To the women in my family, nothing made the holiday season quite as bright as fluorocarbon-propelled cellulose, Styrofoam balls, and shimmery strips of lead-tainted tinsel. Come December, they crammed their houses with the cheery, toxic, impossible-to-biodegrade gewgaws that defined Christmas, mid-20th-century-style. My mom kicked off the season by releasing clouds of silver spray paint into the garage — her cigarette burning serenely in its ashtray nearby — turning foam spheres bristling with toothpicks into threatening objects she declared looked just like the Star of Bethlehem. Especially hanging from a popcorn ceiling.
My grandma's flocked tree was famous. She set it up in the picture window on an electric lazy Susan, blasting it with more floodlight power than at a Gitmo interrogation. It lurched and twirled as the turntable motor whined, poisonous strands of tinsel fluttering like the fringe on an ice dancer's spangly unitard. The branches weren't nearly so lithe or elegant: aggressively coated with spray-on cellulose and flame retardant, they trailed six-inch teardrop ornaments of metallic luster. On nights before Christmas, cars slowed to admire the specter of my grandmother's stunningly artificial creation, her annual confection of industrial engineering.
Nowadays, the artifacts of that particular American Christmas culture exist solely as a comment on our undentable nostalgia for kitsch. A new generation of East Bay style-makers is taking what you might call an approach to the holidays steeped in the philosophy of Slow Food, the movement whose mission prizes the local and the homespun over the slick and commercial, and touts community over consumerism. We're not talking simple workarounds for traditional Christmas swag, the metallic-sheen wrapping paper that releases ozone-zapping fumes when tossed into the fireplace, or factory-raised pop-up-timer Butterball turkeys. No, a fresh crop of mostly young local entrepreneurs has come up with businesses that take sustainability for granted. They're going farther than simply finding less-toxic alternatives to the usual holiday crap. They're digging deep into the notion of sustainability, and in the process unearthing new holiday possibilities — maybe even new traditions.
The three maverick-y entrepreneurs are steeped in the small-scale and the personal. Call them idealistic, call them naive, call them, well, green in multiple senses of the word. But stuff a stocking with what they're selling this season, and you'll buy into a shift about holiday entertaining so dramatic it'll make the spray-paint-and-anodized-aluminum holidays of Christmas past seem impossibly distant.
Leslie Lavitt gestures down the short street in Alameda where she lives. Works, too, if you can call raiding your neighbors' yards working. "They need something cut back," Lavitt says, pointing to the house next door to her chrysanthemum-gold stucco bungalow. "And instead of it going in the compost, I'm repurposing it for something new."
Order a flower arrangement from an ordinary florist and you're likely to end up with a bouquet of environmental and ethical trouble. Roses from China. South American sweatshop carnations. Early this year, Lavitt started her business — 2 Twigs & a Bay Leaf — with a new model in mind. One that spurns the carbon-spewing global flower trade for something radically local.
Lavitt sources the bulk of her greenery and flowers from backyards and public land where it's OK to forage windfall branches and pinecones. Call her the budding Alice Waters of the floral centerpiece. Instead of seeking out peppercress and figs from nearby home gardens, as Chez Panisse did in its formative years, Lavitt works to score lavender, eucalyptus branches, oleander, and Japanese maple.
"This is off my neighbor's tree," she says, pointing to a loose, natural-looking arrangement she made earlier in the day: dogwood branches, pinecones, and some alien-looking cluster of shiny lime-green pods. "It's so three-dimensional," she says of the pod cluster. "I don't even know what the hell it is."
Before launching 2 Twigs, Lavitt worked in market research — her time in "corporate America," she calls it. But for twenty years she spent her free time throwing together arrangements for friends and family. She's already landed high-profile gigs. She's done arrangements for Rosenblum Winery and Cera Una Volta restaurant in Alameda. In September she did dozens of arrangements for the Slow Food Nation festival in San Francisco.
Lavitt has plenty of tips for inexpensive holiday home-pimping, local, and seasonal style. "Apples are cheap — they are in season. Better yet, if you have your own fruit tree, use that. Pinecones can be found many places for free. I get mine from a strip of trees in Alameda where they just fall into the street. So I actually am helping clean up, recycle, and compost, and get an arrangement for free. Tuck some mismatched candles around and you have a centerpiece."
And while Lavitt's business model definitely depends on sourcing plenty of free stuff, that doesn't mean she's motivated by cheapness alone. Using her neighbors' neglected backyard foliage is a way of connecting with people and place. "When I started I'd call my neighbors and say, 'I'm gonna come by and bring a bottle of wine and my clippers.'" That happens to be Lavitt's idea of the perfect party gift, too. "Bring a bucket and clippers," she says. "Ask them if you can forage in their yard and create something custom for them with the clippings."
Granted, not everyone has Lavitt's flair for turning yard waste and random candles into decor. No doubt she'd say it doesn't matter — that even the homeliest clutch of camellia branches has a holiday spirit no cello-wrapped bunch of tiger lilies from Trader Joe's could ever convey.
Okay, so maybe nothing's more unnecessary than luxury chocolates. Chris Blue's approach makes jewel-like molded chocs seem, not like the amuses-bouches of the well heeled, but the honest product of a workaday craftsman, with prices that are workaday cheap. And they're amazingly delicious, like Blue's molded chocolate flavored with pumpkin — sugar-pie squashes the chocolate maker buys from Monterey Market, then grills over hickory on a little Weber barbecue behind his shop. The result has a deep, rich sweetness, and a delicate smokiness that enhances cacao the way a Cohiba enhances single-malt whisky.
Here's the thing about most high-end chocolates, says Blue, whose Berkeley shop — Chocolatier Blue — opened in August: They're way overpriced. "We could easily have opened a store in Union Square and sold these chocolates for $4 apiece," says the 29-year-old chocolatier, his baby face bristling with a day or two's blond stubble, nodding at the L-shaped case in his store at the western end of University Avenue. Blue charges $1.50 (a bit more when packed in a gift box). And, in a pricing strategy best described as counterintuitive (if not, frankly, daft), Blue's reasonably priced chocs are made of ingredients so pristine they're practically in a class by themselves. Huh?
Luxury can have its dirty secrets. High-end Valrhona chocolate is made from cacao beans sourced on the commodity market, Blue says, where quality and growers' living conditions end up easily obscured. Blue uses only chocolate from Tuscan maker Amadei, a variety containing 66 percent chocolate liquor, sourced from a single locale (Venezuela's Chuao peninsula, where Amadei has an exclusive arrangement, in return for shelling out above-fair trade prices). Blue says he's the only US chocolatier to use Amadei (though luxe restaurants like the French Laundry and elBulli do). He's certainly the only one to use super-rich unpasteurized cream from a small farm in Nebraska, where two hundred Guernseys free-graze on two thousand acres of grassy pasture.
Blue is from Nebraska, too, where he spent summers on his family's farm. If his chocolates have urban polish, it's because he learned his chops in Chicago, at the blisteringly expensive Charlie Trotter's, a restaurant that stands as a temple of vertical food and foamy emulsions. While other fancy chocolate makers aren't shy about using frozen fruit purées and concentrates for fillings, Blue does it all form scratch: presses Granny Smiths for juice he then reduces, till its jelly-like, to mix with ganache for his cider chocolates. And he uses the sous-vide method — poaching shrink-wrapped fresh fruits slowly, in water barely above warm, as a way of preserving flavor.
For the holidays, Blue is making jelly candies from his fresh-fruit purées, five pieces packaged together for just two bucks — a certain high-end Ferry Building chocolatier is charging $18 for a box of 24 fruit gelées. "There's extraordinary price-gouging out there," Blue says. "It's out of control." The young entrepreneur thinks sustainability should mean, in part, that customers can afford to sustain a local business by becoming regular buyers, not just coughing up cash for the occasional splurge. "I'm hoping people can't charge $2 for a piece of fruit jelly again. I want to at least give people quantity and quality for their money."
It's just after 9, the sleepy hour at the Sunday Temescal farmers' market, a time some merchants are still scrambling to set up. Rachel Saunders is nursing a coffee; she's wearing sunglasses, a puffy, down-filled cape, and petunia-pink crocheted headscarf — a style easily tagged as Oakland quirky. Saunders' Blue Chair Fruit Company jams are crowded onto footed cake plates that skew Martha-ish in their scalloped-rim quaintness. And while home-style preserves certainly have the potential to be the most Holly Hobbie of all food crafts, Blue Chair has a whiff of coolness. Credit Saunders's knack of combining flavors in a way that seems comfortably local, and which never messes with the integrity of the fruits themselves.
Less than a year old, Blue Chair has made a claim on the area's drop-dead retail and cafe scenes. In the city, you can buy Saunders' jams at BiRite, Avedano's, and Rainbow, and in the East Bay at Sweet Adeline Bakeshop and Market Hall. Pizzaiolo serves them up with toast, part of its laid-back morning espresso service. They show up at Venus in Berkeley, and at Aunt Mary's and Café 504 in Oakland.
Today the cake plates bear jars of Early Girl tomato and damson plum jam, cranberry-pomegranate jelly with rose geranium, and Italian prune and cardamom conserve. Saunders sources most fruits from farmers' markets, filling in with citrus and other fruits from Monterey Market. Paul Bertoni, a customer in a Peruvian woolen cap with earflaps, is effusive. "It's difficult to achieve that balance of bringing in those herbs and spices and having it work, and not just be some random elements," he says.
All of which suggests that Blue Chair jams aren't necessarily inevitably destined for breakfast. Saunders herself is a kind of miniaturist when it comes to eating, preferring little tastes of intense and fully realized little things, rather than some fully fleshed out meal — a preference she discovered as a foreign student at the Sorbonne in Paris. "I realize now that what I love are small foods, specialty foods — the perfect cheese, some perfect antipasti. I think I love cafes more than I love fine dining," she says.
In fact, Saunders' jams might find ultimate expression as companions to cheese — especially during the holidays, when foods should be vivid and indulgent, not to mention small-scale and handmade. "Sheep's cheese, like a Manchego-ish one, is good with quince," Saunders says. "I really like sharper cheeses like Taleggio with the jams. Otherwise you just end up with the texture of the cheese."
Try this for a holiday meal: Ditch the turkey and brown 'n' serves, just say no to candied yams. Unveil a cheese, spiced nuts, breads, and a fiercely exquisite jam, steeped in the East Bay's farmers' market scene. Call it Oakland quirky.
2 Twigs & a Bay Leaf
1964 University Ave., Berkeley, 510-705-8800, ChocolatierBlue.com
Blue Chair Fruit Company
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