MFK: The Street Artists and the Food Writer

There is a group of graffiti artists in our city called the Metal Fingers Krew. They make these spectacular giant wall murals of their initials all over town on the sides of industrial buildings. Every time I pass one I think of the food writer MFK Fisher who shared the same initials.

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher (1908-1992)

The work of the Metal Fingers Krew is elaborately designed and really beautiful. They make their mark mostly on warehouses that are nondescript or in a state of shabbiness, so they add a bit of pizazz to the landscape with their color and their big 4-5 foot tall font faces.

MFK Fisher (1908-1992) made her mark on the 20th-century literary scene writing about food and how it looks and tastes and feels over the course of 30 books. Considered one of the most beautiful prose writers still to this day, she wrote her way through her own experiences… of men and marriages, of cross-continent moves, of motherhood and memories and of making food to eat.

The Metal Fingers Krew works like traditional graffiti artists – under the cover of night. One day you pass a blank brick building and the next day it is magically decorated. In a city that has a lot of murals but not a lot of graffiti, street art really stands out. The thing I notice most is not that this talented batch of artists defaced a building (which may or may not be exciting to the property owner) but that they’ve added a layer of creative flourish to what is otherwise a very linear and industrial part of town.

MFK Fisher also added her own flourish. Writing about food and life with such poetic, descriptive detail you can practically taste her words, she was famous for saying that she just wrote the facts of things.  But in doing so she also wrote the feelings of everything. Even the unglamorous sides of cooking… the dirt, the dishes, the heat, the nonsense, the dueling perspectives, the disasters.  Like when you are canning fruit in the summertime without air conditioning you get hot and sweaty. Or like when you pull butter and lettuce out of water from the spring house storage you get cold and shivery. That was all just part of the process of eating and experiencing, not an indelicate act or sensation that should go overlooked or unnoted because it was unattractive to talk about. Every bit was important.

The Metal Fingers Krew talks the same language in their own way too. They point your gaze at a typically unattractive building and make you look at the detailed beauty of it simply by adding a swatch of color. They call attention to the plain-Janes of a shed row, or the slow decay of a factory, or the burnout of a building left vacant in the same way that MFK Fisher draws attention to eating the everyday foods that we mostly take for granted.

I think MFK Fisher would have loved the passion behind the Metal Fingers Krew graffiti art just as much she liked describing her passion with food. They were two artists working in two different mediums but had the same initials and the same sole purpose of expressing oneself.

“One of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.”  MFK Fisher

What do you think? Do you see other stories or other artists in the face of graffiti? If so, please share your comments below!

In the meantime, cheers to painters and food preparers and the perspectives they bring!

Lost In Translation No More: An Update on the Chinese Mug!

Back in April we posed  the question… how many people does it take to translate a mug? We were up to four at that point with two more possibilities waiting in the wings of email communication. The mug in question was a vintage 1950’s enamelware covered cup made by the Peacock Enamelware Factory in Tianjin, China.

Due to its rarity and the fact that the message written on it was in Chinese (possibly Mandarin), deciphering the Chinese characters enough to associate them with English words and meanings was dauntingly slow. But with a little luck and a lot of perseverance connecting with online translation sites, friends of friends, and Chinese language books we got to the following stage of interpretation… (the blank dashes represent words we had yet to figure out)

First ____  Makes ____       {related words/themes from this line include: living, livelihood, give rise too, birth, life}

Prize  {reward, given for victory}

Burning Culture 1st ____ ____ 2nd ____ _____  {collectivization, work, worker, skill, profession, individual}

Theories surrounding the literal translation of the mug ran the gamut from Communist propaganda to marketing slogans (Eat at Al’s!) to an award of some-sort (mainly because everyone agreed that the middle line definitely referenced a prize or award of some kind).

Two weeks ago, when Google translator sputtered out two words, pride and factory, before shutting down completely, I thought for sure we were on the right track of this mug bearing some sort of political campaign message for an impassioned Chinese factory worker.  I could see him in my mind, eating his lunch, drinking his tea all along silently communicating his political ideology through the slogan on his mug.

Wonderfully, a breakthrough came in the form of the Nashville Chinese School when a last ditch effort was made to reach out to yet another language school (the fourth during this search!) just after the July 4th holiday. In two days, Irene from NCS had the whole mystery solved.  And to think this jewel of school was sitting right under my nose all these months.

Irene provided the following translation…

Progressive Manufacture
Award
Blaze Company – #2 engendering department

As it turns out our little covered mug was an award! Not exactly as sensational as a piece of communist history, this mug announced a prize for a job well done by an innovative manufacturing department. It was someone’s proud acknowledgement of accomplishment. A midcentury metal (pun intended!) of achievement.  A smile and a handshake, which is by far a happier association than communism.

Looking back on my original ideas of the translation, I see that we weren’t really that far off. First and Makes easily falls in line with Progressive and Manufacture. Prize and Award are the same. Burning Culture coordinates with Blaze Company.  We even had the number 2 figured out. The only part that drew blanks was the engendering department (which means the idea department or innovation department or possibly where sales and marketing resides!).

Aha. In solving this mystery of history we’ve also been able to answer the question of the day. How many people does it take to translate a vintage mug?

NINE!

Nine people and three months and lots of imagination to solve the slogan on a 64 year old mug.  I learned so many things on this fun little journey – but most importantly I was reminded to check my neighborhood first. Had I contacted Irene at the Nashville Chinese School in the beginning, this would have been the miniest of mysteries solved so fast. But on the other hand I would have never jumped in feet first to the deep end of the Chinese language pool. Knowledge is power(fully) exciting. And for that I’m grateful.

Cheers or 干杯  ganBei (as I now know they say in Chinese!) to Irene and to Sing and the host of other helpers involved along the way. And most importantly cheers to our vintage mug, who now has a spirit and a story.

If you ever need any translation help yourself, or want to embark on an interesting new language journey contact Irene here.

As for our little trophy of a Chinese mug – find her in the Vintage Kitchen shop here. Her exotic appeal and around the world scavenger hunt make for a happy little storage system for tea or spices or kitchen items of all sorts.

 

 

 

 

Evolution of a Restaurant: From Livestock to Luxury Living

There’s a neglected building downtown on 2nd Avenue that F. Scott Fitzgerald would have loved. It takes up most of one city block with a rounded corner front entrance, large paned glass windows and eyes that look out onto the street below not unlike Dr. T. J. Eckleburg’s in The Great Gatsby.  

These all knowing eyes of 2nd Avenue belong to a cow, a pig and a curly horned sheep. Animals now so out of place in an urban industrial neighborhood that they appear to be up to something unusual – something marvelous and clandestine.  The building they live on, itself, is peculiar with steep steps that spill out onto the sidewalk and armies of tall trees that hug the front facade like protective bodyguards.

It is a city block full of inherent curiosities. Stories that F. Scott would have rushed to translate as they tumbled out of the curtained glass windows, broken in places, or tangled themselves in the ivy running all over the backside of the building. You never see any activity come or go from the glass front door. Cars park alongside it carrying people to other places in the neighborhood. Exercisers walk or run down its sidewalks. Occasionally a homeless person will take a rest underneath the faded, flapping awning or dogs will stop to sniff around the bushes. But lights are never on inside and the doors are never open.

F. Scott would have imagined a grand but tortured story here. He would have hunted around in the grass grown parking lot, creating characters out of chipped fencing and rusted gates. He would have penned something poetic about the runaway garbage and the shattered beer bottles and the Parisian lamp posts missing their white light domes. Its a little more Valley of the Ashes then it is East Egg or West Egg but there’s a romance about this place that is intriguing.

If I described this building to someone out-of-town the first thing I’d mention was that it used to be a famous restaurant called The Stockyard in the 1980’s and 90’s.  When restaurateur Buddy Killen bought the building in 1985 he imagined it as the place where you could get the best steak in town along with Las Vegas style entertainment.  “The place where the stars are seen,” that was what he was aiming for.

In the restaurant days – awnings, menu offerings and the front entrance foyer. Photos via pinterest.

He pulled the property out of bankruptcy, added $400,000 worth of improvements and made it possible to seat 475 people in the 27,000 sqf building. His plans were very successful and for 30 years local residents, tourists and celebrities alike climbed the front steps, passed under the concrete eyes and stepped into a lively atmosphere serving the quality of steaks Buddy had hoped for.

Some of the famous clientele of the Stockyard (clockwise from top left): Andy Griffith, Vicki Lawrence, Jerry Lee Lewis, Loni Anderson and George Steinbrenner

But before the Stockyard ever became a famous restaurant it lived another life serving an entirely different purpose. The name of the restaurant and its signature menu items weren’t fly by night marketing ploys developed to envoke a theme and inspire an atmosphere.  Buddy brought things full-circle when he served steak and called his restaurant The Stockyard.

Originally, over a century ago this section of Nashville was called Butchertown for its concentration of numerous butcher shops and fresh meat availability. Long before Buddy ever set eyes on the building it served as a touchstone for an actual working stockyard – one that would become the most prominent and important livestock trading site in the Southeast.

In the mid-1910’s  there were several small trading yards around Nashville but local businessman James E. Caldwell wanted to create one central spot where all the animals, farmers, buyers and sellers could meet under one roof and get their business done fast and efficiently in a convivial atmosphere.

Caldwell found the perfect area for such an endeavor in open farmland just two blocks from the riverfront and four blocks east of the downtown business quadrant. In 1919, he hired contractors Foster & Creighton to begin working on a 10 acre mega-complex of sheds, barns and paddocks.

Nashville – Union Stockyards under construction – July 1919

Nashville-Union Stock Yard construction photographs, 1919

Local Nashville architect, Henry Closson Hibbs was selected to design an all weather building where business could be conducted year round and where stockyard management could set up offices.  H.C. came up with this rounded corner front entrance – a new trend in building design in the 1920’s – that would welcome visitors with open arms.

Nashville-Union Stock Yard building designed by H.C. (Henry Closson) Hibbs 1919-1920

These pictures below detail the lot assignment for the building and the construction as it occurred in 1919 and 1920.

The street corner allocated for the future site of the stockyard building.

Eventually all those pits and sticks and bricks formed this beautiful building, fully completed in 1920…

And you can see from this 1921 photograph how quickly the building became a popular meeting place. It even housed neighborhood amenities in the form of small retail businesses like a post office and a barber shop.

From 1921 to 1974 the Nashville-Union Stock Yards served as one of the busiest livestock markets in the region attracting farmers from Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, Alabama and Mississippi. Over 6,000 animals arrived daily for trade coming in via boat, rail car and farm truck. A long time bookkeeper for the Stock Yards said that it was not unusual to see cows walking down 2nd Avenue or an escaped hog loose from a pen.

A view of the stockyards circa 1965. Photograph by Gerald Holly.

That scene is hard to imagine now as the Stockyard sits in between government buildings and modern apartment hi-rises in what is currently one of the fastest growing neighborhoods in Nashville. Remarkably, even though 95 years have passed the building still looks almost exactly the same…

The neighborhood however no longer looks like livestock. Downtown skyscrapers are just a few blocks away and the only animals in site are of the avian kind.

Parking lots and empty brick warehouses dominate the immediate areas surrounding the Stockyard now.

The Nashville Union Stock Yards closed down in 1974 due to high property taxes. Sheds and barns were torn down, shoots dismantled and paddocks turned into parking lots. But the building remained, making way for Buddy Killen’s initial restauranteering interest in 1979.  Buddy’s restaurant, The Stockyard closed in 2015 after 36 years in business. The building and surrounding property were sold to out-of-town developers who now have plans to turn it into a 300 unit apartment complex.

Learning this recent information, I worried for the fate of the building and for the eyes of Second Avenue. Would the building be torn down and a piece of history cast aside? Would the pig and cow and sheep that have watched over the neighborhood for nine decades be replaced with something new and artistically of-the-moment? Would H.C. Hibbs turn over in his grave as his beautifully designed building gets turned over in the dirt?

As a lover of historic architecture, I am happy to say that this story stays bright.  The developers plan to incorporate the century old building into their design plans, keeping the history and heritage of both agriculture and aesthetic alive. The eyes of Second Avenue will be given a whole new century’s worth of sites to watch over. I know it is cliche to say that I wish these figureheads could talk – but I really wish they could. They’ve been witness to major history since they were set among the bricks… the Great Depression, civil rights, the rise of the automobile, the demise of farming, the destruction of their neighborhood and now the revitalization of their neighborhood. Not to mention all those famous people that walked in and out.

Construction begins soon for the apartment project. Materials and work trailers are already being assembled in a neighboring lot. We are going to be following along on the progress of the construction to see how this local landmark of stock yard turned restaurant turned apartment complex evolves.  And of course to see what the eyes of 2nd avenue will now be staring down upon. I hope it turns out to be something incredible.  Stay tuned for periodic updates!

***A special thank you…this post would not have been possible without the help of the wonderful staff at the Tennessee State Archives and the Metro Archives at the Main Branch of the Nashville Public Library. If you are keen on learning more history about Nashville and the state of Tennessee, I strongly recommend a visit to both places. They are fascinating and full of so much information, you’ll want to move-in and stay for a week researching your heart out.  

The 20th century construction photos of the Nashville Union Stockyards  included in this post are courtesy of the Metro Archives. 

 

 

 

Hello From The Other Side!

waterfront

Honk! Honk! Ms. Jeannie has arrived! The move from rural country to big city has been made at last! From her new vantage point in her new city she sends you the very biggest of the cheeriest hellos. Can you guess from the following photos what city and state she now calls home?

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To give you some hints… there are guitars everywhere, a river that runs the length of downtown, and a marvelous marquis heralding the history of the early newspaper industry.

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The architecture is a mix between very old and very brand new.

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The overall aesthetic could best be described as reclaimed rustic meets greek revival meets industrial modern. And centuries of creative arts can be seen, felt and heard around every street corner…

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It’s a city of riverboats and romance…

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statues and songs…

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flowers and fountains…

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It’s world-famous, most famous and always will be notoriously famous for its music scene. On the food front it is most known for a curious array of culinary creations including… hot chicken, peddle bars, whiskey slushies, and the first combination candy bar in the country.  If you drove from Chicago it would take you about 7 hours, from New York 13, and from Los Angeles a whole entire day plus five more hours. If you biked your way in the peddle bar it would take forever.

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It’s a bike and a bar! Peddle you and your pals around town on the hop on/hop off peddle bar!

There’s a beautiful waterfront lined with brick warehouses and lots of shops, restaurants, galleries and museums to explore.

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On the national history front, it’s officially been a city since 1779 and is home to one of the oldest working capitol buildings in the country. It was also home to three U.S. Presidents and one Vice President.

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The Capitol Building!

Last put not least, even though this is an urban environment there is still plenty of the wild and wooly to enjoy. Groundhogs run around the riverbank, rabbits live at the baseball stadium, and the open year-round farmers market provides all the farm freshness a city girl could ever crave!

 

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So there we have your clues: hot chicken, music, groundhogs, riverway, history, green space, peddlers and whiskey. Could you guess it dear readers? Could you guess where exactly this beauty of a metropolis is?

If you said Nashville, Tennessee you are correct!

In the month that Ms. Jeannie has been here she knows this city for its friendly faces, creative energy and gorgeously diverse architecture. She looks forward to exploring and sharing all the little nooks and crannies that make up this marvel of a place. There are many adventures to be had, so please stay tuned!

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In the meantime, Ms. Jeannie is hoisting her glass to stars newly aligned in what feels like a most important and influential chapter about to unfold. Cheers, cheers and cheers to new beginnings! And thanks to Adele for loan of the blog title:)