Butcher, Baker & Candlestick Maker

by Natalie So
31 March 2014




The table is set at the Heath Ceramics factory: citrusy-gold ranunculi float gracefully in jars; letterpress menus sit atop red Heath plates; and the sweetly sour aroma of Tartine oat porridge bread is in the air. The night before, production halted in the factory. Though the machines are silent, the factory is still a hub of local craft tonight, a communion of artisans, cooks, preservers, cheese makers, and bread bakers. From the flowers and dinnerware to the pasta and cheese, everything has been made by friends of 18 Reasons—many of whom are here tonight to tell their own stories.

As guests gather around the table, the night begins with the pouring of wine. Tonight’s libations come from Scribe Winery in Sonoma, stewarded by Vinny Eng and Mary Christie of Bar Tartine. Bar Tartine has a special relationship with Scribe, Vinny explains. Scribe’s farm provides much of Bar Tartine’s produce.

One by one, the artisans and makers whose crafts grace the table tonight, stand to talk about what they make and how they make it. The stories they tell reveal not only a love of what they do, but also a dedication to experimentation, exploration, and innovation. Viola Buitoni, an Italian cooking teacher, has prepared a pasta dish called cappellacci, with sheep’s milk ricotta, fava, and green garlic. Cappellaci, she explains, are named after the rustic hats that farmers wear, and are meant to be imperfect little shapes. “Let laziness be your guide in the kitchen,” she says, which rouses laughter among the guests. “This pasta exploited child labor,” she continues—her 11 year-old son and his friends made the cappellaci the night before.

Lori Oyamada, the lead baker at Tartine Bakery, talks about the oat porridge loaf: “We’re focusing more on whole grains now,” she says. Bread and Vella butter is followed by a fresh salad with lettuce and fava leaves freshly plucked from Garden for the Environment, where 18 Reasons hosts its Urban Gardening School.

Behind the scenes, the Heath Ceramics store kitchen has become a lively, functional prep area, where sauce is simmering and braised beef cheeks are being plated. “Just a tiny sprinkle of the fennel pollen,” says Michelle McKenzie, 18 Reasons’ program director, noting the strength and flavor of wild-harvested spice.

Next to Michelle, San Francisco Milk Maid Louella Hill and expert preservationist Shakirah Simley are preparing the cheese plate. Louella has brought two huge rounds of her soft blue cheese, cutting them into cake-like wedges. “Cheesecake!” she says, laughing. “Gluten-free, sugar-free—the perfect cheese cake!” Clifton Fadiman once wrote that cheese is “milk’s leap toward immortality,”—but this is the kind of cheese—unctuous, smooth, complex—that disappears quickly down its admirers’ gullets. Along with plump Medjool dates and Shakirah’s sticky walnut-honey preserve drizzled on top, the cheese course can only be described as a most satisfying ménage à trois—and that’s putting it mildly.

Even as the night winds down, chatter holds steady, and the candlelit faces of the dinner guests grow increasingly more relaxed as they fill their bellies with both food and wine as well as the stories of those around them. A last treat: a tiny brick of hand-crafted chocolate, filled with a velvety Meyer lemon-tinged ganache, simultaneously tangy and rich, made by Alexandra Whisnant of gâté comme des filles chocolats.

In his book, The Art of Fermentation, Sandor Katz writes, “Moving toward a more harmonious way of life and greater resilience requires our active participation … We can become creators of a better world, of better and more sustainable food choices, of greater awareness of resources, and of community based upon sharing.” When we come together and share the things that we have made, when we feed each other and celebrate unique craft, we create an interwoven community that depends on its own people to survive; we create a culture in which people matter, in which souls flourish.