Tag Archives: San Francisco

Gingerbread Philosophy

“The great gingerbread war has heated up in San Francisco, and it all comes down to one eternal question: Is it a gingerbread house if you can’t eat it?” So asked an article in the Chronicle newspaper a few years ago. Just as I also wondered this morning, when I heard from two young women who for years have used a hot glue gun to put theirs together. I had never heard of such a thing. Their children have started asking when they can eat the house, and the mothers remind them that they always only eat loose candy while they are assembling it.

At our house, we’ve had two gingerbread construction events that I can remember. I wasn’t the instigator. I prefer to provide background support in the form of dishwashing and photography, because cake and icing have always seemed like the most unlikely media for art or architecture, and near certain failure doesn’t sound like fun.

These first photos are from 25 + years ago, when young people could do things solely for fun without having to spend time on their phones taking pictures to share worldwide. My kids and their friends were making two houses, and one never would stay standing. I think the siding was hopelessly warped from being baked on a thin cookie sheet.

In San Francisco, it’s been traditional for the chefs at the Fairmont Hotel to make their large Christmas gingerbread house (top picture) out of completely edible components. Because a gingerbread house is the last thing that should be purely symbolic, right? When my friends and I had a tradition for a few years, of a trip to San Francisco at Christmastime, we appreciated being able to break off pieces of the house to eat. Nibbling was discouraged, true, but every day the house was quietly repaired, and sometimes a repairman chef would hand a child a piece of candy from his kit in hopes that it might mean one less candy cane broken off.

“Go ahead, have a piece,” said Tom Klein, Fairmont hotel’s regional vice president and general manager. He was handing out gingerbread shingles to startled hotel guests in the lobby. Technically, eating the Fairmont’s walk-through gingerbread house is not allowed, but Klein had a point to make about the edibility of the building materials, and the kids he was handing the gingerbread to were not complaining.

“Meanwhile, at the St. Francis, its fanciful baked house was more of a medieval castle, lavishly and intricately decorated by chefs with tweezers. It’s a smaller, more intricate creation, exhibited behind a sturdy metal fence designed to keep grubby little fingers at bay.”

I have seen the St. Francis castle, too, but I don’t  think I knew that it was gingerbread. I read that they recycle the gingerbread from previous houses to make it; that would seem to make it inedible right there. On the other hand, I liked getting a whiff of the Fairmont gingerbread:

I’m not saying that the mothers mentioned above were aiming for Instagram perfection. Probably they just feel the way I do about my Christmas cookies; I enjoy the creative project and like doing it alone. And if a recipe calls for a really messy or difficult ingredient, I just won’t use it. That’s why I don’t make gingerbread houses. Even the most precise and well thought out ones, with slabs of sturdy cake baked on unwarped cookie sheets, must be accepted as “the best we could do with the materials.” Here are my pictures of the more recent one built in my house, spearheaded by Pippin and the Professor.

This year the gingerbread house at the Fairmont is bigger than ever, and you may rent it for “private” dining. Up to ten people can sit at table inside, starting at $300 for two hours. I’m really curious about who will be enjoying that luxury. (It doesn’t sound appealing to me, to be on display to every holiday gawker passing through the opulent lobby, while partaking of such a gimmick.) The population of San Francisco is notoriously low on children, but maybe some well-to-do ladies will stop by with their grandchildren on the way back from seeing “The Nutcracker.”

I do love everything about edible gingerbread houses — their colorful and aromatic, candy-laden selves, and their fairy-tale connections — as long as other people are building them. How unlikely! How extravagant and wild. My style is to let the people get old enough to want to try culinary architecture on their own, and to have the patience to see the project through to the end; until then, I’m happy to make a mess in the kitchen with children of any age, baking gingerbread cookies. And when they’ve had enough of that, and run off after a while, I will also love finishing up on my own!

From this house, what I’d like is a few puffs of malt-ball smoke. ❤

Jewel tones and drapery.

Flora, by Evelyn De Morgan

After showing for three months at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, the exhibition “Truth and Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters” closed just a few days ago. My friend Lorica and I managed to squeeze in a trip to “The City” in time to see it.

I didn’t read up on the subject beforehand, of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as a group of young enthusiasts named themselves in 1848, and what their concerns were. Lorica gave me some background on the drive down, and there was a lot of help to be had by reading the descriptions of each piece of art. One phrase that I read more than once was jewel tones. This term echoed in my mind as I walked through the exhibit and provided one idea to help me see a little better.

My knowledge being so sketchy, I can’t teach you about the movement, but there are good online sources of information, like The Art Story‘s page. What I will do here is try to share a few points and paintings that made the most impression on me.

And I have found quotes from these artists to let their own words speak as well.

From the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood site:

…the young artists studied early Italian frescoes and marveled at the difference between them and the current norms in the art world.  They believed that for the art world to be revived, it needed to return to the time before Raphael, and thus, the name Pre-Raphaelite was born.  In the midst of the Industrial Revolution and scientific discovery, these artists looked backward and created works that celebrated a distinct Medieval aesthetic.

The Brotherhood’s early doctrines were expressed in four declarations:

  • To have genuine ideas to express;
  • To study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them;
  • To sympathize with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote;
  • And, most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.

The Pre-Raphaelites created art that is known for its colorful brilliance. They achieved this by painting white backgrounds that they would later paint over in thin layers of oil paint. Their work was meticulous and their subject matter drew inspiration from myths, legends, Shakespeare, Keats, and lovely long haired damsels that we now equate with Victorian beauty.

All great art is the work of the whole living creature, body and soul, and chiefly of the soul.
— John Ruskin

The Ransom, by Millais
Flora, by Burne-Jones
La Pia de Tolomei, by Rossetti
Burne-Jones and Morris

William Holman Hunt founded the Brotherhood along with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais. John Ruskin became their champion for a time, and when William Morris founded his decorative arts firm in 1861 he made partners of Edward Burne-Jones, Rossetti, and several other artists, to “undertake carving, stained glass, metal-work, paper-hangings, chintzes (printed fabrics), and carpets.”

I’ve found it a pleasant use of time to go to the Wikipedia sites for each individual artist who is associated with this movement, to learn more about them and their interrelationships, their wives who were often their models, and their love triangles.

Bocca Bacia, by Rossetti
Isabella, by Millais

I had in the past become interested in John Ruskin from reading Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel, and I enjoy William Morris every day as I eat my breakfast and dinner on placemats of his enduring design. (But the picture below is of a special party.)

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.
–William Morris

The Wikipedia article on Rossetti quotes John Ruskin:  Every Pre-Raphaelite landscape background is painted to the last touch, in the open air, from the thing itself. Every Pre-Raphaelite figure, however studied in expression, is a true portrait of some living person.

Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante, by Rossetti
Detail of De Morgan’s Flora

Paint the leaves as they grow! If you can paint one leaf, you can paint the world.
– John Ruskin

The Light of the World, by William Holman Hunt

From Wikipedia: The Light of the World is an allegorical painting by the English Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt representing the figure of Jesus preparing to knock on an overgrown and long-unopened door, illustrating Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me”. According to Hunt: “I painted the picture with what I thought, unworthy though I was, to be by Divine command, and not simply as a good Subject.”

The more materialistic science becomes, the more angels shall I paint.
Their wings are my protest in favor of the immortality of the soul.
— Edward Burne-Jones

Colorful brilliance… saturated color… details, textures, women as muses, nature, light.

And clothing! I do often think of this, how much painting of clothing artists have done, and the Pre-Raphaelites were certainly good at it. My appreciation for the beauty of the garments and the way the fabrics drape on the wearers’ bodies was enhanced just today when I was reading/listening to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. He speculates that some artists commonly have the ability to see into the is-ness of things such as he only experienced while experimenting with mescaline. Under the influence of the drug he saw the folds of his trousers as he had never noticed them before, and that leads him to muse on the art of drapery:

Artists, it is obvious, have always loved drapery for its own sake – or, rather, for their own. When you paint or carve drapery, you are painting or carving forms which, for all practical purposes, are non-representational-the kind of unconditioned forms on which artists even in the most naturalistic tradition like to let themselves go. In the average Madonna or Apostle the strictly human, fully representational element accounts for about ten per cent of the whole. All the rest consists of many colored variations on the inexhaustible theme of crumpled wool or linen. And these non-representational nine-tenths of a Madonna or an Apostle may be just as important qualitatively as they are in quantity. Very often they set the tone of the whole work of art, they state the key in which the theme is being rendered, they express the mood, the temperament, the attitude to life of the artist….

Not an inch of smooth surface here, not a moment of peace or confidence, only a silken wilderness of countless tiny pleats and wrinkles, with an incessant modulation – inner uncertainty rendered with the perfect assurance of a master hand – of tone into tone, of one indeterminate color into another. In life, man proposes, God disposes. In the plastic arts the proposing is done by the subject matter; that which disposes is ultimately the artist’s temperament, proximately (at least in portraiture, history and genre) the carved or painted drapery.

 

Truly, the beauty of the clothing in the paintings I have posted is art for art’s sake. De Morgan’s Flora’s dress at the top of the page is a “silken wilderness” of folds, so luxurious and lovely. Even in The Ransom, I am quite taken with the texture of the man’s leggings and the way his trousers have been pressed into creases.

We did not talk about our next activity as being any kind of logical continuance from the museum, but I think it was. As on our previous trip together to the big city, Lorica had business at Britex Fabrics, the kind of store people drive a hundred miles to shop at. You can get just about any textile you need there, in the color you want. The staff really know things and come alongside.

While Lorica was discussing her needs with the salesperson, I watched a smiling black man on one of those ladders, in the green area, trying to help a woman far below, who called up to him, “How about that jewel-toned one?” He laughed and said, “I don’t have any green jewels in my collection, so I don’t know what you mean!”

Lorica was looking for fabric for several projects, wool, silk, and cotton. She plans to make two blouses to wear with a skirt she will sew from a flowered “cotton satin” I brought from India.

She chose the green and the blue.

I saw this piece of linen unrolled from its bolt for display, and think of it as jewel-toned!

In the evening, back at home again, I was reading a magazine while eating dinner on my (blue, this time) William Morris placemats. There in the Bon Appétit restaurant issue was an eatery with William Morris wallpaper.

The past is not dead, it is living in us,
and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.
— William Morris

Cinders, saints, and a pillow.

Before I returned home from my travels,
a little rain had washed the ashes off much of my garden.

lemon balm with echeveria (hens & chicks)

I had turned off the fountain before my departure, and the rainwater that was left in the bowl had cinders at the bottom. It occurred to me that they might be bits of my goddaughter’s house that burned to the ground and released some of itself into the wind during the incineration.

Thank God, almost all of the northern California fires are contained. We no longer have smoke burning our eyes and lungs, and roads and neighborhoods have opened up daily, but thousands of people lost their homes and/or jobs and businesses and many are still looking for a place to live.

When we talk to our friends or even strangers, we start by finding out how they were affected. Everyone has stories of that morning of October 9th, and every day still I think of someone new that I need to check on with an email or text message.

 

dwarf pomegranate fruit

 

 

In the whole of California, a thousand firefighters are still on task, and at the peak of the season 11,000 were fighting. They came from as far away as New York, Florida and Australia, bless their souls. We’ve had 6400 fires in the state this season, which burned 556,000 acres, much more than last year.

But my neighborhood did not burn, and I haven’t seen the destruction close-up yet. I’m walking my creek paths as before.

I’ve also jumped back into parish life:

Last weekend I cooked our Sunday Agape Meal for 100 people. You might remember that I did this twice before as a memorial for my husband; this time it was not for any special occasion. It consisted of 10 gallons of meaty chili with lots of vegetables, served over squares of creamy polenta, with tossed green salad on the side; sour cream and fresh cilantro for garnish.

I had a few helpers to do prep work for me on Saturday, and a few others to help me serve Sunday after the service. This combination was a hit, so maybe I will do it again. Each time I’ve cooked like this has been a little easier, so maybe I can start doing it more often.

Sunday evening we held a Celebration of the Saints party for which children could dress up and tell the stories of the saint they were representing. We had crafts and a soup dinner and it was so low-key and relaxing, with none of the hype and over-stimulation that always makes me wince on behalf of the little ones. I was privileged to help a little boy named Marcus work out his idea for a needle-felted pumpkin with fried-egg eyes that morphed into even thicker stars.

When we communion bread bakers showed up for duty on Tuesday morning we soon realized it was the feast day of our patron saints! Saints Spryidon and Nikodim are communion bread bakers from way back who watch over our baking from their icon each week, but I don’t think I’ve ever had the honor of baking prosphora, the bread of offering, on their day. It was very special, and we arranged an informal photo-shoot for the occasion.

Icons and saints graced my day today, also, thanks to my housemate Kit. I think I told you she is moving back to Oregon from where she came two years ago to live with me and be a blessing. Before she takes her final load of stuff north in a few days she wanted to visit San Francisco once more, and invited me.

St. John

We visited Holy Virgin Cathedral and the relics of St. John Maximovitch, and also walked to the chapel and house where he lived, where one can sit in a little room with the icons and desk and chair that were his own, where he prayed. That my young friend and I could share this last holy experience together is just one more cord that binds us in the Holy Spirit.

We enjoyed just being in the city and not trying to accomplish too much. Visited the Wells Fargo History Museum which is wonderfully free and fascinating. Craned our necks to see the sky when walking downtown; and ate dim sum for the first time, with exquisite fried mochi sesame buns.

Driving in traffic to and in San Francisco is normally a trial, but today’s outing was relaxing and soul-nourishing. I drove and Kit navigated, and we were compatible sight-seers in every way. The next week will be just as busy as the last one has been, so I’ll be glad to sleep soon on the pillow of peace.

St. John the Wonderworker

holy-virgin-cathedral-1 sfOur friends Mr. and Mrs. C drove Mr. Glad and me to San Francisco this morning for a visit to Holy Virgin Cathedral, the “Joy of All Who Sorrow.” We were going there for the same reason many people come from all over the world, to pray at the relics of St. John (Maximovitch) of Shanghai and San Francisco.

Strange as it may seem to find those cities sharing a place in the name of this saint, they form an outline of his fascinating and famous life. He was in particular famous to his many adopted children and flock of Orthodox, some of those who had settled in China years before his arrival after fleeing from the Bolsheviks. In 1949 as the Communists John-of-San-Francisco photo smilewere coming to power there he helped 5,000 of these expatriates to emigrate, eventually to the United States. Later still he established the cathedral in San Francisco where his incorrupt relics remain.

On our way there we told what stories we could remember about St. John. One thing he was famous for was ending up barefoot much of the time because he was always coming across someone who was without any footwear; again and again he would take his own off and give them away.

Fr. John was glorified (recognized as a saint by the Orthodox Church) in 1994, and is often called St. John the Wonderworker. It was a joy to visit this place — my third time — with our friends and pray together, some of us asking St. John’s prayers as well.

P1110790

We were the only ones in the church for quite a while, but as we were leaving we met some people coming in who were from Romania. The bishop in the group, it turns out, had served the liturgy at the canonization of St. John back in 1994! We were really pleased to meet someone who had such a special connection to the saint, and who was obviously thrilled to be visiting again.

P1110802Afterward we needed some lunch, so we followed the advice of the candle desk attendant at the cathedral and ate at a Russian restaurant called The Red Tavern that was also in that Richmond District neighborhood. We were the only people there, too, though from the name we half expected when we went through the door to see a group of Bolsheviks plotting in the back corner.

A young woP1110798man only recently from Ukraine was our waitress and we enjoyed talking to her and eating the wonderful food. I didn’t think that I liked Russian food much, but everything I tasted was superb: dark brown bread scented with caraway, fresh cabbage salad with golden raisins and tomatoes; thinly sliced fried potatoes; and barley-mushroom soup with a complex and rich flavor. We all shared some Polish poppy seed dessert that we could tell had marzipan in the filling. We cut the two pieces into two more and ate them off these pretty dishes that the waitress said were their “dessert plates.”P1110800The forecast had been for cold and foggy weather in San Francisco today, but the sun was shining on our day and we didn’t even need our sweaters. Also, in our souls, we felt the warmth of Christ and of our friendship.

Malachai 4:2 But for you who fear my name, the Sun of Righteousness shall rise with healing in his wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.