Where to begin with this epic trip to North Carolina in August – surly the highlight of our summer!
Who knew that an email from my friend Shawn would evolve into my catering his grand Pottery Sale, connecting with old friends on a monumental scale and eating the most marvelous food for 14 days straight!
When I moved to this country when I was in my twenties (oh so long ago, but hopefully not the worst for wear!) I made New York City my home. For this reason, I will forever have a soft spot for this city and have made sure over the years to visit there as much as I can (easier now since I live only two hours away).
The other place that I hold very dear is western North Carolina. This is where I met my husband and where I moved to for another long stint. It is also where I got married and where my children were born (which made me feel less like a blow-in by the natives!).
This is a very long meandering post all about the pottery show which was my excuse to travel to North Carolina for 2 weeks, the old friends I got to see again, and how all of this made me feel. This sounds a little gushy and sentimental I know, but as you read you are fully permitting to feel envious!
My friend Shawn, along with his friends (and mine), Naomi and Michael, have a Home Sale of their Wood-fired pottery every Summer. Shawn lives beside Penland Craft School and this is the place that has connected all of us in one way or another.
I was introduced to this idyllic place in 1993 by my friend Bird when I was working as a bartender in NYC. She knew I was trying to keep up with my real passion, metalsmithing, and begged me to take a two-week Summer class at Penland School of Craft. (Read all about Penland HERE)
She gave me a catalog, and on a whim, I decided to do the scary thing and leave the city by myself and live in the middle of nowhere for 2 weeks. I needed to get back to what I loved or I would find myself stuck behind a bar serving drinks for the rest of my life, (although now I imagine I would be a super-trendy, not to mention famous, Mixologist!).
This is where I suppose my life took a grand turn; I switched from bartender to full-time artist, met my future husband and decided that there were places outside of Manhattan worth seeing!
After being at Penland for 2 weeks I dispelled the notion that the rest of North American played like the movie Deliverance! I’m serious! Coming from Ireland, where in the 1980’s, all American clichés were real to me, and after living in NYC city for seven years, I had a very skewed idea of how the rest of the country lived.
I know now that living on an island that is 13 miles long and 2 miles wide was the skewed bit and that the rest of the country was worth every bit of my attention. It was only after leaving Manhattan that I truly discovered the USA in all its beauty and diversity. Judging North America from New York City was like never leaving my room in a thousand room mansion!
So moving on 21 years and after having left North Carolina for 11 years, I was back with the whole family for a visit. Of course we had been back to visit many many times before, but this visit was different.
The big sale was an important event and took a lot of planning. These wonderful potters make amazing work and once a year they show it on a grand scale, displaying pots all over the property, around the kiln, in their studio and in the out buildings around the studio.
The studio is flanked by a thick forest on two sides and giant mossy boulders jut out of the earth. There is a feeling of heavy damp air and the rich smell of grassy wetness all around. As if that wasn’t picturesque enough, a lively stream tumbles in and out of the trees and rocks, adding to the thickness and mystique of the whole place.
It’s the kind of place you stumble upon on a Sunday drive and think; in the ideal world “this” is where you would want to live out your days. But for Naomi, Michael and Shawn, this was the place they were going to have to set up a show when the weather forecast RAIN all weekend. In other words: mud fest!
Well, while Shawn, Michael , Naomi and my man Dave were “creating” an outdoor slash indoor gallery space amid the forest, kiln and studio, I was enlisted to make ALL THE FOOD!!!! This meant cooking a lunch on Saturday and follow-up with a sort of Brunch on Sunday. I was told to keep the number 100+ in mind!
This was going to be a bit of a challenge that I for one relished (I must admit). I was flattered to be trusted with this task and wanted to do a good job, if for no one else but for my friends who believed that I could pull this off.
Let’s face it, I am neither chef nor caterer so dropping this in my lap was a bit of an adventure. Shawn and I had discussed a few ideas before we arrived and when I got to his house I was more or less ready to begin. Shawn and Jo had bought a few of my hard-to-find ingredient requests ahead of time and I did a massive shopping the day after I arrived.
The theme was a loose take on Bo Ssam, a common Korean dish of pork which is slow-cooked and most commonly served wrapped in Bib lettuce leaves with different accompaniments. These accompaniments always included kimchi (a fermented pickle dish – mostly people think of a pickled cabbage such as sauerkraut).
I didn’t want to make kimchi exactly because I was aware that I was cooking for a wide variety of palates and kimchi could take over a lot of the flavors. I did want the feel of Bo Ssam so I used a quick pickle method for a few different veggie side dishes that would give that zing I was looking for. You can quick pickle almost anything by the way!
All that is required to quick pickle is vinegar (you can use different ones), water and sugar. That’s mainly it but you can add other ingredients to enhance the different vegetables you use. I decided to pickle carrots with shallots and radishes with cucumbers. The hard part about this had nothing to do with technique (a mere child could pickle!), but I did run into a space and container problem. These pickled vegetables would be served both days of the sale so I had to make large quantities.
Shawn and Jo have a fabulous little kitchen, but the “little” part is what cramped my style. There were pots of liquid on the floor and outside the back door, and while the veggies pickled they had to be stored in a place where we wouldn’t trip over them while also staying nice and cold through the process. They ended up outside in big covered tubs of ice, secured with rocks to prevent the wild animals from feasting while we slept!
The kitchen was buzzing for two days from morning until night with me getting everything cooked from the 30 lbs of pork shoulder to the lovely lemon squares that Selma made (Jo’s wonderful daughter who drove for miles just to lend a hand).
I became quite the expert at improvisation and with the help of Jo (my old friend and Shawn’s girl friend – she can thank me for that – had to be said!) we managed to turn out amazing food in hefty quantities. Jo became my expert taster of all things Korean. By the end we pretty much swore we would never eat a sauce that even hinted of Gochujang ever again (a hot pepper paste common in Korean dipping sauces).
While we cooked, our drink of choice was prosecco. It was cold and refreshing and over the stove and drinks we chatted away not feeling the gap of time since we had last seen each other last. Both of us have an aversion to the telephone and so don’t “keep up” as they say. We both figure if there is something important going on, we will hear about it!
That’s the way it is with most of the good friends in my life. If I had to text, call and email them on a regular basis I would not get anything done. Anyone I have known for the past 30 years and I am still in contact with; it was meant to be. I really cannot take credit for remembering birthdays and sending cards every holiday, but somehow I feel them close.
Even thought everyone in the house was enlisted to help with the sale, we all managed to still have energy enough to be excited about dinner each evening. We all did our little part and a sumptuous dinner always appeared.
Sometimes we stole some of the “catering” food ingredients to flesh out our meals. One particular memorable dish was some par-boiled radishes that I then sautéed on the pan with some butter, fresh herbs and Maldon sea salt. Jo washed the radish greens and we threw those in as well. It was one of the best things I ate the whole visit.
There were all sorts of visitors coming and going and, as well as the usual suspects, Jo’s friends David and Alison were coming up and staying for the duration of the sale. The house was full to the rafters so they were going to camp out in Shawn’s newly built painting studio.
I had also known them when myself and Jo were neighbors years earlier in Saluda, NC (how we met) but they were more acquaintances than friends. We all had young children at the same time and now I was going to meet them anew when our kids were all teenagers.
Somehow (thank God!) we all connected instantly. It was funny how our tenuous link to each other from the past seemed to make us feel like “old friends” There seemed to be some sort of bridge from our past that keep us all together. We knew lots of the same people and it ended up that both of us had home schooled our children for a long period of time. It’s like when you meet someone from your hometown while on a trip to India (you know what I mean) – somehow that is the only tie you need to bind you together, that sense of common place.
And so our big house of guests grew even bigger. And then bigger again when on the last day of the pottery sale, Alison and David’s three kids showed up and it was panned they spend the night!
With everyone pitching in, the sale went smoothly. We ferried everything we needed from Shawn’s house in our various cars and trucks and by that rainy Saturday morning we were ready for customers.
People showed up steadily all day not deterred by the rain. I served my food and I am happy to report that it was a success. Naomi’s uncle and aunt also traveled a good distance to help out with their two small children and to cook us all dinner after the first day of the show. I was really looking forward to eating someone else’s food for a change!
I was set up in Michael and Naomi’s studio and it was the perfect vantage point. From the windows I could look down into the yard and see everyone milling about, and then everyone eventually made it up to see me for lunch and a libation.
My daughter and son were in and out doing odd jobs whenever needed (including babysitting, running for clean plates or filling up our make shift washing basins). They were in their element loving being part of something cool and fun.
After our rainy work day we headed up to the house for dinner and a much-needed glass of vino. I installed myself at the big table where I could watch Naomi’s Uncle Michael cooking in the kitchen.
Like us, he had worked all day but I could see he was excited to be the Chef du Jour! He was making a veritable feast and we were all famished. He opened some great hard cider for me to taste (his drink of choice) and he joked about his food not being up to scratch after tasting mine. A show of manly false modesty I’d say!
The food was to-die-for and we ate in a din of loud talk and laughter. As I left I remembered that we had to do this all again tomorrow.
The next day was sunny and warm and everyone who hated the rain showed up, along with all of those meander-y Sunday drivers. I had to stretch out the food until the only thing left was a big bowl of pickled carrots and some cold bottles of beer (not a bad combo actually).
This day was a lot less stressful. Up to this point I had been working flat-out either cooking or serving food, but as things wound down I hung out more and chatted with people I only see every few years when I come to visit.
After we had packed up, the whole band of us (now included Alison and David’s kids, as well as Jo’s and mine) headed to Shawn’s house. Did we want to cook dinner for 13 hungry people – no way! We ordered pizza!
This giant exhalation after such a long week was loud. We had one big pizza party with every topping combination imaginable. The kids (a term some of them may object to I’m sure) didn’t seem to mind not really knowing each other. They were all in a house they were familiar with so I think nothing felt strange.
Ide was on a huge nail-polishing kick and everyone was lined up for mani and pedicures. It was the theme of the week for her and by the time she left North Carolina she had painting anyone who would sit still for 10 minutes.
We also broke out the fire works…
It was a fitting end to our intense week of work and fun. The next morning there was a mass exodus. Alison and family were heading off to Doha (yes, the capital city of Qatar!) where Alison is an elementary school teacher.
Selma and Isla made their way back to Chapel Hill, and we, (this sounds much more mundane) headed to Asheville for a few days to spend time with more old friends.
Asheville is an ultra-cool city in Western North Carolina and is worth a visit. Lots of new places had opened in the three years since we had been back and the highlight for us was a Trader Joe’s, where you could buy a bottle of wine for $5 from the friendliest staff in the world. Dave had popped in to check it out before me and was taken aback (in a good way) by the big happy smiling staff willing to help at any turn.
I had to see it for myself being full sure that he just walked in on a good day. Perhaps I would be treated differently today? When I entered the big glass doors I was greeted with a “welcome to Trader Joe’s, how are you today”. To which I reply, “Great, how are you?”. To which this young man quickly responded,’ Fantastic, just livin’ the dream”. Yes, seriously friendly!
So, our days were spent enjoying Asheville and our nights spent hanging out in the kitchen cooking with friends. We totally took over Nora and Pat’s house and our friend Brent showed up on more than one occasion, one night bringing a whole host of people we hadn’t seen in years.
We only had one more person we wanted desperately to see before we left North Carolina, and that was Sharon, Shawn’s mother! She was arriving when we were leaving so we decided to leave Asheville a day early and have one more night with Shawn on the way home. It would have been such a pity to miss dear sweet Sharon!
I have missed not having a mother over the past several years, but the thing I never thought about is the thing I miss most: I miss being someone’s kid, if that makes sense? Your mother is the only person in the world who never stops treating you like a child. They are aware that you have grown up but it doesn’t stop them from pulling stray hairs from your sweater or praising you for doing things that of course you are well capable of doing…like making dinner or in Shawn’s case, making a dinner plate.
The praise is God-like in Sharon’s case and as much as Shawn teases her about it, it’s the thing he would miss most if she weren’t around. She brings that nurturing quality to a room that I am drawn to and it makes me feel a little like my mother is there with us. They would be similar in age and she has the same air of “properness” about her that my mother possessed, (a generational thing no doubt). There is also the humor factor and Sharon certainly does like to laugh (at the most harmless things sometimes which I find very endearing).
I had to gush on about her a little for embarrassment’s sake. Well, we arrived in time to make dinner together (not before having the obligatory 5 O’ Clock Cocktail) and then breakfast the next morning – well worth the detour!
Leaving was sad of course but I felt very satisfied and grateful that we decided to spend 2 weeks of our Summer in the Mountains with our good friends. The other thing that consoles me is that we will be back the same time next year as Dave is teaching a 2-week jewelry class in 2015 at Penland School of Craft.
We will be living in a house on the school grounds up the hill from Shawn and, from what I can gather, Alison and David plan on a visit and the pottery sale will coincide at the same time. That’s a lot of fun in my future and I’m itching to pack my bag already.
More Pictures of our trip too great to omit…