Clay Culture: Gathered

“[It’s] she who reconciles the ill matched threads of her life, weaving them gratefully into a single cloth.”
—Rainer Maria Rilke

My Nana (my maternal grandmother) worked in a department store in Buffalo, New York, and when we grew restless, my mom and I would take a bus across town to visit her. Nana and her co-workers would dote on me with visits to the chocolate counter and a stack of flouncy dresses to try on. But my favorite ritual was to comb the aisles of Chinaware. I’d study a sea of Lenox, Mikasa, and Pfaltzgraff settings on display while the grown women talked. Nana would save up and put away pieces of the Pfaltzgraff Tea Rose pattern until she had a hutch full of it for use only at holidays.

But in my favorite memories, our family was young and we would gather for Sunday dinners served on Corelle ware in the Woodland Brown floral pattern, which I still adore. Nana would pile spaghetti, two meatballs, and a ladle of sauce onto a plate just for me. Sitting at a table crowded with my favorite foods, surrounded by family and friends sustains me now as it did then.

Gathered at Heidi’s Jam Factory, 42 diners enjoy a four-course meal on 10 in. (25 cm) dinner plates and accompanying 8-ounce bowls, along with mugs, vases and table garnishes, 2017.

 

It may come as no surprise that I grew up to be a potter and a cook, hosting meals in and out of galleries. In 2008, I created a domestic interior and served meals on handmade pottery as part of my MFA exhibition titled, “Home Economics.” Since then I’ve studied the way consumer culture and industrial production shape lives and landscapes globally. I’ve come to see small-scale local production as a necessary form of corporate resistance and as one of the greatest benefits a community can offer its own place and maybe the world at large.

I live and work in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a creative city that does much with little by building networks to develop projects and share resources. In 2015, I attended a community planning session for our annual Women & Creativity celebration. I sat in a circle with leaders in arts and culture including Stephanie Cameron of Edible Santa Fe magazine. We shared current projects and new ideas for working together in a warm and energizing conversation.

The result was Gathered, a project that celebrates local food, art, and culture through pop-up meals in collaboration with Edible Santa Fe and a heavenly host of growers, chefs, performers, poets, and potters. Each pop-up centers around tables set with handmade pottery including my work and that of invited potters: In 2016, H.P. Bloomer and Teresa Larrabee and in 2017, Maggie Beyeler, Lauren Karle, and Betsy Williams. Each event includes live performances, conversation, and interaction with the growers, chefs, and makers in attendance. We’ve hosted four meals to date: Brunch on Valle Encantado Farm in the South Valley; Dinner at Sanitary Tortilla Factory gallery and maker space in Albuquerque; Dinner at Heidi’s Jam Factory in Albuquerque; and dinner at Savory Spice Shop in Santa Fe.

1 Plating Chicken Mole Tacos on pottery by Maggie Beyeler, Jen DePaolo, Lauren Karle, Betsy Williams, 10 in. (25 cm) in diameter, mixed ceramic, 2017.

2 Main course cuisine and pottery by Jen DePaolo, to 10 in. (25 cm) in diameter, porcelain, slip, terra sigillata, fired to cone 6 in oxidation, 2017.

 

Every element of Gathered celebrates our community’s labor and creativity. Sol Harvest Farm’s Ric Murphy and Aimee Conlee provide fresh produce, garnishes, floral arrangements, and event support. Our menus celebrate local pork, poultry, game, cheese, produce, mushrooms, wine, coffee, tea, and liquor provided by many growers, gleaners, and makers. We partner with small local businesses and farms to host pop-ups, with each providing in-kind support for our collaboration. Our potters and organizers staff the event with support from a team of volunteers interested in culinary and visual art.

At Gathered: A Place at the Table in March 2017 at Heidi’s Jam Factory, I saw many community partners seated at the table: Heidi Eleftheriou of Heidi’s Raspberry Jam; Pilar Westell of Zendo Coffee; Mitzi Hobson of Milagro Vineyards; Natalie Bovis of Liquid Muse; and Brant Palley, owner of New Mexico Clay. Chef Carrie Eagle of Farm and Table Restaurant expedited a three-course menu with her team, leaving me free to serve guests, sell pottery, and revel in the kindness and creativity of this community.

Our final event this year, Gathered: The Art of Conversation grew from an idea proposed by Lauren Karle during our first planning meeting following the election. Our team shared a desire to cultivate opportunities for dialog and empathy and planned a dinner at the Savory Spice Shop in Santa Fe where shop owner Kate Wheeler seeks to celebrate the culture and history of spices from all over the world. We set 4 tables for 32 guests who would rotate to a new group of 8 every 2 courses throughout an 8-course tasting menu. Each table posed a question about food traditions, family culture, formative personal experiences, and risks we’ve taken to spark conversation.

3 Farmer Ric Murphy, Chef Carrie Eagle, and Sarah Schoen plating the main course on pottery by Maggie Beyeler, Jen DePaolo, Lauren Karle, and Betsy Williams, to 10 in. (25 cm) in diameter, mixed ceramic, 2017. Cuisine by Chef Carrie Eagle of Farm and Table Restaurant.

 

Along with Stephanie Cameron, Kate Wheeler, and Allison Ramirez, a food entrepreneur from Santa Fe, I was one of four cooks preparing two courses each that night. In the weeks before the event, I spent several days in my kitchen testing recipes and practicing techniques while wearing one of Nana’s aprons. Countless family dinners came into focus from my early childhood to my grandfather’s 80th birthday celebration last fall. I also reflected on places I’ve visited, homes I’ve been made welcome in, and people who have cared for me from all over the world.

Both of my dishes celebrated the Italian heritage that dominates my family’s food culture as well as Mexican influences that shape New Mexican cuisine. I roasted chicken in an Italian method, carved it, covered it in red mole sauce and served it on a handmade corn tortilla. For dessert, I made a chocolate tart with a hint of cinnamon. I served my food and the food my friends had made, on my pottery and pottery my friends had made. It felt at once indulgent and whole-hearted. My family has always demonstrated love through food and I’ve always found hope in beauty. Gathered grows from these threads and reminds us that family is an ever widening circle.

the author Jen DePaolo is an artist and community organizer in Albuquerque, New Mexico. To learn more, visit www.jenndepaolo.com.

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