The Zen of Upholstery

Once a week I lug my most recent garage sale find through the back door of our local public school cafeteria,  and spend three hours excavating and reconstructing it.  This upholstery class is a well-known secret in our community: it used to be taught by a local master. When he passed away his son took over. The son moved down south last year, so now a 10-year veteran of the class is offering it as an upholstery collaborative.  The class has always kind of run this way: you heave your piece onto a lunch table and start going at it.  The teacher roams through the neon-lit space, helping when you hit a snag, offering materials you don’t have, and problem-solving with you.  When a “teachable moment” arises, other collaborators gather ’round to weigh in, learn by watching, and rest their weary hands. Because upholstery is a healthy combination of high craft and manual labor.  And therein lies the beauty.


The chair I’m working on now is bare.  Last week I stripped it of its padded palimpsest of previous generations.  Along the edges of the seat frame, where fabric will once again nuzzle up against wood, there are regular rows of tack tracks, peppered with the less regular but more insistent staple bites of more recent artisans.  Like the rings of a felled tree, you uncover historical layers once you start to bare the bones of your chair. Layers of horsehair, cotton batting, fabric remnants, and synthetic fibers can often all be found inside a rich dig.  One of the unspoken rules of true upholstery is if it doesn’t smell, re-use it.  This is not a precious group: we practice a tradition that was green and DIY before either of those things mattered. It’s also practical: so you’ve pulled most of the fabric across the seat, and see a spot that isn’t quite even with the other side? no worries, stuff in a little extra cotton. It will look fine, no one will ever know. When you uncover a shortcut taken by the last person who saw your chair naked, you feel admitted into a secret club.

As a dying craft, many tools of the trade are almost impossible to find. Recently, one of us was using a vertical staple gun to stabilize the springs on a lovely bench.  That thing looks like a torture device that would have made the masters of the inquisition blanche.  That bench gave up its secrets quietly.  And did you know that those electric carving knives that were the pride of the 50’s are very effective at cutting through foam? I recently found a webbing stretcher at an estate sale – score! It wasn’t labeled: i’m sure no one knew what it was.  Can’t wait to tell my secret society.

I’m actually glad the class has turned into a collaborative. I feel like I’m continuing a tradition of women’s work (though most upholsterers these days are men, such was not always the case).  We help one another out; share stories; laugh through mistakes; and cheer when a piece is completed.  We have had male students too, but the mood in the room is female. LIke many occupations that seem to be relegated to the home, and so to women, the reality of the work is quite different. Only a small part of upholstery has anything to do with what you see – fabric, color, and style.  Much more time is spent on staples and nails, wood hardener and hammers. You know, girl stuff. After hours or days whacking the materials into position; solving the mathematical equations needed to measure materials; and pulling and stretching to get a good seat, you spend a matter of minutes tacking on the edging (to cover the staples).  Isn’t she pretty?

Sometimes someone wanders into our group by mistake (there are two cafeterias at the school; soccer sign up is in the other one), and they look curious and intrigued.  We always invite them to sign up; sometimes they do.  How often can you join a decorating rebellion, learn about history and yourself, for $50.  Our secret society feels both inclusive and rebellious.  We’ve all made deals to be there – with partners, work, children, or ourselves – and this negotiated time is precious.  We don’t just want to decorate our homes, though we want to do that, but we also want to feel a part of history, learn about one another.  I know that my (white) teacher was in this same school the day MLK Jr. was shot, and some (black) classmates shoved her up against a radiator, leaving marks on her knees she still has.  I know that for most of those in the class, a $150 electric stapler that makes the work so much faster and less physically painful, is beyond reach, so they muscle through it with the  $40 version with a shrug.  And I know that there are just as many hard decisions that went  into a chair that I think looks just as ugly going out as it did coming in.

Why learn how to take apart and build back up furniture that could be just as easily replaced by something from IKEA. Because the process is the bargain, not the finished product. Sure, the old chair with the new fabric looks great. But it feels great to figure it out, to feel part of a tradition, to have 3 hours away from Twitter, and Facebook, and family to zone out as you yank, or confer with colleagues about whether the welting should be on the bias or not. Upholstery is an act of transformation not only for the piece of furniture but the person that works on it.

Finally Pho Yum

I am a relative late-comerm to Pho Yum — the restaurant I wish the My Linh folks had opened years ago. When I left Brooklyn five years ago (!) there was a Banh Mi craze taking over – wasn’t new to those of us who had any familiarity with Chinatown, but became a hipster go-to lunch all over town. For the uninitiated, the Banh Mi is a Vietnamese sandwich that combines meats (usually pate and ham – yes, post-colonial) with marinated vegetables on a baguette.  The scrumptious combination of rich and tangy, smooth and crusty, is unparalleled. So divine, in fact, that I forgot to take out the camera until said sandwich was already partially consumed – this is the picture of food being enjoyed, people, not food being fawned over!  Chow down on Banh Mi at Pho Yum, at 1558 Central Avenue.  AND they do take out. I also personally could eat the Bun (vermicelli noodles) every day without tiring of them. And of course the restaurant namesake Pho (noodle soup) will be a perfect dish as the weather turns cooler. If my blog allowed for audio inserts, you’d be hearing my stomach growling right about now. . . Image

Away From Home Cooking

We have rented a summer home with another family – a terrific vacation option in my view. You can save on food costs by cooking in your home; have built in playmates for adults and kids; and find a nice balance between doing things and doing nothing.  Only question is the one of compatability.  We have travelled with this family, before; their son is friends with our son; we all care about quality food and relaxation – ingredients for a good time.  Would they share what I findn an intriguing holiday house game: can you make meals that are good, healthy, don’t cut too much into your vacationing time, and are strategically planned to use up the food you bought and yet require a minimum number of drives to the grocery store? Perhaps not the stuff of a Mattel best-seller, but now you know the way mind works. 

I packed the essentials: alcohol and wine (always hugely marked up in vacation locations); soy sauce (we have a standard grilled salmon recipe that calls for it, and why have a second bottle to lug back); cinnamon; white balsamic vinagre; and a few pieces of fruit that wouldn’t make it through the week at home. Should mention we were driving to our Shangri-la, in Maine. 

Friends arrived arms full of lobstah – I knew I liked them – and snacks from a Trader Joe’s stop. So dinner number one easy peasy; lobster, cucumber and feta salad, and fresh corn. Our first grocery store run was designed to get us through one more day till we’d had time to plan the week. So far, so good. 

Smitten with Pink Lemonade Bars

News bulletin: it’s been REALLY hot this week. So when it came to thinking about a dessert, requirements were low cooking to eating ratio, and something more sharp than sweet.  In my humidity-indused lethargy I came across Smitten Kitchen – how did I not know about this blog? Love her tone – perfection is not the goal, I messed up on my way to this recipe, my kitchen looks like the one every NYC-dweller has conducted cooking ballet in before – all in all, great place to peruse. So, dove in with her Pink Lemonade Bars. Here’s my version.  I too made some typical cooking shortcuts – didn’t wait for crust to cool before I filled (which may have resulted in more filling being absorbed by said crust) and went forward with raspberries that were a tad lacking in flavor. Nonetheless, result worth repeating. My own addition – had extra raspberry puree, so added a tad of simple syrup (as I said, they weren’t at their best) and drizzled over vanilla ice cream. Perfect antidote to a cloyingly hot summer day. I’m smitten.

Local 111, Again

OK, my family really likes Local 111 (in Philmont). First week of a summer menu. This review is jointly authored by me and my 8-year-old son.  He had the fried haddock, substituting buttermilk fritters for fries. He felt the honey mustard really “made” the fritter: kinda have to agree with him there. His parents went for lots of smalls: a roasted flatbread topped with parsley paste, roasted walnuts, poached egg, cheese, and light salad. Description cannot do the flatbread justice – perfect balance of salad with bread, sweet with tart.

Also a roasted beet salad with a light vinaigrette, and full, robust leaves of basil topped with lovely crunch almond slivers. In lieu of wine, we went with a matched set of St. Germain cocktails, with grapefruit juice and seltzer.

The only disappointment strangely the homemade version of a chipwhich: my son felt that the chocolate sauce on top was “too much” and that the inability to eat it with ones hands really detracted from the whole ice cream sandwich experience.  He did however come up with an interesting alternative: my traditional chocolate dipped macaroons as the cookies sandwiching coconut ice cream – I think he may be onto something. Tune in to find out how we do!

Changing the World One Local Bite at a Time

That’s the motto of the Chef’s Consortium, a group I’ve officially fallen for.  We joined them to help to “Raise the Barn” last night in Albany.  The Albany Barn has partnered with the Albany Housing Authority and the City of Albany to redevelop St. Joseph’s Academy, a long-vacant former school building in the Arbor Hill neighborhood, into a living, work, and exhibition space for local artists.  Last night’s groundbreaking event featured food by members of the Chef’s Consortium and a photography exhibit of the interior of the school pre-renovation. There’s so much to like here, it’s hard to know where to start.  The enthusiastic young crew trying to keep local artists in the capital region in a way that supports its neighborhood home. And with food! The mushroom risotto cakes were superb last night; as were all of the other tastings by members of the Consortium. The Consortium’s terrific premise is to band together as chefs who use their dedication to sustainable agriculture and local food to support regional events. They’ll be doing their next event on a schooner out of Kingston for an evening ride on the Hudson with fine food and music – I know I’ll be tracking their events closely; suggest you do too. Albany Barn will be participating in the First Friday arts walks in Albany in their North Swan street exhibition space on July 6.

Family Meals

Interesting article in the NYTImage about marketing Jenny Craig in France. Having lived in Paris for three years, of particular interest to me. Journalist couldn’t avoid commenting on the thin marketing lady’s lustful drag on a cig after her barely touched lunch, but otherwise pretty accurately summed up a few fundamental differences Americans and French have regarding food and eating. I think. however, that American eating habits have devolved – we too used to eat around a table and limit snacking. Change was motored by corporate marketing, two parents working and attendant challenges around food preparation and child care, and a constantly sped up society that does not encourage taking time for a leisurely lunch.  Made me happy our little family still eats together, at a table, and talks while we do. Think I’ll keep doing that.