For me, it was an oscillating fan that did it.
It was, as they say, the straw that broke the camel’s back. The fan that broke the camel’s back. The empty, hollow vibrato that grew louder as it twisted its head slowly in my direction – blowing its windy breeze across the aisle – it drove me crazy; it seemed to almost chide me as I attempted to focus on my work. My work. For six months (was it only six months?) I sat at my desk in cubicle #1201, just one in a sea of many, and tried to do my work. Funny thing is, as I sit here today six-and-a-half years later, I cannot remember what my work was. I had a job in a large corporate office building on the outskirts of St. Louis for six months and I can’t tell you exactly what I did every day, or why. Scary right? And probably a little strange. I was at a crossroads at the time I think, when I was the lone occupant of cubicle #1201, and I was grappling for something – anything – to help me figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Perhaps that is why I was so painfully, shamefully uninterested in whatever it was that I was doing day-in and day-out at that desk of mine … in “my cube.” A typical quarter-life crisis perhaps, but mostly, I just wanted to be inspired.
One day though, that fan quit working. The wind stopped; just died right out of the blue with no warning, no build-up. The guy in the cubicle next to me rolled his chair back far enough for me to see his satisfied face. He removed his headphones. Good riddance! That thing has always driven me crazy, he mouthed, so the owner of said fan would be none the wiser.
I didn’t go back to work the day after that. I decided that the fan’s demise was some sort of sign, and I took my cue … exiting stage right. It was all very dramatic on my part, now that I think about it. It was the brand of drama that sort of comes with the territory of your early twenties, when you don’t (think you) have much to lose … when you’re trying to figure out your place in the world.
For Joseph, it was a tornado that did it.
It was almost dusk when the powerful EF5 twister tore through the small town of Ringgold, GA in March of 2011. This tornado and the several others that came that day were the sort that populated my nightmares as a little girl growing up in Kentucky. Loss of power for days on end, road blocks, homes ripped apart, and tragic human casualties were all byproducts of the wickedly fierce storm.
But for woodworker Joseph Huebscher, as he waded both literally and figuratively through the wreckage brought on by that storm, it was all of the downed trees that made the greatest impact.
“For someone who loved wood, it was painful to see all those trees going to waste.”
Joseph grew up working with his father during the summers, helping him with his carpentry jobs, and he still remembers pounding nails into the roof of a house the summer before he started the second grade. The Southern summertime sun can be a formidable thing, bound to leave a lasting impression on a hardworking young boy doing his best to keep up with Dad.
After the storms came through in March, Joseph and his father daydreamed about the possibility of purchasing a sawmill to use on actual lumber, rather than the firewood that they’d been using up until that time. When another storm passed through in May of that year, the two men searched in earnest and eventually bought a small band saw mill later that Summer.
“I did a lot of reading on how to cut and air-dry lumber, and we started with the trees that had fallen in May. But there were still logs laying around from the tornadoes that the power company or city had just dumped. That gave us a whole lot of lumber to start with.”
It’s not a quick process though, drying wood. According to Joseph, a one-inch board takes about a year to dry. But as they say, good things come to those who wait.
Today, my friend Joseph Huebscher owns and operates Sweet Gum Co., a shop that showcases Southern made and found provisions, namely his woodworkings as well as the ceramics made by his friend and fellow Chattanooga, TN resident, Trish Riley. I have purchased several pieces from his store, and gifted some to others now as well. These pieces have quickly risen in the ranks (if kitchenware has ranks) and have become some of my most prized possessions. Knowing who made something and where they did it and why makes such a significant difference in how you see it, how you care for it. I love walking in my kitchen and seeing the lovely, one-of-a-kind pieces of woodworking and hand-molded clay scattered throughout the room: a small pecan spice spoon that I use constantly, a hand-molded ceramic bowl that now houses my salt, a uniquely shaped spoon rest that holds a delicate walnut stirring spoon, a cheeseboard that perfectly highlights the beauty of the wood with which it was made. That piece – the lovely wooden board – Joseph was kind enough to send me, just because.
“My favorite part of the job is designing things, coming up with shapes and thinking about what kind of wood would look best in that shape. It also works the other way around, where I’ll find a fabulous piece of wood and then have to come up with a shape that will properly exhibit it, really show it off. I have pieces that have been sitting in sight for years, just waiting for the right idea.
Part of the joy of supporting small and/or local artisans lies in the relationships that can grow from doing so. Joseph shared a little bit of his story with me recently, and it has helped me to gain an even greater appreciation for the pieces in my kitchen – how and why and where they came to be. This appreciation bleeds over into the everyday for me, specifically the everyday task of preparing meals for my family, and it makes the whole of the occasion just a little more interesting, more appealing and unquestionably more beautiful. Finding ways to inject a little bit of special into these otherwise mundane, obligatory moments is a great practice in life and one of which I am a dedicated student. “Live the little things,” as they say.
Alright, so maybe it wasn’t JUST a tornado that led Joseph to his creative work, that directly caused him to set up shop and do what he loves everyday. But it was part of the story, part of HIS story, and I’m grateful that he shared some of that with me. I started my first food blog the very day I left that office job, and I began my career as a freelance writer shortly thereafter as well. I was inspired and motivated and ready to find something that would fill the very apparent void in my soul, and maybe put some of the wind back in my sails. It worked.
Be it the incessant whir of an office fan spinning round or the thunderous winds spinning around inside a devastating tornado, we all have our moments; the ones that make our heads spin themselves … the not so pretty, make-or-break ones that appear at the time to be little more than unappealing and well, ugly. What you do with those moments, though, is where the magic lies. Maybe the real trick – the best way to “live the little things,” – is in figuring out how to spin those questionable, unfinished moments into something meaningful and inspired – use them as learning opportunities, or stepping stones. As with a piece of raw wood, sometimes in life you just have to work at it, scratching beneath the surface a little to find your way … to uncover things you didn’t even know were there … to see where the real beauty lies.
“I listen to the wind
to the wind of my soul.
Where I’ll end up, well, I think
only God really knows.
I’ve sat upon the setting sun …
I never wanted water once.
I listen to my words but they fall far below.
I let my music take me where my heart wants to go.
I swam upon the devil’s lake.
I’ll never make the same mistake.
No never, never, never.” – “The Wind,” Cat Stevens
Roasted Grape, Italian Sausage, and Leek Flatbread RECIPE
To me, nothing says handmade/hand-thrown/and hand-worked quite like pizza dough. So, to honor the artisans that I’ve featured in my post this week, I opted for a vibrant, bold and hugely flavorful flatbread pizza. A woodworker I most am certainly not – I tried whittling during my Senior year in high school and quickly learned that my aptitudes did not reside in small pieces of raw wood. But, I do know a little bit about working dough. The feeling as you knead it back and forth on your work surface is as pleasant and satisfying as any kitchen task could ever hope to be, in my humble opinion. So, this recipe is dedicated to the artists, craftsmen and makers who, quite literally, have a handle on their passions. Keep on, friends.
3/4 lb. bulk Italian sausage (mild or spicy, up to you)
1/2 recipe, simple pizza dough (see below)
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
2 tsp garlic powder
2 cups red grapes (I like to halve some of them, and leave some whole)
2.5 cups grated or sliced mozzarella (I like to slice up or roughly tear a couple of 8-oz. balls of fresh mozz and scatter the pieces around, but shredded bagged mozzarella works too)
1 cup finely grated parmesan
1 leek, sliced and then thoroughly rinsed (rinse your sliced leek in a bowl of cold water; the sand and grit will fall to the bottom)
Walnuts, toasted and finely chopped, for garnish (optional)
* This recipe makes two flatbreads but can easily be reduced or increased per your needs.
Preheat your oven to 425 degrees F.
In a large pan over medium-high heat, brown the sausage in a couple teaspoons of olive oil. Remove from the heat when it has fully browned.
Meanwhile, portion off half of the pizza dough, and then divide that into two equal pieces (you’ll only be using these two pieces for this recipe, you can save the remainder for another use). Using a rolling pin and a nicely floured work surface, roll out each piece of dough into round, thin flatbreads, measuring about 8 – 10″ in diameter. They don’t have to be round, either. Whatever shape you like will be fine, just so long as the dough is of even thickness throughout. I like to pinch up the edges to give it a border – a wall – but this is optional. Bake the dough (with no toppings) for five minutes and then remove from the oven.
Brush the par-baked dough rounds with some of the olive oil and season liberally with salt and pepper. Season with the garlic powder, divided between the two flatbreads. Divide the sausage evenly between the two flatbreads. Divide the mozzarella between the flat breads, placing it over the sausage. Scatter the grapes over the sausage and mozzarella and then finish with the parmesan, sprinkle about 1/2 cup over each flatbread.
Bake the flatbreads (one at a time, if necessary) for 20 – 25 minutes, or until the crusts have fully cooked and are nicely golden brown. When there is only five minutes remaining, scatter the chopped leek pieces over the flatbreads and cook for the few extra minutes to lightly brown. Take the flatbreads out of the oven and finish with a nice drizzle of olive oil (tastes great with the grapes), and a sprinkling of the chopped walnuts.
for the simple pizza dough:
*note: the flatbread recipe above only uses about half of the dough in the recipe below. I typically make a whole batch of dough and freeze or refrigerate the leftovers for a later time. You can also just halve the dough recipe. Works really well that way.
1 3/4 cups warm water (105 to 110 degrees F)
1 envelope active dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)
2 teaspoons sugar
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus a little extra for the bowl
4 cups bread flour, plus more for dusting (you can use All Purpose, if you prefer. Bread flour just contributes to a more chewy texture)
2 teaspoons salt