Monday, April 25, 2016
It's an increasingly interesting thing—this writer/teacher role I play. I've been at it long enough to note the shifts in student needs and expectations, to be able to predict, better than I once could, what books, passages, and lines will inspire, which exercises will illuminate and which will stress, which days will quiver with hope, and which with longing.
But I can never summon, in the my mind's eye, the particular students who will find our classroom at 3808 Walnut on Tuesdays each spring. I can never predict the stretch of soul and commitment. When I first met Nina Friend last year, I saw beauty and height, enormous kindness and care, a young writer who could certainly place a sentence (or several, more) on the page, that generous type who shared her mother's cookies and who always offered more.
When Nina set out to write her honors thesis with me this year, we both knew that food would be involved, as well as Nina's passionate interest in the lives of those who serve. Over the course of many months, Nina went from restaurant to restaurant, from book to meeting, from interviews with famous people to serving herself. She wanted to see, as she writes in her thesis, beyond the performance. She wanted to know who was happy as they served—and when and why. She asked whether "serving others can coexist with serving oneself."
A supreme perfectionist, a writer who deeply cares, a young woman who asked for more and more critique—and who absorbed it, faithfully, returning each time with a thesis of ever greater grace and magnitude, Nina has gone behind the lines in her thesis—a work that will change its readers and remind them always (a perpetual nudge) to look harder at the person announcing the day's specials.
Nina, like David Marchino, whose thesis is featured here, has given me permission to share some of her work with you. I'm scurrying out of the way so that you can meet Nina and her cast of characters yourself. This is from the chapter called "Community."
Crisp and golden, it’s propped in the middle of a silver platter that’s been in the family forever. A heap of crumbled bread forms a moat around the centerpiece. Stuck together with orange juice, flavored with parsley. The first cut slices the bird on its side. Succulent. Soft. A ladle filled with gravy. A spoonful of stuffing. Two helpings of pecan pie. Chocolate mousse. Whipped cream.
* * *
When Ellen Yin opened Fork Restaurant eighteen years ago, she wanted the
space to feel familial. The mosaic floor was laid down by a neighborhood tile guy. A local ironworker made the chandeliers. A fabric designer in the area crafted lampshades. Tony DeMelas says the restaurant instantly became “a community of artists and love.”
When Yin decided to revamp the restaurant in 2012, she called up Tony to create
a mural. Something to hang over the brown velvet couch that stretches across an entire
side of the restaurant. Tony was honored to be able to create something for the restaurant
he worked in.
When Tony was working on the mural, Chef Eli Kulp would drop by his studio.
Just to keep him company. Just to be there. “He was very hands-on,” Tony says. Kulp
was the only chef that has ever influenced Tony’s work. He was infatuated with the way
Kulp composed his plates. The way he could make a rib look like a log in the woods with
flowers blooming out of it and mushrooms growing from tiny cracks. His food was
sculpturesque. Tony says, “I’d look at [Eli’s plates] and go, ‘[If] you just blew this up and
abstracted it…and put it on a canvas, you could sell the hell out of this thing.’”
Tony’s mural hangs above the extra-long couch and reflects its color onto the
dark wood tables. Yellows and oranges and light greens and white and brown. A forest of
tree trunks, abstracted.
Tony used to walk past the painting hundreds of times every day as he hustled
from Fork’s kitchen to his tables, balancing plates in his arms. Customers would come in
and sit down and admire the mural. They would say things like, “Oh, it’s so much bigger
than in the pictures!” They would be waited on by Tony – with his square, tortoise-shell
glasses and eyes that feel like he’s staring into your soul – and they would have no idea
that the humble man taking their orders was the artist who painted that masterpiece.
* * *
Community can be built into a place. But it’s the people within that place who
decide whether community flourishes or dies.