Passion Plays

Books July 19th, 2011

One of my favorite parts of Mark Bittman’s wonderful book, Salted (see Grey Matter, Fetch, July 19), is the one in which he explains the genesis of The Meadow, the wonderland of a store he and his wife Jennifer own in Portland, Oregon. Jennifer, who had worked at the Met and the Getty, was the director of a major gallery in Portland. When she made the surprise announcement to her husband that she wanted to open a shop, she told him, “I want to surround myself with the things I love most.” This is where I love Bittman: “What to make of that? My mind raced over the possibilities: Omelet pans? Lotion? Scratched LPs, Old Manolo Blahnik shoes? Paperbacks by Thomas Mann? Cups?…Mint?” The list goes on but you get the idea. “Jennifer was not an easy woman to categorize.” No, indeed—she’s clearly a girl after most of our own hearts.
The things she loves, at least as far as the shop’s inventory, turned out to be chocolates and flowers, pretty paper and vintage vases, wine and bitters, as well as Bittman’s exhaustive collection of salts from around the world. The Meadow is entirely seductive, but I find its origin equally so. Who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by the things they love the most? Especially during the workday? And who would have the nerve to chuck a good job—a job in a field in which you’ve trained and worked hard just to attain—to follow that particular passion? Not enough of us, I suspect.
When I was in my early twenties and working at a newspaper in Orlando, Florida, my own fantasy was to move to New York and start a Southern bookstore and tearoom that would also be a gallery space to my artist and photographer friends. Â Of course, I also imagined that it would become a salon of sorts, with readings and raucous Paris Review-style parties and all sorts of interesting people constantly coming in and out for a first edition of The Moviegoer or a glass of wine and a perfect deviled egg. I saw it in my head all the time in those days, and imagined what we’d serve and whose work we’d feature and even what I would wear to the opening. In the end, I did move to New York, but as a writer for Vogue having so much fun that dreams of my fabulous, talked-about shop (the kind that Vogue would have covered) stayed fairly well submerged.
Then, for my birthday last year, my husband bought me an enormous gilded papier mache catfish from And George that is a remnant of some ancient Mardi Gras float. It has wild whiskers and a big mouth and a pipe attached to the top that makes in perfect for hanging from the ceiling. Right now, it resides atop the grand piano where the trucker left it, but its arrival got me thinking: what a perfect mascot for a shop specializing in things Southern? If the Bittmans could call their shop The Meadow, I could call mine The Catfish.
So now, at least once a week, when I walk the beagle down New Orleans’s Magazine Street, I find myself looking in boarded up brick 19th century buildings and imagining how I would redo the interiors. Â The Catfish has almost superseded my other fondest dream: that someone buy Antoine’s restaurant and give me carte blanche to restore it to its former glory. In both cases, the daydream allows me engage in at least one passion I don’t have to put off—the idle making of menus for places that don’t yet exist (or in the case of Antoine’s, a place that doesn’t exist quite as it should.

I have profound admiration for people like the Bittmans—and for my good friend Allain Bush, owner of Bush Antiques, also on Magazine Street. The store, started by her mother, is something of a New Orleans landmark, and everyone from my friends and me to rock star Lenny Kravitz has filled up their houses with its wide range of well-chosen pieces. In her email announcing her intention to sell the business after 30 years at its helm, she said, “I need a change after so many years. I have other interests I would like to pursue.” Peggy O’Kelly, founder of Taigan’s St. Helena Olive Oil Co. and Napa Valley Bath Co., left a career as a C.P.A. in San Francisco to pursue her “other interests” with pretty amazing results.

I get it, and I am not going to give up entirely on either of my own fantasies (potential Antoine’s buyers, please take note). But right now, I’ve got a whole lot of stuff to do that I still love doing, including participating in Taigan’s own new beginning, the imminent launch of the site’s redesign. Our “overhaul” will do an even better job of showcasing all the fabulous items our stores have to offer (which include many of the lovely things with which Jennifer Bittman loves to surround herself), and which will make shopping the site easier and much more fun. I also look forward to showcasing a lot of the same things on Fetch that I would at The Catfish: Jeffrey Bilhuber’s beautiful new book on American style coming out in October, for example, or a few of my very favorite chefs weighing in on their favorite burgers in just a couple of weeks.
In the meantime, I urge you to read the current Fetch piece on Salted, and to order the book. It may inspire your own new beginning—and at the very least you will learn a whole lot about salt as well as some yummy things to cook with it.

About Julia Reed

Julia Reed is a columnist at Garden & Gun magazine and a contributing editor at Elle Décor. She also contributes to The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, and The New York Times, and makes frequent appearances on MSNBC. She is the author of five books, including But Mama Always Put Vodka in the Sangria, Adventures in Eating, Drinking and Making Merry and One Man’s Folly, The Exceptional Houses of Furlow Gatewood.

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