ingredients together in a bowl and mix in olive oil and salt and pepper to coat.

pizza2

Scatter your toppings evenly on top of the dough. Bake until bubbly and slightly browned about 10-12 minutes. Depending on your oven, this could take more or less time. Finish with olive oil,  sea salt and extra Parmesan cheese.

pizza1

 

Greek Baked Cod (serves 2)

Fresh, local cod  (enough for two portions)

1/2 teaspoon Spartan Table Greek oregano

5 ounces Spartan Table Greek olive oil for drizzling and finishing

1  quarter of a large organic lemon, thinly sliced

1 half of a medium shallot, thinly sliced

1/4 quarter cup of thinly sliced fresh fennel (from the bulb)
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 tablespoon fresh parsley, finely minced, for finishing

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Add cod to two pieces of foil paper (doubled so that it doesn’t leak) placed on a baking sheet. Drizzle fish with the olive oil, oregano and salt and pepper. Arrange the shallot slices on the bottom of the foil, place the cod filet on top with the fennel and lemon slices.

fish1
Close the foil (like a packet) and bake for about 20-25 minutes, depending on your oven and size of the cod. Ours took about 20 minutes to cook. Finish with an extra drizzle of the oil, sea salt and parsley.
fish3

In the land of Ms. Jeannie it is very exciting to have such an enthusiastic (and delicious!) response to a blog post. Hopefully Michael and Renee’s recipes will help pave the way for more culinary adventures discovered by our readers. Having come full circle with an interview that originated months ago in the faraway, mystical olive groves of Greece and ended up finally on the kitchen table of two New York foodies, this post feels a bit like magic. Even though a zillion miles separates us from Sparta and  Nashville and New York we now share a commonality in the history of a food. And our cross-culture community feels a bit more close-knit.  As Homer said “the journey is the thing.”

Again, a big thank you to Jehny and George for carrying on the family tradition of olive-growing in Greece and to Michael and Renee in New York for inspiring us with two new recipes fit for a feast.

If you missed the interview with Jehny and George from The Spartan Table find it here.  If you have any questions regarding Michael and Renee’s recipes post them in the comment box and we’ll get them answered ASAP.

Cheers or opa, as they say in Greece, to the final days of 2016. May they be both merry and bright.

kitchen prep

The Real History that Inspired Stars Hollow: An Interview and a Getaway, Gilmore Girls Style

View of Town Hall from Hickory HIll Washington, CT

View of Town Hall from Hickory HIll Washington, CT

If you are a serious fan of the show Gilmore Girls you already know that the fictional town of Stars Hollow was inspired by the real town of Washington, Connecticut.  That’s the spot where show creator Amy Sherman-Palladino spent a magical weekend dreaming up the culture, characters and community of all things Gilmore.

At the time of her visit in the late 1990’s, Amy was in a little bit of a tricky spot. She had just pitched five television show concepts to a major tv network all during one meeting. The network passed on the first four – but in a last ditch effort to end the meeting on some sort of satisfactory and productive note, Amy threw out a vague concept about a show she was still muddling about in her mind. “There is this single mother and her daughter who act more like best friends than parent and child.”

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“Okay great. That’s interesting. We’ll take that one, ” said the network (in a simplified nutshell). And then Amy panicked. She had no formal flushed out material for this snippet of a show idea. She didn’t know where it took place and at what time period. She didn’t know who the supporting characters were or the dynamics of these two feminine lifestyles. All she had was this mother and daughter jumping up and down in her head. The script was needed by the network ASAP. So she fled to Washington, CT  – a place she had never been – for a quiet weekend of major thinking.

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In a stunning stroke of serendipity, Amy saw Washington and then she saw her setting. Thanks to this 237 year old town with its historic villages, convivial atmosphere and captivating residents, this think-tank weekend laid the foundation for the show’s central cast of characters and the community in which they all circulated. Luke’s Diner, The Dragonfly Inn, Doosie’s Market,  Chilton, the Town Square along with a host of other well-loved landmarks in and around Stars Hollow were all inspired in part on the equally charming real life landscape of rural Litchfield County, Connecticut.

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Throughout all seven seasons of Gilmore Girls, town history has played an active role in the show with storylines that ran the gamut from quirky to sentimental.  In today’s post we are chatting with Louise Van Tartwijk,  museum director at the Gunn Historical Museum in Washington, Connecticut to learn more about the real history of her enchanting small town,  the Gilmore Girls impact upon it and what it means to work as a modern day gatekeeper to the past.

Meet Louise - along with Gunn Historical Museum curator Stephen Bartkus (on her left) and Museum Council member Nicholas Solley (on her right)

Meet Louise , pictured here along with Gunn Historical Museum curator Stephen Bartkus (on her left) and Museum Council member Nicholas Solley (on her right)

Tell us a little bit about yourself.  Are you from Washington, CT? If not, what brought you there? How long have you worked at the museum? 

My husband and I moved to Washington, CT, in 2010, from the Netherlands in order to give our four daughters an American prep-school education. I am American-born, but married a Dutchman, and we lived together in the Netherlands for 25 years where our children were born and spent their earliest years. Subsequently, our girls have attended the Westover School in Middlebury, CT and The Gunnery School here in Washington.

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The Gunn Historical Museum, Washington CT

Tell us a little bit about the history of your town and the museum’s role in it.

Washington has a rich and multi-layered history. There is archaeological proof that Native Americans lived in the area along the banks of the Shepaug River, over 10,000 years ago. The first Europeans settled in the region in the early 1700’s and named the town Judea. Early Washington was largely a family-farming community, small mills developed along its streams and rivers, small businesses populated the center of town that was known at that time as “Factory Hollow.” The Congregational Church, the institution that founded the town, sat prominently up on the top of the hill, on the Green, together with The Gunnery, a school begun by Frederick Gunn in the mid 1850’s.

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When the Shepaug Rail Road brought the train to Washington in the 1870’s, Factory Hollow became Washington Depot. The arrival of the train suddenly connected Washington with New York and other regions, and with this came the arrival of wealthy, artistic and community-minded summer residents from Brooklyn; and the rise of a local dairy farming industry.

Railroad Depot, Washington CT

Railroad Depot, Washington CT

The flood of 1955 devastated the town and as a result of the subsequent rebuilding, Washington Depot has the more modern yet quaint look that it has today.

Flood of 1955, Washington CT

While the train has not run in Washington since the 1940’s, New Yorkers are still drawn to Washington as a popular “hidden” weekend and summer retreat; and Frederick Gunn’s school still sits on the Washington Green together with the Congregational Church.  Today, education is the main “industry” of Washington.

At the Gunn Historical Museum we see ourselves as the custodians of this rich history; keepers of the town’s past, responsible for the preservation of its archives, artifacts, photos and personal stories. This is a responsibility that we take very seriously because we know that understanding Washington’s past is the only way to truly understand what makes our town so unique today.

We know from the stories behind Gilmore Girls that Amy Sherman-Palladino modeled Stars Hollow after Washington and the experience she had there while writing the script. Do you feel the spirit of Washington translated to the TV show? 

On the set with Gilmore Girls - the Stars Hollow town green

On the set with Gilmore Girls – the Stars Hollow town green

I don’t feel qualified to speak about how Washington was an inspiration for the Gilmore Girls, as I haven’t seen enough of the show. But, I do know, that this is a very unique town, as anyone will tell you who lives here. Washington is a very eclectic, talented and interesting community of friendly and very civic-minded people.  The town has a very special subtle magic that draws people to it and makes them feel at home in a way rarely found anywhere else.

We all know each other in town, and to give you an example, there have been times when I am going into the Washington Food Market accompanied by my youngest daughter who in all seriousness instructs me outside the store to,”Not talk to anyone.” This is because she knows I will know nearly everyone in the store and suddenly a 4-minute grocery run will turn into an an-hour-long social event.

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To give you another example of what it is like to live in Washington, my husband and I recently found a letter in our mailbox simply addressed to us as “Hans and Louise, Washington, CT 06793” (no last name and no street address). It made it easily to our mailbox!

There are some people who refer to Washington as “The secret center of the Universe” and others who refer to it as “Brigadoon.”

Are you, yourself a fan of the show? If so, who’s your favorite character?

To be honest, I have maybe only seen one or two episodes. So I can’t claim a favorite character yet. But what I do like about the show is its quirky humor.

The complete cast of Gilmore Girls

The cast of Gilmore Girls

Have you ever met Amy Sherman-Palladino or any of the gang from Gilmore Girls?

No. But I would love to.

Has Gilmore Girls impacted tourism to your neck of the woods and, if so, how? Has the museum benefited from such attention?

The Gilmore Girl impact has not happened yet, although we are anticipating substantial impact on the town for that weekend. {Note: Louise is referring to the Gilmore Girls Fan Festival which was just held in Washington, CT Oct 21st-23rd, 2016} The Museum was not included in the main GG tour. However, we do resemble the Stars Hollow Museum in the episode “Live or Let Diorama.” We are just the kind of small New England museum that people associate with the show and idyllic concepts of the American small town.

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A screen capture from the Gilmore Girls episode Live or Let Diorama.

For the Gilmore Girls weekend, we will have a preview of our upcoming exhibit, “Washington Speaks,” a history of Washington. There will be guides and docents on hand to walk people through the exhibit on that weekend.

We received a $100,000 grant from the State of Connecticut last year to create this exhibit. We are very excited about this preview of the exhibit and will use the Gilmore Girls weekend to show off what we are doing.

History states that George Washington traveled through Washington on several trips. Do you have any artifacts or items in your museum collection from his journeys? 

No we don’t. But he did actually pass through the town and stayed a night at the Cogswell Tavern here in New Preston, one of Washington’s five “villages.” The General recorded this visit in his diary.

N.C. Wyeth painting of George Washington from the February 1946 edition of the Saturday Evening Post

N.C. Wyeth painting of George Washington from the February 1946 edition of the Saturday Evening Post

What is your most favorite piece in the museum today and why?

We have any number of very interesting artifacts that become even more interesting when you get to know the town and the stories of the people who have helped shaped Washington over the centuries. At the present, my favorite artifact is the Jonathan Farrand Revolutionary War musket that was donated last year by his descendants. Farrand was an early Washington resident, back when the town was named Judea. He was a farmer, soldier, businessman and town official. He had seven slaves. I find that interesting. People do not know that the North had slaves. One of Farrand’s slaves, Jeff Liberty, fought in the Revolutionary War and became a free man. The Farrand musket is a beautiful artifact, full of symbolic significance. It will feature in the “Washington Speaks” preview at the Museum on Gilmore Girls’ weekend, as will the stories of Jonathan Farrand and Jeff Liberty.

What is one part of Washington, CT’s history that has most surprised you? 

Probably the slavery issue. No one ever thinks of New Englanders having slaves.  Several families who were among the town’s first settlers in the 1700’s had slaves, as did people in other Connecticut towns. And even in the 1840’s, while slavery no longer existed in Connecticut, abolitionism was not popular.

Frederick Gunn, who founded The Gunnery school here in town, on the town Green, was an abolitionist and as a result was forced out of the Congregational Church and even had to flee town for a while because of his abolitionist opinions.

Bill of Sale of a man named Peter in 1762 in Woodbury, CT. Image courtesy of the Mattatuck Museum. For a detailed timeline of slavery in Connecticut from the 1600's - 1800's click here.

Bill of sale for a slave named Peter in 1762 from Woodbury, CT. Image courtesy of the Mattatuck Museum. For a detailed timeline of slavery in Connecticut from the 1600’s – 1800’s click here.

Tell us about a typical day in your life as the museum director.

For over 100 years The Gunn Historical Museum has been a part of the Gunn Memorial Library. In 2015, the board of the Gunn Memorial Library and Museum decided to transition the Museum into financial and managerial independence, so as to allow it to become an independent 501(c) 3.

Gunn Memorial Library in the early 1900's (left) and pictured today.

Impressive in its sameness. On the left, The Gunn Memorial Library pictured in the early 1900’s and on the right, as it stands today.

This past year has consequently been a very busy one for me as we are moving into unchartered territory. A typical day for me involves, working with our curator and volunteers to oversea the work on our collections inventory, and work on our new permanent history of Washington exhibit. At the same time, I find time to do things such as writing for our Museum publication, heading up our Friends of the Gunn Museum membership drive and working on fundraising initiatives, which have become rather important given our push for independence from the Library.

A sampling of items in the museum's collection including a drum owned by revered local New England architect (and local Washington resident!) Ehrick Rossiter,, an old-fashioned seed spreader, antique photographs of local residents and buildings. Pop-up exhibits around town help keep history in the spotlight.

A sampling of items in the museum’s collection including a drum owned by revered local New England architect (and local Washington resident!) Ehrick Rossiter, an old-fashioned seed spreader, antique photographs of local residents, buildings and events. Pop-up exhibits around town help keep local history in the spotlight.

What are some of the challenges you face as a museum director in today’s world?

The expectations of sophistication and modernization. We want to move forward and yet, we want to keep our authenticity to the town and its inhabitants who’s world we preserve and reflect. The challenge is to find a good medium between keeping small-town charm, informality and coziness while accommodating the possibilities that keep unfolding before us in the fast-paced technological modern world.

If you could acquire one artifact from history (with expense not being a factor) what would you acquire for the museum and why?

Cogswell Tavern, New Preston CT

Cogswell Tavern, New Preston CT

Well, we can only acquire artifacts that have a tie to the town of Washington; so, I would follow-up on the rumor that the chair that George Washington sat in when he visited the Cogswell Tavern during the Revolutionary War, is still in the possession of a descendant of the Cogswell family. That would be great to acquire!

What museum events do you have coming up in the next year that will appeal to history lovers? Does Washington have any celebratory plans for the November release of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life? 

At the Museum we are anticipating the opening of our permanent history of Washington exhibit. We have no opening date as of yet however. In the meantime we will continue to have smaller pop-up exhibits in town and museum programs dedicated to different aspects of the town’s history.

Gosh, I don’t know about the town’s plans for the November release.

If our readers visited Washington – what are the first three things they should do (other than visiting the museum of course!). 

Hike in Steep Rock, our beautiful land trust. Have a coffee at Marty’s Cafe, a true town ritual. There are people in town who even have their “claimed” morning spots at Marty’s Café, and everyone knows this and will leave those spots open.  Attend a Gunnery school ice hockey game at the Linen Rink on campus and share in the excitement at Mr. Gunn’s School.

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Clockwise from top right: Marty’s Cafe, the Gunn Historical Museum, Steep Rock and Gunnery School ice hockey.

One last question… if George Washington rode into town today do you think he’d recognize it?! 

Yes, I do.  Probably the biggest difference besides telephone poles, cars, paved roads, and a few more homes, is that we have more trees and less open farmland.

Washington, CT tucked among the trees.

And there you have it, dear readers.  A small town in rural Connecticut that has been inspiring both locals and out-of-towners for centuries from the Native Americans who first settled there, to U.S. Presidents who journeyed through, to Emmy Award-winning writers who captured its colorful spirit and to Louise who protects its significance and integrity every day.

Get caught up in the magic of this small town yourself by following Louise’s lead and visit: Steep Rock (a 2700 acre preserve made for hiking and camping in the bucolic Shepaug River Valley); Marty’s Cafe (where you can channel your inner Luke Danes) and the gorgeous Gunnery School campus where you can pretend you and Rory are heading off for a day at Chilton.

Pictured clockwise from top left: Hopkins Vineyard, Arethusa Al Tovolo; The Mayflower Grace;

Pictured clockwise from top left: Hopkins Vineyard, Arethusa Al Tovolo; The Mayflower Grace; White Silo Winery and Haight-Brown Vineyards.

Additional area suggestions from two of our blog readers who just road-tripped to Washington in early October include: wine tours and tastings at these three local spots- Hopkins Vineyard, White Silo Winery and Haight-Brown Vineyards (raise a glass to Richard and Emily Gilmore while you are there!);  dinner at  Arthusa Al Tovolo  farm-to-table restaurant (Sookie would totally recommend this place and Jackson would be happy that you supported local farmers) and indulge in an overnight stay at The Mayflower Grace (we know how a few nights  there turned out for Amy Sherman-Palladino – just imagine what it could do for you!).

And of course please stop in at the Gunn Historical Museum and say hello to Louise!

Early 1900's postcard of Washington, CT

Early 1900’s postcard of Washington, CT

Additional photo credits: R. Burns, Gunn Historical Museum, Gunn Library, Mattatuck Museum. 

 

Reviving Ophelia: An Interview with a Modern Day Pinner

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From the pinterest boards of Ophelia’s Renaissance

“And for your part Ophelia, I do wish

That your good beauties be the happy cause

Of Hamlet’s wildness; so shall I hope your virtues

Will bring him to his wonted way again…”

– Queen Gertrude from Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Poetic, romantic, cinematic, storied these are just a few words that Ms. Jeannie would use to describe one of her most favorite pinners on Pinterest – Ophelia’s Renaissance. Beautifully melancholy, just like her namesake, the picture boards of Ophelia’s Renaissance tell a million timeless stories.  From board titles like …

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Picked and pleasantly arranged…

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and

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to the actual images themselves, Ophelia’s Renaissance is an incredible example of a well-curated theme. Part literary, part history, part high fashion and part dark art, this week we’re stepping behind the screen to learn about a prolific pinner and what inspires the brain behind the boards.

From the board Let's Find A Place Where We Don't Care

From the Ophelia’s REnaissance board Let’s Find A Place Where We Don’t Care

Ms. Jeannie Ology: How long have you been on Pinterest?

Ophelia’s Renaissance: Approximately four years, I believe.

{Ophelia’s Renaissance at present includes over 75 boards and over 100,000 individual images. Clearly this is not something built up in a weekend! That is the wonderful thing about Pinterest and pinners like OR – they represent an exercise in intuition performed in small steps over vast time. It’s putting together a gallery of personal tastes and possibilities. It’s a cultivation of ideas and aesthetics, of conversation and curiosities. It’s a veritable art gallery of thoughts and emotions view-able by anyone anywhere around the world.}

From the board All The World's A Stage

From the board All The World’s A Stage

MJO: What are three words that describe your style?

OR: Elegant, classy, and traditional.

From the boards of Ophelia's Renaissance

From the boards of Ophelia’s Renaissance

From the board For the Home

From the board For the Home

MJO: What do you look for in a pin-worthy picture?

OR: It needs to be visually appealing, or provide some insight.

From the board: Libraries

From the board: Libraries

{Naturally, Ms. Jeannie is drawn to the library photographs!}

From the Board Libraries

From the Board Libraries

MJO:  Tell us a little about yourself (anything you like) work, hobbies, etc.

OR: I am a high school English teacher who enjoys reading and writing. I also love to decorate.

{Pinterest is so inspiring that way! You can gather ideas, dream the day away or simply just pause for a minute and admire  a moment in time captured by a camera. Whether spur of the moment or staged, photography requires thought.}

From the board

From the board

MJO: Of your own boards, which is your most favorite at the moment?

OR: “Resuscitating Ophelia and Virginia” or “Nascent Phase”

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Resuscitating on the left, Nascent on the right

(Okay, Ms. Jeannie confesses she had to look up the word nascent which means just coming into existence or beginning to display signs of future potential. A fantastic word! Nascent is O.R. children’s themed board. So clever. This is exactly why Ms. Jeannie is such a fan!}

MJO:  Regarding other people’s Pinterest accounts – which board or person do you most admire?

OR: I honestly don’t have a favorite. I look to different boards for different interests. If I am scrolling through Pins and I am not finding anything, then I revert to those I consider my favorites.

From the board Evoke

From the board Evoke

MJO:  How does Pinterest influence your daily life?

OR: Before I was on Pinterest, I would look forward to receiving my home decorating subscriptions such as Veranda, Traditional Home, Southern Accents, Martha Stewart, Country Home and Country Living. I would escape into these beautiful rooms and cut out pictures so as to try and emulate the designs that caught my eye. I would create binders, so I could remember what it was I wanted to create for my living space. When I was really young, I would cut out beautiful pictures from magazines and post them on my closet doors. Pinterest offers the same escape and allows me to gravitate towards things that I find visually appealing. It also affords me an opportunity to post everything else I enjoy such as books and music. It is just my preferred pretty hang-out when I need to rid myself of stress.

From the board: Evoke

From the board: Evoke

{So well said. In our modern day and age, Pinterest is everyone’s closet door. It’s an escape like Alice in Wonderland’s looking glass or Dorothy’s tornado dream of Oz. It transports you to places you naturally want to go. And just coming off an introspective study of The Artists Way, Ms. Jeannie understands that Pinterest can also serve as both a catalyst and a definitive of who you are and where you wish to go.}

MJO: What’s the story behind the name Ophelia’s Renaissance?

OR: I always wanted to own a store and imagined this as the name. Ophelia, is one of my favorite characters in Shakepeare’s Hamlet. There is something about those who are driven to commit suicide, either in life or fiction, that disturbs, and simultaneously intrigues me. So here, on Pinterest, I have created the rebirth or revival of one of my favorite characters.

From the board Resuscitating Ophelia and Virginia

From the board Resuscitating Ophelia and Virginia

MJO: If you could fall into any Pinterest picture and spend some time there which one would you choose and why?

OR: Again, there are so many pictures that provide a lovely escape, I would find it difficult to pick one.

{Understandably so! The boards of Ophelia’s Renaissance are not for the fly-by-nighters who have just one second of free-time. They are boards meant to be explored and discovered, appreciated and enjoyed.}

Like Hamlet’s tragic heroine, Ophelia beautiful both inside and out, knew the right time – her own time – to make the story her own. Centuries later her quiet impact still inspires.  A fantastic thumbs up to Shakespeare for creating such an indelible character and for modern day English teachers for keeping her spirit alive! Never underestimate the power of pinterest!

From the board The Effect of Fairy Tales

From the board The Effect of Fairy Tales

If you are not familiar with pinterest, Ms. Jeannie highly encourages you to take some time and poke around the site here. Take a little tour around Ophelia’s world here. Find Ms. Jeannie’s pinterest boards here.

From the boards of Ophelia's Renaissance

From the boards of Ophelia’s Renaissance

Do you have a favorite pinner on Pinterest dear readers? If so, please share links and thoughts below!

After Paris: Following Up with a Bestselling Author

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One of the most fun and inspiring reads of 2014 was Paris Letters by the effortlessly engaging Janice MacLeod. If you are unfamiliar with this book (now #7 on the New York Times bestseller list!) it is the ultimate manifesto for the creative spirit. A true, real-life story about how one woman dared to dream and then dared herself to really live that dream.

In Janice’s case, the dream was quitting a corporate job in California and traveling abroad to find fresh perspective and a renewed zest for life.  Not unlike Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, Paris Letters is an inspiring memoir of a spiritual journey that transformed one life in a 360 degree manner, but unlike Elizabeth, Janice isn’t hashing out her past along her journey – she’s finding her future – and detailing it one small step at a time.

Literally, by book’s end, you know how Janice got from point A to point P (Paris!) because she tells you specifically in 258 pages of detail how she did it with a satisfying and surprising one-thing-leads-to-another  trajectory of events. Paris Letters is part serendipity, part planning, part passion and part blind-faith. Along the way, you’ll laugh, you’ll sympathize, you’ll understand. As you begin the last third of the book you’ll begin telling yourself that you know how the book is going to end and you’ll feel happy that Janice found what she was looking for. But this is a real-life story and real-life endings never dissolve into the sunset in the same tidy way they to do in a movie. Paris doesn’t become Janice’s be-all end-all, there are new adventures to be had and she eludes to the possibilities of a new life in Canada in a city that Christophe (her Parisian/Polish love!) became smitten with in the same way that Janice was smitten with Paris.

And so a move was made! This is where Ms. Jeannie picks up the story. What’s life like now for Janice post-Paris Letters, post Parisian romance, post France?

MS. JEANNIE: At the end of Paris Letters you imagine a life in Canada… a house, a lake, a garden, little Janice’s and Christophe’s… now that you are living there is your daydream still the same?

JANICE MACLEOD: Before Paris, I had BIG dreams of exploring Europe. Right now my daydreams are smaller and seasonal in theme. For example, in the autumn I dreamed of hiking along paths of golden autumn leaves. Did it! Then I dreamed of having a gorgeous Christmas tree. Did it! Now I’ve got dreams of spring and gardening on my mind. I’m starting to drool over seed catalogs.

It may not be the historic streets of Paris but, as the seasons kiss in Calgary, you can sense just as much romance in the landscape! Photo via pinterest

It may not be the historic streets of Paris but, as the seasons kiss in Calgary, you can sense just as much romance in the landscape! Photo via pinterest

MJ: How has your move to Calgary broadened your point of view?

JML: I’ve been pondering the idea of the pilgrimage. Life in Paris was a sort of pilgrimage because 1) I did a lot of walking and wandering 2) Everything was more difficult. Language, administration, maps… EVERYTHING. Now that I’m in Canada, everything should be simple but really the pilgrimage has just become more of an internal exploration. The outer may be easier but more intense inner work is beginning. I’m still on that pilgrimage.

photo via pinterest

Traveling the roads of calgary via pinterest

MJ:  For those of us who have never been to Calgary can you sum up your new city in a sentence?

JML: Four seasons of splendor inhabited by shiny, chatty people.

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Janice and Christophe!

MJ: What are you most attracted to about life in Calgary? Has Christophe found his Paris?!

JML: Definitely the four distinct seasons is the most attractive quality of Calgary for me. Calgarians like to play in all seasons, too. They don’t huddle up in winter. They hit the slopes and polish off their skates. I’ve revisited skating. Oh how I adore skating. And I’m delighted to announce that Christophe has found his Paris! He loves the wide open spaces here. It’s big sky country. Very different from Europe which, in his view, is more cramped.

Paintings of Janice's adventures in Paris are available for sale by clicking on this image

Paintings of Janice’s adventures in Paris are available here

MJ:  Do you think you will ever live in Paris again?

JML: Never say never. Though for now, my intention is to flourish in Canada. Now that we are settled in, it’s time to let the flourishing begin.

Photo courtesy of thedailybeast.com

The recently discovered 1920s Paris flat that was left untouched for almost 100 years. Read the amazing story here. Photo courtesy of thedailybeast.com

MJ:  Recently on your blog you posted the news article about the 1920s Paris apartment discovery. If someone came across a time capsule of your space in Calgary what might they find?

JML: HA! They would find thousands of photos and paintings of Paris. I’m currently sifting through all the art I did in Paris and will be posting it to my shop. It’s a big Parisian whirlwind here in my Calgary home.

Capturing the essence of Paris. A scene snippet fresh from Janice's blog.

Capturing the essence of Paris. A scene from the St. Paul Metro fresh from Janice’s blog.

MJ: What inspires you about the view from Calgary?

JML: I live along a river here in Calgary so I spent a lot of time just staring at the river. It’s an open-eye meditation. If you’re not moved by nature you’ve got problems. Then when you drive half an hour west BOOM! There are the Rocky Mountains. Those mountains were here long before I arrived and will be here long after I leave. Knowing that helps me not sweat the small stuff and to just be grateful to behold them here now.

MJ:  Do you feel as strong a need to share with people about your daily life in Canada? Is there a sense that life there is as equally entertaining as life in Paris?

First scenes from Calgary! Photo via Janice's blog.

First scenes from Calgary! Photo via Janice’s blog.

JML: I haven’t shared much about Calgary simply because so much of it has been administration-focused. Do people want to know about me changing my drivers license and health card? Do they want to know about my visit to the dentist? The doctor? It’s not quite as difficult or funny as it was in France. I spent my first season here just settling in. Plus, my brain went quiet after writing and promoting PARIS LETTERS. It will take some time to restart that part of my brain and then we will be back on, entertaining the masses one blog post and letter at a time.

Subscribe to Janice's beauiful Paris letters project for one month, six months or 12 months here

Subscribe to Janice’s beautiful Paris letters project for one month, six months or 12 months here

MJ:  One of the most inspiring things about both your book and your blog is your confidence in pursuing whimsical endeavors. Is that something you find you must continuously develop and encourage or is it just a part of your natural makeup?

JML: Ah yes, I’m sure there will be some whimsical moments as I attempt to become outdoorsy here in western Canada. I write to amuse myself, so that’s likely to continue. Then if it’s good writing I share with the world via my letters, books or blog posts.

MJ:  Of all the attention you have received from the Paris Letters journey, what is one of the most surprising experiences that has stemmed from the project?

JML: Two things. First, my book, the travel memoir PARIS LETTERS made it on the New York Times Best Seller list this month. I didn’t expect it at all. Total delightful surprise. Second, people who write me telling me the letter I sent them made their day. There is a lot of tough stuff out there to deal with in this world. The letter in the mail helps ease some of those burdens. I love when that happens and someone feels compelled to sent me a note in thanks.

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Each letter is prettier than the next!

MJ:  If you were the recipient of a painted letter from anywhere in the world, past or present, where would it hail from and who would be the author?

JML: I would hope to get a painted letter from Percy Kelly, whom I learned about when I traveled through the UK. It was his painted letters that inspired my project. To get a letter from him would be dreamy, but he passed away years ago, so it would also be super weird.

MJ:  What’s the next day dream?

JML: Sharing my photos and paintings. I created so much art in Paris but didn’t share it since I was busy making it. Now is my time to curate, edit, refine and share. It’s going to be great! I’m so excited to share it. There is a lot of pretty Paris art in my collection.

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MJ:  Just out of curiosity, did you ever meet up with Mary in Canada? [Note: Mary was a Paris Letters recipient who turned out to become penpal to Janice. She’s mentioned throughout the book.]

JML: Not yet. She still lives as far from me as my friends in California. Canada is a big country. But one day I’m confident it will happen. As fate would have it, her son goes to my mom’s dental office. Can you believe that? So I’m sure at some point we will be in the same town at the same time. If not, I might just have to make a pilgrimage to Massey, Ontario, to see for myself where all her letters to me are written.

Perhaps that meeting with Mary will launch a blog post or launch a chapter in a new book! You just never know! But there is two things that Ms. Jeannie does know for certain –  However Janice chooses to document Calgary, whether it be through photographs or paintings, words or wisdom it will be beautiful and it will be entertaining just like the lady herself!

In the meantime, read Paris Letters! You will love it!

Other fascinating interviews with fabulously talented individuals can be found in the interview section on Ms. Jeannie’s blog. Stop by and take a peek here!

**** UPDATE 6/28/2017 **** Janice just published a new book all about her Paris adventures. It’s called A Paris Year and this one includes zillions of Janice’s photographs and paintings of magical, marvelous Paris . Read about it here. And grab your copy of the book here. 

Newly arrived… A Paris Year

 

Compassion Collects in the Closet: How One Helps Many

This time, Ms. Jeannie’s interview series takes us to the very big city of Chicago, to a very big closet, powered by a lovely lady with a very BIG  heart. Meet Nicole of  Dotto, vintage fashionista and volunteer extraordinaire.

Hello Nicole!

Nicole runs the sunny vintage clothing shop Dotto, on Etsy. It’s so full of personality, Ms. Jeannie can’t help but think that Nicole is bringing a much needed breath of fresh air to dusty cellars and attics all over the city. She’s the shop model, the copy writer, the clothing scout, the photographer and the coordinator behind her brand. And as if running a successful Etsy shop isn’t accomplishment enough, she also donates proceeds from her shop sales to not one but  seven local charities that she’s affiliated with.  How does she do it, you ask? Let’s find out…

Nicole of Dotto vintage modeling a 1940 Peter Pan collar dress. Click for more info.

Nicole modeling a 1940 Peter Pan collar dress. Click for more info.

Ms. Jeannie: Oh Nicole – you sound like such a fun person and incredibly nice to be donating shop proceeds to charity. Please explain a bit about how you came to make charities a theme for your shop.

Nicole: AW. I’ve been a pretty serious volunteer for years that probably started with the peace corps, but no wait. I volunteered a little in college too. When I moved to Chicago I spent the first few months going to as many volunteer orientations as I could and was blown away by how many really good- like really good- organizations there were here and at one point had to start cutting back because I was volunteering more than I was working. Anyway, I went to a small business expo about a year ago and was asked what makes my business different and I remember thinking ‘oh my god NOTHING. it’s just clothes’. I decided to show in my shop what I am able to do by making my own hours and working for myself. Whew!

Vintage 1970 Scout Leader Vest. Click for more info.

Vintage 1970 Scout Leader Vest. Click for more info.

MJ: Tell us a little about each of the charities you are involved with and why you chose them.

http://www.pawschicago.org/

pawschicago.org

Nicole: PAWS Chicago is a no kill animal shelter. I volunteer on the dog side and lately have been fostering cats!

sitstayread

sitstayread.org

Sit Stay Read is a literacy program that enlists dogs as volunteers TOO. kids get super jazzed about reading to the dogs during classroom visits, it is pretty adorable and their reading scores show a vast improvement.

826chi.org

826chi.org

826 Chicago is a creative writing and tutoring center. They offer field trips to elementary school kids during the day and tutoring to older kids afternoons and evenings. Right now I am working online with four AP history students to help them pass the exam at the end of the year.

Side Note: 826 Chicago was recently part of a TED talk. For a quick, interesting little video about how the 826 concept started click here.

keenusa.org

keenusa.org

KEEN is an exercise program for kids and teens with disabilities- IT IS AWESOME.

littlebrotherschicago.org

littlebrotherschicago.org

Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly reaches out to isolated seniors all over the city by getting them to senior parties and/or visiting them at home.

juddgoldmansailing.org

juddgoldmansailing.org

Adaptive Sailing helps people with disabilities learn how to sail. It is even more interesting than it sounds.

Side Note: If you are interested in learning more about this program, you can watch this 7 minute video. It is inspiring to see how challenges are turned into rewarding opportunities for both participants and program coordinators. And spending time on the water?! Who couldn’t benefit from that!

workingbikes.org workingbikes.org[/caption]

Working Bikes fixes donated bicycles and ships them to countries in need or sells them to the community at a low cost.

MJ: What is your process of determining how much donation goes to which charity?
Nicole: If I’ve missed volunteering with an organization that I usually volunteer with, I’ll donate to them first when extra money comes in. but I try to volunteer with each group at least a few times a month, some of them weekly. When a ‘disaster relief’ item sells, that money goes toward something that is currently going on in the world through www.globalgiving.org

Vintage Christmas Angel Nativity Dress. This is one of more than a dozen pieces in Nicole's shop that contribute to disaster relief funds. Click here to see what catches your eye.

Vintage Christmas Angel Nativity Dress. This is one of more than a dozen pieces in Nicole’s shop that contribute to disaster relief funds. Click here to see what catches your eye.

MJ: Your photographs are full of personality – do you work with a photographer or do you arrange all the sets yourself?

Vintage 1960's sheer black slip.

Nicole’s clever spin on a vintage 1960’s sheer black slip.

Nicole: I use a timed camera in all of the photos with a white background. The professional outdoor photography is done by my verrrry talented friend Rodion Galperin.

It's gard to figure out what's prettier - Rodion's photograph or the dress! Mid-century lace wedding dress. Click for more info.

It’s hard to figure out what’s prettier – Rodion’s photograph or the dress! Mid-century lace wedding dress. Click for more info.

For one year, Rodion traveled across the US with a red paper heart. Watch the beauty of this amazing project unfold here…

MJ: What’s your most favorite decade of vintage clothing?
Nicole: ooooh. It changes all the time. Currently the 1940s. I love the fitted waists and powerful shoulders that evolved with women entering the workplace.

1940 Wool Fitted Suit

1940 Wool Fitted Suit

MJ: What’s your most favorite item in your shop right now?
Nicole: The white sequin dress with pink flowers. People always ask if I wear things that are in my shop and I feel kind of weird that I don’t (except wouldn’t it be kind of weird if I did?) but it’s true. I do, however, put things in my shop that I’ve worn before… this dress is the ultimate. I wore it to a dive bar for New Years a few years ago (true story) and for my birthday one year. I am going to cry a river once it sells but I always feel a little bit like I am getting married when I wear it, so. . .

1950 White Sequin Dress.

1950 White Sequin Dress.

MJ: Every once in awhile we see a cat or a dog or another person pop-up in your listing photographs. Tell us about your fellow models.
Nicole: Oh the muffin butts? They make the best models. the dogs are from my hometown in California, they’re in the backyard photos… right now I am fostering a tabby cat from an animal shelter- he only enters the picture if treats are involved. A few months ago I fostered brother cats who looooved posing. Or sleeping along the wall by my feet while I took photos for hours, the lovers.

With kitty and the pink Mid-Century pajamas.

With kitty and the pink Mid-Century pajamas.

MJ: What is the strangest thing you have come across in your vintage adventures?
Nicole: A friend found a guy on craigslist in upstate New York who ‘had a lot of inventory’ that turned out to be a huge barn FILLED with vintage clothing. I tell you what. We thought we’d walked into heaven when we entered that barn. A dark musty old clothing filled heaven.  

Side note: This story reminded Ms. Jeannie of Julie’s interview from Fishs Eddy – she discovered a treasure trove of vintage china in an old barn in upstate New York too. Maybe these two barns knew each other:)

MJ: Ms. Jeannie loves Chicago! She has many ancestors from there and her father grew up in Oak Park. Are you from there? What are some of your favorite things about living there?
Nicole: I am with you, girl! I love this city, I moved here on a whim two and a half years ago. The architecture and snow and the Colombian Exposition of 1893 are what initially drew me here. But the FOOD! What a pleasant surprise, I had no idea it was such a dream food city before I moved here.

Chicago Photography by Rebecca Plotnick. Click for more info.

Chicago Photography by Rebecca Plotnick. Click for more info.

MJ: When you are not Etsy-ing or volunteering, what else do you like to do with your time?
Nicole: I love to ride around on my bicycle, which I initially got into to impress a guy. Ugh, good thing bikes are so awesome. Every once in a while I design and sew clothing- it’s actually why I originally signed up on Etsy. And then vintage clothing ended up taking over.

MJ:  It looks like, from your previous shop move, that you have been affiliated with Etsy since almost the beginning, back in 2007. How did you discover Etsy? How has it evolved since 2007 and why did you decide for a change from gimmeNicole to Dotto?
Nicole: I get asked about Etsy a lot and it’s kind of fuzzy. I think I heard about it through someone on Ebay. Weird, right? Remember when listing an item on Etsy used to take several pages? And you had to add photos one at a time? I remember the day they rolled out the one page listing template and everything was like MAGIC.

MJ:  What is your favorite type of vintage clothing to scout?
Nicole: I don’t have too much of a filter, I will go for anything. I physically cannot stop myself from grabbing anything neon or glittery, sheer or with matching belt. I used to get anxious when I shopped, like if I didn’t do it fast enough people would find things that I was meant to find but that has changed completely over the years. I’ll totally give someone something from my cart if they are eyeing it (okay. within REASON)

MJ: Do you wear a lot of vintage clothing yourself?
Nicole: Ugh, I don’t. And I have kept some really beautiful things since I started my shop! I’ll wear vintage for special occasions or anything where I have to think about what to wear beforehand, definitely. I love over dressing for an event. But daily, I almost always wear a t shirt and jeans or skirt.

Vintage his/hers reversible soccer shirt.

Vintage his/hers reversible soccer shirt.

MJ: It seems that your shop clothes are full of American nostalgia from camp t-shirts all the way down the line to prom dresses and ballet costumes. Do you look for items that are reminiscent of a traditional American past or does it just happen to work out like that?
Nicole: Oh it just happens to work out like that.

Vintage Ballerina Costume.

Vintage Ballerina Costume

Mermaid Green Party Dress. Possible former prom dress?!

Possible former prom dress?!  Vintage 1980’s Mermaid Green Party Dress.

Vintage Figure Skating Dress

Vintage Figure Skating Dress

MJ:  Do you sell most of your items to customers in the US or overseas?
Nicole: I think it’s split pretty evenly. I sell a lot to England and Australia, I always wonder if those places are especially void of vintage clothing or if they’re just more inclined to shop online. Stateside, more orders than I ever would have bet on are from Texas. but really, it’s just so spread out. 

Side note: Ms. Jeannie also sells a lot of vintage to Australia. She recently spoke with a customer who shed some light on the subject. It seems there is just not a lot of vintage or antique items in Australia. And what they do have is really really expensive, so for collectors it is much more cost effective to purchase vintage from the States. Even with our high shipping prices to their neck of the woods, it still works out in their favor.

MJ: Buying from your shop is almost like receiving two gifts! You give something back to the community and you receive a fabulous vintage item at the same time, do you think people respond to that and do you think that affects their purchasing decisions?
Nicole: AW. I feel like that’s split too. but always if someone didn’t notice that their purchase helps organizations around the city, they’re pretty jazzed when they find out afterward.

MJ:  Have you seen the impact that your charitable contributions have made? Is there a Nicole Cat Hospital somewhere in Chicago or a statue of your loveliness downtown?! Did the mayor give you a key to the city?!
Nicole: whaaaaaaaaaat an enormous key to the city? Who wouldn’t want that. It would have to be enormous, otherwise the deal would be off.

MJ: If we were to come spend a day with you in Chicago, and you were to act as tour guide, where would you take us?
Nicole: WELL. every old theater we could get into, most of them in Uptown. I am just slightly obsessed with atriums and glass ceilings- Harold Washington Library, the Cultural Center, the Rookery. You would have too ooh and ahh at architecture along the river with me, naturally.

Harold Washington Library Photograph by Carolyn Jane Photo. Click for more info.

Harold Washington Library Photograph by Carolyn Jane Photo. Click for more info.

Chicago Cultural Center Tiffany Dome Photograph by unfinishedphoto via etsy. Click for more info.

Chicago Cultural Center Tiffany Dome Photograph by unfinishedphoto . Click for more info.

Rookery Building photograph by photoasylum. Click for more info.

Rookery Building photograph by photoasylum. Click for more info.

MJ: And last but not least…the universal questions: What book(s) are you currently reading? And what music are you listening to?
Nicole: I’ve been listening to a lot of Lissie and old Ratatat lately and reading a book that my sister recommended called The Secret History. It’s by Donna Tartt and is pretty excellent.

Mustard Corduroy Vest.

Mustard Corduroy Vest.

With over 190 items in her shop you most certainly might find a new treasure for your wardrobe. Ms. Jeannie encourages you to help the helper, by visiting Nicole’s shop on Etsy or by passing along this post to someone else who would enjoy it. Best case scenario, you might aid in helping a shelter dog find a new home or a withdrawn senior find a smile.  Worst case scenario, you keep Nicole afloat so that she can continue to be a working wonder in the windy city.

Happy adventuring, dear readers!

A Trip Around China with Fishs Eddy: Discussing Dishes and Design with Julie

It’s unusual for things to stick around New York City. In a place that’s constantly moving, constantly changing, constantly striving to be the best and the boldest, it is understandable that the pressure is great. The city, at most, is a complicated love affair offering you treasures in the form of new favorites…restaurants, boutiques, coffee houses, galleries, apartments, friends, jobs… you lose your heart, you fall in love, you grow to need them and then one day they are gone.  It’s life lived bittersweet, but in an environment that constantly strives to out do itself, it’s to be expected. To Ms. Jeannie, that’s what makes the city wonderful. It’s addictive and adventurous and mysterious. It’s here one minute and  gone the next. But every once in awhile you get lucky, the city gods smile upon you,  and one of your favorites winds up sticking around for many, many years and many more beyond that.

Such is the case with the whimsical vintage china and kitchen shop, Fishs Eddy, located at Broadway and 19th street.  First opened in the mid-1980’s by Julie and her husband, Dave, Ms. Jeannie first discovered it thanks to her brother, who had purchased a vintage Howard Johnson’s creamer there, and then went about telling all of New York how wonderful of a place it was. Like her brother, Ms. Jeannie was smitten right away. Having just moved back to the city,  from Seattle, it reminded her a bit of the market stalls in Pike Place, where everything was a feast for your eyes  in that simple, unearthed presentation way that spoke a straightforward this-is-what-I-offer language. It also reminded her a bit of the one day sample sales, she had just  started frequenting with her girlfriends. These were sort of “secret” sample sales where you had to be on “the list” and show up to a hush-hush location where designers opened trunks of clothes in near empty buildings and let you rummage through one of a kind fashions that were just retired from the runway or design studio.  Of course these were deeply discounted clothes in waif sizes but you couldn’t help but feel like an adventurer among all those fabrics and that you being offered something rare and unusual.

That’s exactly what Ms. Jeannie felt when visiting Fishs Eddy for the first time. It was exhilarating.   Barrels of retro plates and cups, bins of mismatched silverware, shelves and cabinets of affordably priced pitchers and platters, cups and glassware. And then there was their sense of humor, their quirky signs, their whimsical displays. It was all perfection right from the very beginning.

So how does one such store manage to make it in one of the toughest cities in the world for more than 25 years? Clearly it’s good business practices, but also there’s more to it then just operating the nuts and bolts of every day. Ms. Jeannie caught up with Julie to discuss all aspects of selling china in New York City. Here’s what she had to say…

Fishs Eddy in NYC. Photo courtesy of shopikon.com

Fishs Eddy in NYC. Photo courtesy of shopikon.com

Ms Jeannie: Where did your love of china and glassware begin?

Julie: After college I moved in on west 15th street. Dave was working at his cousin’s shop called the Wooden Indian. It was this quirky little store at the end of the block, they sold restaurant glassware and some dishes, along with a lot of peculiar stuff. It was a fixture in the West Village and a lot of cool artists and locals shopped there. Dave was working behind the counter, and well, the rest is history. I had graduated from Syracuse University and knew a little about Syracuse China-a major American manufacture of restaurant ware located near the campus. Dave knew a lot about restaurant dishes and glasses. He also knew how to run a shop. So he left his job and we opened our own store. The more we went out searching for dishes and glasses, the more we learned about these incredible factories and the manufacturing process and the wonderful people behind it.

Syracuse china marks from the 1890's -2009

Syracuse china marks from the 1890’s -2009

MJ: How did the Fishs Eddy concept come about to begin with? If I understand correctly, Fishs Eddy started with your barn discovery of old restaurant ware back in the 1980’s. Did you know that you were specifically looking for dishes that day or did it just happen to work out that way? If you had stumbled upon a barn full of old lamps do you think you would have then been in the vintage lamp/lighting business?!

J: Well we wouldn’t ever sell lamps because chances are, for us at least, if its something that has to be plugged in, it won’t work! But back at the shop we were already selling vintage restaurant china and glassware -because both Dave and I shared a passion for that kind of stuff. So we were searching for dishes when we stumbled upon that barn filled with “ware.” The thing is, we were always picking up odds and end, finding a dozen of anything would be a big deal…and here was a whole barn filled!

Fishs Eddy in the early years. Photo courtesy of the Fishs Eddy blog, Table of Content. Click the picture to read more...

Fishs Eddy in the early years. Photo courtesy of the Fishs Eddy blog, Table of Content. Click the picture to read more…

MJ: Did you grow up in New York? Why did you decide to open your first store location in the city as opposed to the suburbs or surrounding boroughs?
J: I grew up in Staten Island. I love art and dragged my father into the city any chance I could get to take me to museums. I always knew I would do something in the city. But I thought I would be a painter, I didn’t think I would have a business. It all worked out.

MJ: When you opened up shop in 1986, did you find that people got the mix and match concept right away or did you have to educate them about all the whimsical possibilities?

J: It’s funny how it all happened because it didn’t happen by design. Many many years ago we were hauling endless bushels of dishware out of the basements of the restaurant suppliers down in the Bowery. In those days the Bowery was the restaurant supply district. Those bushels we were hauling were filled with mixed pieces. It’s not like there were sets of anything. It was all obsolete cups and sugar bowls and mugs and plates. When we displayed these dishes in the store everything looked great together, even though nothing matched as a set. We merchandised our dishes the way were finding it, massed out in those basements. It was the best suggestive selling we could have ever done. People were excited that the common denominator was the great restaurant quality and they felt comfortable putting mixed patterns together to create something very unique. I have to say without sounding too presumptuous, I do believe Fishs Eddy was at the forefront of that whole approach to table top.

A "traditional" Fishs Eddy store display. Look at all those possibilities! Photo via flickr.

A “traditional” Fishs Eddy store display. Look at all those possibilities! Photo via flickr.

Crates and barrels and baskets all full. How could you not find at least one treasure in all of this?! Photo courtesy of timeout.com

Crates and barrels and baskets all full. How could you not find at least one treasure in all of this?! Photo courtesy of timeout.com

MJ: I was first introduced to Fishs Eddy through my brother who had bought a vintage Howard Johnson’s creamer from you guys. That was was 20 years ago and I still think about that creamer! Is there one item like that from the early days that brings back a sense of nostalgia for you?

Ms. Jeannie's brother purchased ne similiar to this one which is available online at fishseddy.com

Ms. Jeannie’s brother purchased one similar to this one which is available online at fishseddy.com (click the photo for info)

J: Hmmmm that’s a hard question because there are so many. The one pattern that I get very nostalgic for are these fantastic little cups made for the La Fonda Del Sol restaurant in the city. They were designed by Alexander Girard and had a fabulous design that was so 50’s and strikingly modern. The best part is that we’re working with the Girard family and bringing those dishes back! I still can’t get over that we’re producing a pattern that we found sitting in a basement 25 years ago, and who knows how long they were sitting there before we rescued them!

Alexander Girard (1907-1993) is an American born designer that studied in Italy.

Alexander Girard (1907-1993) is an American born designer who studied in Italy. He is most known for his textile designs for Herman Miller, but in addition, he designed the visual concept of the original La Fonda del Sol restaurant in New York, circa 1960.  Pictures (clockwise top left): (1) the original menu designed by Girard for the La Fonda Del Sol restaurant, 1960.  (2) Portrait of Girard. (3) Porcelain plates designed by Girard now available at various museums. (4) The original La Fonda Del del Sol Restaurant, 1960. All photos via pinterest.

MJ:  One of the most fun things about visiting Fishs Eddy is your store displays – with the old crates and big bins of bits and pieces, it makes everything feel like a constant discovery. Like we’ve unearthed a treasure that you might not even know you had. That’s great design! How do you come up with your display concepts?

Crate full of mix and matches! Photo courtesy of absolutelynothingtowear.com

Crate full of mix and matches! Photo courtesy of absolutelynothingtowear.com

Even the cardboard boxes seem to fit right in! Photo by Heather Bullard.

Even the cardboard boxes seem to fit right in! Photo by Heather Bullard.

Quirky window displays. The wedding dress is made entirely out of spoons!

Quirky window displays. The wedding dress is made entirely out of spoons!

J: I tell our visual people that if it looks as though they spent any time at all thinking and strategizing about how a display looks, then the display is going in the wrong direction. We aren’t decorative and we aren’t “fluffy.” Every fixture in the store has a purpose, opposed to other stores that put random and useless props out to set a mood. Our dishes and glasses are what sets the mood and I think that kind of straight forward merchandising gives customers a lot of credit. People are very creative if you give them a chance.

MJ: Design-wise, who or what inspires you?

J; Without a doubt, Todd Oldham! We approached Todd a few years ago thinking this guy is never going to call us back…but he did! Todd is truly a talented and brilliant designer, watching him in action is awe-inspiring. We’ll be talking about how to lay out a graphic or something like that, and Todd will just see something that is totally unexpected, but it’s always right!

Todd Oldham (1961 - ) is an American designer with talents in a multitude of creative design fields including furniture, clothing and merchandising. Photo courtesy of poptower.com

Todd Oldham (1961 – ) is an American designer with talents in a multitude of creative design fields including furniture, clothing and merchandising. Photo courtesy of poptower.com

But what inspires me even more is that Todd is most unpretentious, giving and wonderful person ever! His partner Tony is the same way. Todd overseas the Charley Harper estate and could have given that design to anyone for dishware. God knows a lot of people would have killed for it. But he trusted this small business to do the best quality. He doesn’t make decisions based on how much money he could make. I‘m inspired by Todd as a designer, and just as much for the person that he is. How many people can you say that about?

A sampling of the Todd Oldham + Charley Harper collection for Fishs Eddy. clockwise top left: (1) Cardinal dinner plate (2) Green Jay Placemat (3) Eskimo Curlew Tray (4) Western Tanager Coaster. All items avaiable at fishseddy.com

A sampling of the Todd Oldham + Charley Harper collection for Fishs Eddy. Clockwise from top left: (1) Cardinal dinner plate (2) Green Jay Placemat (3) Eskimo Curlew Tray (4) Western Tanager Coaster. All items available at fishseddy.com

MJ: What is the most exciting item you ever discovered on your buying sprees and where was it from?

J: We’ve discovered a lot of things. But I have to say one of the most exciting pieces that we’ve ever come across was this very large punch bowl from the 21 Club in NYC. The 21 Club was a speak-easy and I always think about how that bowl was probably made for some kind of spiked punch!

Side note: To see a fun quick little video of all the “hidden” doors, vaults and prohibition- era trickery inside the 21 Club click here.

The 21 Club in Manhattan - now over 80 years old!

The 21 Club in Manhattan – now over 80 years old!

MJ: Is there a particular pattern or brand that creates a frenzy among Fishs Eddy customers?

J: Customers really love our Charley Harper dishes that Todd designed. They also love some of the crazy one-offs that we mange to get away with, like a little tray that’s Obama’s birth certificate! That was a frenzy because it came out around election time.

The Obama Birther Certificate Tray exclusively from Fishs Eddy.

The Obama Birther Certificate Tray exclusively from Fishs Eddy.

MJ: After 25 years in the business, do you think you have seen it all when it comes to china patterns? Is there a holy grail of patterns that you are anticipating?

J: Haha….a holy grail of patterns? I love anything that was done in a spray mist pattern. That was popular in the 50’s, so I guess if I found a barn filled with that stuff I would start worshiping. And trust me, it takes a lot to get me to worship!

MJ: What’s one of the best customer stories you can recall?

J: One of my favorite stories is when a customer took a photograph of the Fishs Eddy sign on the highway on route 17. They sent the photo to us and said “did you know they name a town after your store?” That town was founded about three hundred years before we were!

Ms. Jeannie consulted her 1943 vintage atlas and was thrilled to see that Fishs Eddy was listed on the map!

Ms. Jeannie consulted her 1943 vintage atlas and was thrilled to see that Fishs Eddy, New York  was listed on the map! In 1943, it had a population of 488, in case you were wondering!

It's located in the southern part of the state, right in the crook of Catskill country.

It’s located in the southern part of the state, right in the crook of Catskill country.

MJ: I absolutely love antique ironstone pottery and get so excited when I come across a piece. The older, more aged and imperfect looking the better – if it has a crack or a chip it is absolutely perfect! What sort of pieces or brands get you so excited like this?

Ms. Jeannie's most beloved ironstone pottery platter dating to 1850.

Ms. Jeannie’s most beloved ironstone pottery platter dating to 1850.

J: I love any dishes that have the original guideline markings under the glaze. There was this guy named Ray who worked forever at Shenango China factory and he signed off on all the sample plates. So we have lots of these plates with Ray’s signature. He even doodled on some of them!

Julie's favorites! This one is a Pottsville Club Sample Plate (click for more info)

Julie’s favorites! This one is a Pottsville Club Sample Plate (click for more info)

Isbell's Picadilly Restaurant Sample Plate available at fishseddy.com (click more more info)

Isbell’s Picadilly Restaurant Sample Plate available at fishseddy.com (click for more info)

Colonial Hotel Sample Plate available at fishseddy.com (click for more info)

Colonial Hotel Sample Plate available at fishseddy.com (click for more info)

MJ: What is your most favorite piece, or collection, in the shop right now?

J: Right now at this very minute I love this funny little pattern we did with the winner of our annual design competition at Pratt Institute. We’ve been doing this competition for several years now and some of my favorite patterns have come out of it. I love student work because it’s so unfettered. Last year the theme of the competition was politics. I did get a lot of elephants and donkeys but this one student submitted a Teddy Roosevelt pattern that’s totally adorable. I was thinking, where else would you get Teddy Roosevelt dishes other than Fishs Eddy??? And, we had it made in America because of course, you can’t outsource TR! It just makes me happy to look at!

The Teddy Roosevelt Collection available at fishseddy.com (click for more info)

The Teddy Roosevelt Collection available at fishseddy.com (click for more info)

MJ: Is it ever nerve-wracking to be around so many fragile things?

J: We’ve broken some pieces of our collection that, after the damage, I just have to go and hide under a rock for a few hours -but at the end of the day, they are dishes.

So many fragiles! Photo by Heather via pinterest

So many fragiles! Photo by Heather Bullard via pinterest

MJ: I saw your recent blog post about Stanley Tucci stopping by for a book signing (very cool!), do you have a big celebrity clientele? And have you, yourself, been star-struck by anyone that’s visited the store?

Stanley Tucci's new cookbook

Stanley Tucci’s new cookbook

Stanley Tucci signing books at Fishs Eddy. Photo courtesy of the Fishes Eddy blog, Table of Content.

Stanley Tucci signing books at Fishs Eddy. Photo courtesy of the Fishes Eddy blog, Table of Content.

J: We do get a lot of celebrities. The one person I might have frozen in star “struckenness” is Bill Clinton, who came in a few months ago while I was out to lunch, of course.

Julie didn't miss out on meeting Stanley! There she is (in the glasses). Photo

Julie didn’t miss out on meeting Stanley! There she is (in the glasses). Photo courtesy of the Fishs Eddy blog, Table of Content. Click on the picture to read more about the event.

 MJ: If you could sit down to luncheon with anyone famous, alive or dead, who would you chose? And what would your place settings look like? 

J: Gloria Steinem is one person. I sat a few rows behind her once when I went to Carnegie Hall with my father.   I only watched her for the entire concert. Anyone who speaks up for gender equality is someone I want to have lunch with. And then there’s Hank Williams because I love county music. I know, I’m a big walking conflict of interest because it’s not like county music preaches gender equality.

Julie's lunch companions. Gloria Steinam is an American journalist, activist, feminist and leader of the women's liberation movement in the 1960's and 1970's. Hank Williams (1923-1953) was a highly influential American country music artist.

Julie’s lunch companions. Ms. Jeannie bets there would be some interesting conversations going on between these two over lunch!  Gloria Steinem is an American journalist, activist, feminist and was the leader of the women’s liberation movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Hank Williams (1923-1953) was a highly influential American country music singer-songwriter.

MJ: Can you name some restaurants or hotels that have utilized your food service supply line?

J: Marcus Samelsons Red Rooster, Joseph Leonard, Perla, Prune, Maialino, La Bernadine….too many to name!

Red Rooster Harlem -  American comfort food cuisine - between 125th and 126th Streets (click for their menu)

Red Rooster Harlem – American comfort food cuisine – between 125th and 126th Streets (click for their menu). Photo via flickr.

Joseph-Leonard American Restaurant  and Bar in the West Village - 170 Waverly Place. Click for menu. Photo by Daniel Krieger.

Joseph-Leonard American Restaurant and Bar in the West Village – 170 Waverly Place. Click for menu. Photo by Daniel Krieger.

Perla  - a rustic Italian restaurant at 24 Minetta Lane in the West Village. (Click photo for menu). Photograph courtesy of roundpulse.com

Perla – a rustic Italian restaurant at 24 Minetta Lane in the West Village. (Click photo for menu). Photograph courtesy of roundpulse.com

Prune - American homecooking with mulit-cultural influences. Located at 54 East 1st Street (click photo for menu).

Prune – American homecooking with multi-cultural influences. Located at 54 East 1st Street (click photo for menu).

Maialino - A Roman trattoria located at 2 Lexington Avenue. (Click photo for menu). Photo courtesy of youropi.com

Maialino – A Roman trattoria located at 2 Lexington Avenue. (Click photo for menu). Photo courtesy of youropi.com

Le Bernardin - considered to be one of the best seafood restaurnts in all of Nyc. Located at 155 West 51st Street. Click photo for menu. Photograph courtesy of tripandtravelblog.com

Le Bernadine – considered to be one of the best seafood restaurants in all of NYC. Located at 155 West 51st Street. Click photo for menu. Photograph courtesy of tripandtravelblog.com

MJ: If one of our readers was visiting NYC for the first time and you were their tour guide, what five places would you take them and why?

J: I would take them to my house, because I have the best view of the Hudson River and the Statue of Liberty, and a collection of paintings that I love to show off. I would take them to Central Park, the MoMa, the lower east side, Eatly, and we would walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. Why do I only get five places?

Julie's New York tour...clockwise from top left (1) Central Park, photograph by zenzphotography (2) The Museuem of Modern Art (MoMA), painting by Gwen Meyerson

Julie’s New York tour…clockwise from top left (1) Central Park, photograph by zenzphotography (2) The Museuem of Modern Art (MoMA), painting by Gwen Meyerson (3) NY’s Lower East Side at night, photography courtesy of nydigest (4) The Brooklyn Bridge, water color painting by merlyna (5) Eatly Italian Marketplace, photography courtesy of paloma81.blogspot

And of course, you’d have to visit Fishs Eddy:)  To keep up with Julie via her blog, click here. She’s a hilarious writer with lots of fun stories! If you do not live in the New York area, have no fear – you can still be charmed by FE and fill your shopping cart full via their website fishseddy.com
Cheers for being a mainstay, Fishs Eddy, and cheers again, to 25 more years in the dish business!
This interview is part of a series of interviews Ms. Jeannie has been conducting with various artists around the world, for over a year now. To read more from this series, click here.