Not Like Me

When I became a father, 19 years ago, I remember helping my wife into the car at the hospital. Next came my son in his carseat. It was heavy– heavier than the seven or so pounds of baby boy. It seemed awkward, picking up a life by a handle.

I slid behind the wheel of that car and my world changed. I can’t recall how many cars I crashed, but by the time I was 17 I had earned the badge “Car Killer.” I rolled my dad’s red Mercury Capri while I was on my learner’s permit. When I was sixteen I hydroplaned through a stoplight and crashed a brand new Ford Escort. My best friend claims his knees ached for years from being driven into the folding dashboard.

Suddenly I had a family to care for and a son to raise. I was almost afraid to drive.

* * *

Yesterday, I sent my two youngest children off to camp for a week, leaving only me, my wife, and my oldest son in the house. It’s odd being just the three of us again. It reminds me of how scary if was then: making it alone, young and poor in far-away Dallas, not knowing how we were going to pay the bills each month, not knowing how I was going to get papers written for school. Not knowing how to raise a child.

We’ve come a long way since then. My oldest is a man.

Walking home after dinner, he asked me why I would be happier for my children to be teachers and writers than to follow in my footsteps and become software developers. I didn’t remember mentioning that to him, but I do think about it.

My ancestors were geeks. My paternal grandfather was a TV repairman when that was advanced technology. My maternal grandfather was an engineer at a broadcast radio station. My father retired from Ford after 32 years of developing software. I design and develop software, but that wasn’t my plan.

When I was young, perhaps nine or ten years old, we had a Dodge conversion van parked perennially in the back yard. It had two fold-out bunks and a dining table. I added a dissection kit full of scalpels and probes, a microscope, and a chemistry set to make it my laboratory. The musty smell of old camper was quickly covered by the scientific odors of rubbing alcohol and sulfur. The pantry shelves filled with specimen bottles containing frogs and crawfish. One sunny day, after several hours of mostly-scientific experiments and microscopic detection, I stepped out of that van and thought, how utterly boring my dad’s job must be—how I couldn’t do what he did. I don’t remember much else, but that conviction, that my life would be different, is still as vivid as the smell of that sulphur.

Then, four or five years later, my dad and I constructed what was essentially a progenitor of the personal computer using the chassis of an old x-ray machine (don’t ask me where he found that) and a million tiny parts from Radio Shack. We wired and soldered and drilled until all the guts were in place and properly connected. Technology was already in my blood. The first time the electricity flowed into our creation, bringing the amber monitor to life, I was hooked.

But I remained resolute. There would be no cubicles or desks in my future. I was determined to teach theology, or perhaps ancient languages. I had learned what John Adams said to Abigail about how his work was to enable his children to do greater things:

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine. (John Adams to Abigail Adams, [post 12 May 1780])

Adams envisioned a ladder in the quality of life that could only be climbed between generations. Adams accepted the responsibility of working and sacrificing to ensure his descendants would have the opportunity to invest in ever nobler pursuits. I needed to move beyond technology.

Years later, when my first child was born and my career in computer science was taking off, these words came back to me. Making a better life—this is part of the American Dream and had been since the Founding Fathers. When my son asked me why I would be happier for him to be a teacher or writer than a computer geek like me, I told him that he wouldn’t make as much money, but he would do more. I laid a foundation that he could build on. To rebuild the same foundation might be profitable, but it was not better. Teachers and writers help everyone climb that ladder John Adams kept in the back of his mind as he sacrificed so much for future generations. Teachers and writers shape the next generation and nudge it along Adams’ ladder to a better life: not measured according to a standard of living, but according to the advancement in the quality of life and the impact that life has on society. A life built upon the work of those who came before, leaving it better than they found it.

* * *

Like my ancestors before me, I remain on that rung of Adams’ ladder occupied by geeks. But I’m content. I know I’m a transitional link in the Beltramo family line. My oldest is in college, studying to be a teacher of History. My daughter, only 12, loves art. My middle child, 13 years old, is already a good writer, full of character and stories. My kids are moving up the ladder.

And they don’t want to know a thing about software.

On Tomato Picking

Tomato picking must have a long and illustrious history. I’m sure many distinguished persons took part in it, from Seneca to Samuel Johnson to Susan B. Anthony—great men and women who went on to change the world.

Or at least such a high-minded thought is heartening when you’re facing an entire greenhouse full of the red baubles alone.

But I like picking tomatoes. I like the pleasant plumpness that softly fills the hand, and I like exploring the jungly vines. I like having my body engaged in meaningful work. And in my solitude I can practice being fully present to my surroundings—to the crickets under the tomato leaves, the geese crossing the sky, the greenhouse heat, my toes in the dirt, the odd orange orbs hiding there and here—and the unfortunate crack of a tomato vine that I’ve just stepped on.

Let the air of monotony have no place in this greenhouse! When you’re not remarking the varieties of tomato contour, or enjoying the satisfaction of filling box after box, your imagination can roam free—to theories of epistemology and entomology, to the cultural ramifications of landing on the moon and the Russian ballet on American culture, to the velocity of an unladen cricket—or you may turn your thoughts toward ripe red tomato slices sprinkled with salt, homemade sauces and salsa, steaming tomato soup, tomato-tossed salad, and succulent BLTs.

You may also turn toward the noble history of tomato picking, this time picturing an Italian peasant amongst the vines with his two black-haired daughters, enumerating the ways a good husband is like a good tomato—firm but mature, neither too hard nor soft; or perhaps a French chef, who makes his sauce from tomatoes plucked ripe from the garden behind his Paris restaurant; or an old Spanish widow filling her baskets with fruit that she will sell in the village square.

"It's difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato." -- Lewis Grizzard

My dad’s side of the family are old hands at tomato picking. My great-grandfather made the front page of the local Michigan newspaper for pioneering a method of greenhouse growing that yielded better and earlier tomatoes. My grandfather took over the tomato growing, and now my uncle has received the torch.

Tomatoes are an honored part of our family tradition; the planting and picking and sorting and selling and eating of tomatoes is a crucial part of relational and culinary enrichment. However, a small scandal threatened to break out when a cousin of mine admitted that he really didn’t like tomatoes.

That’s okay, cousin. As long as you like picking them.

It is difficult to hide that you’ve been picking tomatoes. Your hands are brown and green and yellow, your bare feet are filthy, and you may have a few leaves lingering on your clothes. When you wash your hands afterward, you must be fully armed with a bristle brush, grease soap, and—if you really want to eliminate all signs of activity—a rotten tomato. Sometimes you must fight fire with fire, or in this case, tomato with tomato.

I think my family would agree that picking tomatoes is good therapy after eating at a restaurant that serves anemic pink tomatoes shipped from across the country. When my family goes out to eat in the summer at local restaurants, someone usually gets something with a tomato—a burger, a salad, a garnish. And when we see what the tomatoes look like, each knows what the other is thinking:


A friend recently asked me for an inexpensive but classy dinner idea. As we’re both college students, I understood his predicament. So I suggested tomatoes, basil, and melted mozzarella on baguette slices—simple bruschetta. He told me he couldn’t do the tomatoes. You see, he had been to our farm—handled our tomatoes, tasted their sweet flesh—and the grocery tomatoes paled in comparison (literally). I understood: once you have tasted ambrosia and nectar, it is difficult to go back to the fare of mortals.

This reveals both the upside and downside to seasonal eating. On the one hand, you get only the best of the harvest: fruits and vegetables that are bursting with flavor and nutrients—you don’t settle for less-than. On the other hand, what about all those months going without fresh berries, cucumbers, snap peas—not to mention tomatoes?

At long last, the final row is ended, and the remaining tomato boxes are hauled away. After scouring my hands with gritty soap I enter the farmhouse kitchen to assemble some lunch. On the counter is a ripe tomato that I slice onto my plate. As I bite into its lush redness, I experience a delectable revelation.

Life is good. And so is tomato picking.



Not Home for the Holidays

I wanted to travel to Pennsylvania to be with my family this Christmas. My family always swaddles the holiday thick with traditions, and I missed those. On Christmas Eve, my mom crushes candy canes for homemade peppermint stick ice cream. That night, my dad sometimes builds a fire on the far side of their pond. The family creaks through frosty grass and takes seats around the fire, reading Luke’s gospel and imagining what it would have been like to “keep watch over… flocks at night.”  They attempt “Away in a Manger,” starting too low, their voices by the end sounding like chairs rasping across a floor. On Christmas morning, they always have cinnamon rolls and coffee while opening stocking stuffers. They open presents, and then eat waffles.

I wanted to be in Florida with my in-laws for the new year, which is tradition, too. This year, we had a new niece down there we hadn’t met yet. We kept browsing for cheap tickets.

I have spent several Christmases marooned in Chicago. This year, with gas prices and unemployment both so high, I suspect that more people were separated from their families over the holidays.  Indeed, Laura Donovan wrote about this trend in her article “A Very Skype-y Thanksgiving.” Some probably considered themselves plucked from the fires of dysfunction.  Googling “not going home for the holidays,” an abundance of articles about surviving holidays at home cropped up. Others no doubt felt exiled and, even as adults, a tad homesick. It still just feels like Christmas is where Mom is. There’s no way around it.

How can we exiles handle the distance?

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I spent a lot of time Grinching. I didn’t buy a Christmas tree. Not even an artificial or Charlie Brown tree. No wreaths or greenery or cranberry popcorn chains. No sharp fir smell in our apartment. No special candles or Advent calendars. No Christmas music. This was partly because I’m a teacher and it was the end-of-semester crunch. But also, it was a classic disappointment pirouette: one begins the pirouette by caring deeply, and then feels a slight turn when disappointment hits, and then concludes the circle by resenting the very thing once held so dear. To wit: “I would love to be home for Christmas,” “I can’t go home,” “Christmas is lame.”

Eventually, I began to take heart, though. Christmas, I realized, isn’t primarily about family. Christmas is a holiday in the root sense of the word.  Paraphrasing the OED here, the old English root, háligdæg, always meant consecrated day or religious festival, and the definition that meant “vacation” or “a day off” was always tied to the concept of the day’s holiness. The Immortal and Invisible becoming flesh and dwelling among us: this is what Christians consecrate on this day.

I began to realize that family togetherness can symbolize the incarnation for Christians. We reenact some aspects of the holy drama when we dwell with one another. Family togetherness is not the whole point of Christmas, so I could be of good cheer because of that, because it meant I could still consecrate the day in a whole and full-hearted way. Family togetherness is, however, a great symbol for Christ coming to his own, so enjoying and remembering family was still something I wished to pursue somehow.

Even though family togetherness–mingled voices, rumpled Christmas-morning hair, arms touching while sitting four on a couch–couldn’t happen on Christmas, I discovered a few ways to enjoy presence despite that.

If it was the incarnation that was really moving me to celebrate Christmas, I wanted to remember Christ’s birth in a way that involved both flesh and spirit.

First of all, I wanted to sing. “Music is about as physical as it gets,” Anne Lamott writes in Traveling Mercies. “Your essential rhythm is your heartbeat; your essential sound, the breath. We’re walking temples of noise, and when you add tender hearts to this mix, it sometimes lets us meet in places we couldn’t get to any other way.” Music can use the body to bring about the mind and spirit’s change, so instead of Grinching, I went to our church’s Christmas service and belted out carols. I sang “Joy to the World” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” while cooking. I hummed along with Neil Young’s version of “What Child Is This?” on Christmas at the Ranch, one of the few Christmas albums we own.

I didn’t go out and buy a Christmas tree (I think in Chicago they cost about as much as my month’s rent), but I did inspire sense of sight and smell by lighting a Christmas candle, displaying Christmas cards, and arranging some ornaments on a bookshelf. It was enough to remind me of the season’s purpose, so it worked.

From this refocused core, I wanted to let my family know that I wished I could be with them. I called them and Skyped with them. I sent them some Orange-flavored coffee from Chicago’s own Orange restaurant and they drank some for Christmas breakfast. I gave them some homemade cranberry applesauce and it became a side-dish for their Christmas dinner. I like the idea that something of substance was there with them, something to sustain the flesh.

It also seemed to make sense that I would be present with the people who were here, either with other people who are in Chicago this Christmas, or just with my husband. For Christmas breakfast, we made crepes. For Christmas dinner, we created the best homemade pizzas imaginable. It was an unconventional Christmas dinner, but why not?  It’s my husband’s favorite meal, and making even classier varieties than usual made the day special.

I wanted to be in Pennsylvania for Christmas. I wanted to be in Florida for New Year’s Day. A few days before Christmas, my in-laws told us to go ahead and buy tickets, even if we couldn’t find a great deal. I got to hear my six-month old niece laugh, and all season long it felt good truly to be where I was, and truly to remember the presence of God, who has come so close.

All that We Can’t Leave Behind

Our dining room table is a salvaged antique store find. It is worn and old, weighty and substantial, and in need of a good refinishing job. Vintage mid-century, its peculiarity is a pair of oak leaves that don’t detach; instead, they slide out from under the middle section, transforming a thick, square table for two into easy accommodation for guests. A draw leaf table. Its solid round legs are heavily footed and connected by a wide board, good for resting heels (or chin, in the case of our short dog).

Photo by Barrie Humphries.

We like old things, my husband and I. And the best way to acquire them is, of course, in the twenty minutes before the antique store closes. At the last minute, we’d had to return a borrowed dining table to friends. So at 4:40 on a Saturday afternoon, we zoomed down to Christiansburg’s Antiques on Main and speedily narrowed our options to three tables. Then two. The clock kept ticking, and in the end, the sliding leaves and unique base charmed us. Who knows what family owned this table before us? Whoever they were, we would add our own years of eating to the table’s silent history. We departed a couple hundred dollars lighter and one beautifully scratched table richer. We’ve added our own scrapes, crumbs, and watermarks in the two years since.

We had both been acquiring items of ages past well before we met: my vintage 1960s dishes, his root beer bottle collection, my grandmother’s paintings and embroidered pillow cases. The two of us, coming from our separate backgrounds and distinct inheritances, intersect at the desire to own things of quality and substance. Things of value. For us, that value lies in meaning, and meaning lies in history. So we pick up pieces here, acquire them there, and save them through the years.

I sometimes cast a glance around our house and wonder what it means that some of our furniture was crafted by skilled Mennonite hands decades ago, and some of it comes from Grand Home Furnishings. I think about the culture of home and what we are creating as we accumulate things — well-loved tables, vintage plates, artisan pottery, a new-bought sofa. At times, the latent Target-shopping suburbanite within chafes against the old dishes, the chipped furniture, the mismatched wine glasses in the china cabinet. I have moments of wanting continuity, order, clean lines. In other moments, I take a near-rapturous delight in the bookshelves my husband is making, and I find myself peering up from the computer, or book, or baby, to appreciate the arrangement of my belongings, old and new, around me.

Last September, an article in the The Independent touched on the modernism of the mid-twentieth century, the prevailing idea that technology, machines, and industry would save culture, would save us all. I had never before considered the way the mass production of the Space Race era, from commercial art to the everyday home item, reflected that thought. The ideology was in the design.

The dishes that sit on my draw leaf oak table came out of that very time and ideology. They are crisp-white and clean-lined, with playful gold Jetson-esque starbursts across them: 1960s Star Glow dinnerware. I bought them from a friend, an antiquer down in Asheville, at a time when I was just beginning to think about homebuilding. They were the first full set of dishes I ever purchased. Though the other decor in my house leans toward the farmhouse rustic, the comfortably-used, the grandmotherly antique, here sit my dinner plates, my teacups, my cereal bowls with their space-age swoosh hiding the crumbs my daughter has mashed into the ridge between the table leaves. Those dishes were designed for a different time. They were born out of a progressive mindset that saw women less in the kitchen, and perhaps less nested. I never considered the modernist message they were proclaiming.

I recently decided to sell the dishes on eBay. I’d like a newer, fuller, matching set that’s safe to use in the microwave. I wrote up descriptions, determined prices, uploaded pictures. But in the end, I couldn’t do it. It’s not because I elevate these plates above their place as material items. It certainly isn’t because I buy into the last century’s idea that progress will save us. My Star Glow dishes bear the message, not of space travel and smart machines, but of their recent origin in my own life. They are symbols of my first foray into choosing my own home items. They are memory pieces of dear friends and a poignant time in life.

Our culture has developed its own particular ideology these days, one of intensive nesting. There are blogs, books, and television shows devoted to craftily creating a finished home, piece by domestic piece, room by DIY room. This movement appeals to me, but it also implies a sly confidence that the home environment can achieve perfection, might be everlasting. Rebecca Parker talked about this several months ago in The Curator: “modern American womanhood — a life lauded for our opportunity for independence — is yet contrarily bound by expectations to be completely nested at a very young age.”

Too true. We are all lives in-process, and our homemaking should reflect that process. It should tell our personal stories as we live them day by day, year by year. I consider my dinner table: a compilation of wedding gift dishes, discount ceramics, and, most sentimental, the retro plates. I look further, at the bookcases built by my husband, at the china cabinet constructed by a distant family member we never knew. That cabinet contains our wine glasses, half-new, half-mismatched from vineyard wine tastings. Good memories there. We may someday or may never replace them with a full, new set. I hope to sand and refinish that dining room table after the years of infant crumb-mashing have passed. Or perhaps we’ll keep paying more attention to our daughter than to our desire for a sleek and shiny furniture piece. Here we are in this place, right now, amongst things that mean something to us, and with people who should mean much more.

My little girl eats at the dining room table, christening the cracks between the leaves with gusto. I consider her place in our conglomeration of items, the material evidence of Us between our four walls. What kind of habitat has she been born into? What items and artifacts surround her in this, the beginning of the wild adventure that will be her life? We surround her with love and with care and with story. And we surround her with tangible pieces that contain some of that story. The table chimes in with its part of the tale; you look at it, and you know who has spent her days eating there — an eleven-month-old and parents too busy to clean up the mess.

In an eclectically-filled home like ours, the messages are many. A home full of newly bought, perfectly matching items would tell a static tale. Instead, we acquire these items here, are given those there. Some break, some are replaced by better, some are old and shabby and so full of meaning I hope never to lose them till the end, when I lose all things. It is a largely accepted concept: you can’t take it with you. This, also, is true. Or is it? That some of our items, like the 60s dishes, tell an unintended tale is merely interesting to me. That they came by way of dear friends is what’s meaningful. They’ll stay. That so many of our possessions are infused with memory and knowledge of people in other places and people long-gone makes me wonder if, in some way, we do take these things with us when we go. What if, in the ways of memory and meaning, of love and hospitality, the items in our home are sacred? Perhaps there is something of lasting substance to belongings, after all.

In one of his essays, G.K. Chesterton addresses this very sacredness that is borne out of each unique home environment. But he has much more to say about the value of the people therein. Like my plans to sell the dishes and refinish the table, it might often seem better to draw clean lines by lessening the importance of home and choosing the people we know. But Chesterton says there is no bigger adventure, no more important group of people, than those who comprise our home. He speaks of the priceless “largeness and variety of the family” and admonishes that “Those who wish, rightly or wrongly, to step out of all this, do definitely wish to step into a narrower world.”[1]

The folks who people my home are a mere three, but the aunt who gave us that Christmas ornament, the father-in-law who gave me the basket hanging on the wall, the twice-great uncle who made our china cabinet, the unknown family who ate at this table before us — we remember them as we look at these things. The memory of those individuals, contained in the things they made, the things they gave, makes our home and our lives anything but narrow.

I suspect that in the end, meaning and memory will be — in the words of the ever-wise U2 — all that we can’t leave behind, along with our very souls. When that meaning and memory get wrapped up in the substance of tangible things, well, I’ll pull up a chair at our dining room table and enjoy every scrape and scratch. I’ll add a few of my own. And maybe, many years down the road, another family will pay a hurried visit to an antique store. They will be charmed by the draw leaves in this antique oak table, now even older. They will buy it and take it home. And in the act of sitting down to dinner, they will bind their story to ours. They will step into a larger world.

[1] Chesterton, G.K. “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family.” Brave New Family. Ignatius Press, San Francisco: 1990. p.44


Sweets with a Dash of Spice

I stumbled upon Whimsy & Spice’s website last year as I was searching for co-worker Christmas presents. Immediately I was hooked: cardamom marshmallows? rose and black pepper cookies? lavender and honey shortbread? Who were these people and why did they get the spicy-and-sweet combination so well?

A little digging (and a purchase of maple, cardamom, and caramel marshmallows) later, I realized that not only were they a great business with unique products, but they were a husband-and-wife enterprise and were practically my neighbors. When I stopped by the Brooklyn Flea, Mark handed me an exquisite cup of a white hot chocolate that involved cardamom, coconut milk, and lemongrass, among other things. Through their blog I got to know a little more about their lives and their philosophy. So I was delighted when Jenna, who handles the design and marketing end of the business, agreed to share a little about their company with us.

Tell us a little bit about how Whimsy & Spice got started. Where did you get the name?
My husband Mark and I started Whimsy & Spice a year ago when he left the restaurant business after working as a pastry chef in New York City restaurants for over eight years – he spent 12 years in the industry overall. We had always dreamed about opening our own business together “some day”, but didn’t take the plunge until Mark got unexpectedly laid off from a new job early last year. As scary as it was, we sensed that this was the right time since we felt like we had nothing to lose. Mark knew that he wanted to transition away from restaurant work at some point, and so while he was looking for a full-time job, we pushed ahead with our plans at a furious pace so we can launch the business in time for the opening of the Brooklyn Flea in April. I guess you can say that things quickly got busy – enough so that Mark officially abandoned his job search a month later.

The name of the company popped into my head randomly one night. We knew that we wanted to include “Brooklyn” in the name somewhere, so I always imagined that we would name the company something a little more “urban”. As the name grew on us (we didn’t fall in love right away), it helped shape the direction and concept of the company. Mark has always loved cooking with spices, in both sweet and savory dishes, so things fell into place and the name suddenly clicked. I also like to think of the name as being a moniker for our two daughters. Our older one is definitely spicy and the younger one is quite whimsical.

What’s a typical day like in your business?
Since Mark and I both work from home, each day varies. In addition to designing and handling the marketing and customer end of the business, I also work as a freelance art director and designer. Each morning we check in with each other to work out the day’s schedules. We have a part-time nanny two days a week who’s been with us for five years, but on the days we don’t have childcare, Mark and I will coordinate on school drop off/pick up and trade off on childcare. We’ll start our day around 7:30am.

The first thing I do after I say good morning to the family is turn on the computer (sad, but true). I check email, see if any orders came in during the night, and publish posts to various blogs. Mark will often go to the kitchen where he does his baking to get orders fulfilled. He’ll also make a run to the post office at some point during the day to drop off orders that need to go out.

When I’m on a freelance project, my day is pretty intensive and I’ll work 9-12 hours a day, often juggling a few projects at a time. I try to take a break during the day, either to pick up our older daughter from preschool or to make a trip to the playground with the girls. I make up those work hours by working at night when the kids are in bed, usually till 2:00 am. In the evenings, Mark will usually be packing up orders to drop off at the post office the next day.

It’s a really full day and it’s quite rare to have a free day. Weekdays and weekends blur together since we work for ourselves, but we do try and catch a breather and have family fun time at some point during the weekend.

Whimsy & Spice is truly a family business. What effect has that had on your family, your marriage, and your children?
The business is definitely a perfect collaboration of both of our skill sets. We feel very lucky to be able to bring both our strengths in food and design into the company and the business has benefited from this collaboration.
One of the reasons why Mark wanted to leave the restaurant industry in the first place is because chef life isn’t exactly family friendly. He used to work every single weekend and every holiday, waking up at 4:30am to get to the restaurant. When the kids were babies, it didn’t make such a huge difference, and it actually worked to our advantage because I was able to work during the week on his days off.

But I worried that as they got older and started school, that they’d never see him because of opposite schedules. Being free from restaurant hours has been the single most positive change in our lives. We can actually celebrate holidays as a family and spend a weekend together just like any other normal family!

It also allowed me to ramp up my freelance work without worries and stress over childcare. This has been a tremendous relief. It’s not without any challenges, of course, and we still deal with childcare issues when both of our businesses get busy, particularly at the same time, but we feel pretty fortunate to have built this very flexible lifestyle so that we can be there for our kids.

How has your work has affected your customers?
We’ve gotten many emails and comments through our blog from people thanking us for being so honest and open. I started the blog as a way to document the business when we were thinking about launching something of our own. There are people who have thanked us for giving them the inspiration to do the same. I think that’s pretty freaking cool.

Where do you hatch ideas for new products?
Since the sweets business is seasonal, we tend to think up new products around the holidays and seasons. Our concept is “sweets with a dash of spice,” so we try and incorporate a little something unexpected in each cookie, like a bit of white pepper in the white chocolate filling of our pumpkin ginger sandwiches, or orange and cardamom in our chocolate shortbread cookie. Mark has a pretty good feel for what flavors might complement each other, but developing a new cookie is mostly just trial and error and experimentation. Sometimes we succeed with a cookie that totally excites us, and other times we fail and abandon the idea altogether.

Part of the goal of The Curator is to uncover signs of “the world that ought to be” as we find it in our midst. What part do you think delicious confections have in building that world?
There seems to be a growing interest in artisanal foods and handmade products these days. I don’t know if we’re riding that wave, but we’re a small company with only two employees (us!) and we do everything ourselves: cookies are hand-rolled and hand cut, brownies are individually wrapped, and we package all of our products by hand. When a customer orders a package of cookies, there is a lot of work and love that goes into that little package.

Desserts and pastries are definitely a little luxury, especially these days, when people tend to stick to buying essentials and little else, but it’s a relatively affordable little luxury. Everyone should treat themselves to a little indulgence once in awhile, even if it’s a two-dollar brownie. We’ve gotten so many nice emails from happy customers and gift recipients who say that we’ve brightened their day. This makes it all worthwhile. This is why we do this.

Have a hankering for a little indulgence? Check out Whimsy & Spice’s store; read about their work, daily life, and adorable daughters on their blog; and if you’re in New York, visit them at the Brooklyn Flea.

Dysfunctional Festivities

The holidays are happy because they force us to leave the warmth of the illusion of adulthood and watch our years of therapy slide down the sink with the scraps of Christmas dinner and our dignity, as our pretensions to maturity explode into the sibling rivalries we founded at the age of three. A Christmas Tale and Rachel Getting Married – both black comedies about cripplingly dysfunctional families – let us take a sullen consolation in the fact that our dysfunction doesn’t reach that height. As the tagline of Rachel Getting Married half-reassures us, “This is not your family . . . But this is your family.”

In A Christmas Tale, matriarch Junon Vuillard (Catherine Deneuve) has just been diagnosed with cancer and needs a marrow transplant. She must choose as donor either her mentally tortured grandson or her shiftless son Henri (Mathieu Amalric), whose sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) had him banished from the family. There is rage, rivalry, paranoia, depression, alcoholism, adultery, and a sprinkle of anti-Semitism and incest thrown in to top off the holiday cocktail. Rachel Getting Married takes another festive occasion and inserts Anne Hathaway as Kym, a chain-smoking bulimic on leave from rehab for the wedding of her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt).

It’s no coincidence that films about dysfunctional families are set against a festive backdrop, as their titles like to make quite clear. It’s because this is when all of us, no matter how humdrum our family dynamic, feel imperfection most acutely – the imperfection of our human relationships and the imperfection of the moments that are supposed to be the happiest.

Festivities force us into physical proximity and make us face not just everyone else’s ugliness but our own ugliness mirrored in them. Kym’s deepest wound is knowing she’s wounded her family, but who caused her wounds and who reopens them? She blames herself for the car accident that killed her younger brother, but she blames her mother for letting her drive. Rachel can’t forgive her, perhaps because Kym’s self-loathing makes forgiveness almost impossible, but Rachel’s judgment also deepens Kym’s self-loathing. Family violence is a cycle without a beginning or an end. There are no innocents and you can never trace the bitterness to a single source. Humanity itself makes human interactions imperfect and this is true for everyone – yes, even for the tediously stable.

Human imperfection also mars the moments we want to be perfect, and we cling to the belief that weddings and Christmases should be one long unbroken moment full of peace and joy and love. But talk to any savage Christmas shopper or hyperventilating woman trailing lace, and they will you tell that some imperfection always mars the moment. Perhaps your brother-in-law will begin to pummel your brother beneath the dining room table, or your nephew will attempt to stab his mother, or your wife will find she could have loved your cousin, or your sister will decide to use her wedding rehearsal toast to complete an Alcoholics Anonymous assignment to make amends.

We compound our discontent when we assume that other people’s Christmases and weddings reach perfection. We think that no one else’s family teeters on the edge of mental instability and no one else’s siblings make drunken, inappropriate displays. They do, of course, and that is why these films console us.

But there’s another reason these movies are set in festive settings, and it’s why they don’t leave us feeling hollow. There are always moments of perfect, unadulterated joy. Rachel Getting Married ¬≠is full of them – always rough, uncut and rambling, as if it would be wrong to cut them short. Rachel’s private dance with her groom and the toasts at the wedding rehearsal are beautiful – corny songs and circuitous jokes and all. In A Christmas Tale, the moment comes when Henri wakes after his bone marrow extraction and tears groggily down the hallway in a hospital gown to sit with his mother. These moments can’t last long enough because you know they’ll end: Kym’s mother will announce she’s leaving early, or Kym will take the microphone and stand up and murder the moment. You cling to these moments because you want them to last as long as possible for these people, just like you want them to last as long as possible for you.

The most dysfunctional families have their own odd kind of closeness. Maybe it’s just enmeshment, but they love each other in their own awkward wounding ways, and it’s because these little moments heal. You can’t erase the memory of all the wounding things said to you by the people you love, but you also can’t erase the moments where you love each other – imperfectly, but still it’s love – in spite of that.