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“Fed Up” is a jab to the belly of many of the myths we hold about the causes and culprits responsible for the obesity epidemic in America. The well-crafted, accessible documentary’s focus is on kids, the food industry, Congress and most directly on the sneaky amount of sugar present in almost everything we pluck off a supermarket shelf, including all those helpful foods labeled “natural” and “low fat.”
In an era when one-third of our kids are diagnosed as clinically obese and have prospects for shorter lives than their parents, “Fed Up” should be shown to schools, youth groups, PTAs, projected on the walls at shopping malls — you name it. Anywhere that kids and parents hang out.
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Produced by Laurie David, cookbook author, activist and the producer who shared the Academy Award with Al Gore for “An Inconvenient Truth,” narrated and co-produced by Katie Couric and directed by Stephanie Soechtig, the film is an indictment of the powerful hold that the packaged and processed food industry has over the American waistline. The film also pokes at the industry’s too cozy relationship with our government and suggests that the power of the food lobby has been quietly putting a muzzle on one of the great icons and advocates of health in America, Michelle Obama.
“Fed Up” is a labor of love and measured outrage. But it is the kind of outrage that translates into a call to action. “Fed Up” will cause you to think hard and critically, not in some abstract way, perhaps as soon as the next time you lift a fork to your lips. The tone of the film is a little in your face — an excellent thing, especially if you want to bring your school-age and older children to see the film. They will get it.
The narrative thread of the documentary follows a few young teenagers who are desperate to lose weight. It’s heartbreaking to see the pain these boys and girls suffer as obese kids. The director gave the kids their own mini-cams so that they could film soliloquies as the thoughts occurred and in moments of teenage privacy. One young girl, bewildered by the fact that she couldn’t lose weight, no matter how much exercise she added to her weekly routine, made me cry with compassion. In a theater full of strangers. One of the main arguments of the movie is that exercise isn’t the answer to obesity. The film argues that there aren’t enough hours in the day in which even the vigorous calorie-burning activity can balance out the calorific and toxic food environment that we live in. (Remember it is a documentary and has a specific point of view.) Watching the kids and their families struggle with weight issues, the shame of being young and fat, the fear of the health consequences, the possibility of early death from metabolic syndrome — haunts me still.
A fresh look at food issue
Honestly, as someone who swims daily in the conversation about our food system, I found the film fresh and energizing. I learned new things, and the takeaways were presented in ways that resonated for me.
The film has the requisite number of familiar talking heads that no serious foodie film would be without (among them Michael Pollan and Mark Hyman), but it also introduces less familiar talking heads who I am thrilled are connecting to a broader audience about food. Top among these is Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatrician and medical academic from San Francisco whose clear-eyed research on sugar has had me agog for years; and President Bill Clinton, the recent vegan who sorta/kinda admits that his administration “missed” the dawning of the obesity crisis with its misbegotten public health emphasis on low fat and under regulation of the food industry. (P.S.: There’s a neat statistical correlation between the uptick in obesity in the U.S. and the years that “low fat” became the diet watchwords.) Almost at once, all the major food companies decided to make up for the sawdust taste of low and reduced fat products by loading them up with sugar.
Surprisingly, the movie isn’t a downer. At the end of the film in a packed theater, everyone stood up and cheered. The documentary offers a Fed Up challenge: Go sugar free for 10 days. That’s more complicated than just giving up sodas and desserts, by the way. You have to suss out the sugar in your salad dressings, your spaghetti sauce, your healthy super-power packed granola bars! But it’s a challenge well worth accepting. If only to prove to yourself that like Laurie David and Katie Couric and all the team that created the film, you are Fed Up too.
Main photo: Focusing on the causes of child obesity is one of the targets of the documentary film “Fed Up.” Credit: Courtesy of “Fed Up” film website
The noise (and well-deserved) flap over Time magazine’s recent cover story “The 13 Gods of Food” — a list that crowns exactly zero female chefs — is wonderfully opportune. I am thrilled by the zesty outrage it has sparked! A group of us in Boston has been on a mission since last spring to highlight the too-quiet media coverage of women who cook professionally.
Last May, Food & Wine magazine featured a double-truck poster ad for its annual Food & Wine Classic. It was a panoramic view of the Rockies with an elbow-to-elbow row of the usual suspects and grinning male gods of food. Gail Simmons, “Top Chef” judge and director of special projects for Food & Wine, looked gorgeous and had one wrist’s worth of room. Presumably, Simmons was in the poster to show gender balance.
Boston chef and icon Jody Adams of Rialto privately emailed many of us “that it literally felt like a punch to her stomach” when she saw the ad. “After all these years, still?” she wrote in frustration.
Soon after, I came across an article in the July/August issue of Departures called “Cooks’ Night Out” that featured chic, duded-up male chefs spending 72 hours on the town. The article featured a sidebar interview with TV chef Bobby Flay that was markedly dismissive of female chefs. Ever since, an energized group of Boston women in the food world has been thinking about how to use these testosterone-fueled slights as a teachable moment to change the media perception — and therefore the public view — of what a chef looks like. (Hint: It ain’t all tattoos and muscles, though many women in the kitchen sport both.)
The gender gap is real — and it plays out in the media
In more than a decade of covering local and national chefs for Stuff magazine and the Boston Phoenix, writing hundreds of profiles and columns, I learned a few things about the difference between men and women who cook professionally. I’d guess that my coverage was 75 percent men and 25 percent women, and occasionally I took a little editorial heat for “overemphasizing” local women.
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At the time, Boston had many more male chef-owners and executive chefs than female. That is still true today. But as a feminist, I used my humble perch to give ink to women whenever I could. How else to build profile and change perception?
Here’s why men get more ink: It’s easier to write about them. Men make better copy. Men are more willing to say outrageous and eminently quotable things. Shock value is highly prized when a journalist has a story deadline to meet. Men pose more provocatively and more humorously in front of photographers.
When you interview women, many talk about their awesome, amazing teams and their mentors. Male chefs talk more about themselves. For a writer, this is helpful. It is always easier to write about a hero or star than the loyal teammates. Men are better at claiming credit for good work done. Women, who’ve done equally good work in the kitchen, are more humble and self-revealing. As an interviewer, you have to work a little harder to get a woman to say something funny or edgy. But honestly, you don’t have to work that hard if you’re patient and warm. The difference boils down to a classic sexist stereotype: the cocky male vs. the collaborative female, the badass male chef vs. the uber-competent female one.
No one quibbles about male chefs getting recognized for their talents — good is good. But there is plenty of room at the table for the hardworking and very talented women as well. Women make equally good copy.
And we are serious about this teachable moment thing. In October, women in chefs jackets wielding baguettes like bayonets held a Women in Whites flash mob in Boston’s Copley Square during the Let’s Talk About Food Festival. The goal was to highlight the sheer number of women in the culinary profession in Boston.
More events are planned, including using the topic of Changing Women’s Media Profiles as an organizing concept for the 2014 International Les Dames d’Escoffier Convention, to be held in the fall in Boston. Adams is working with the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School on the topic too. The momentum has only just begun.
It’s time to change the paradigm about men and women who cook. I thank Time magazine for making it feel even more apt. I am not suggesting professional women become badasses or men more self-revealing. I am suggesting that we who cover the scene have to be more vigilant about not falling into easy stereotypical traps. Some media training for journalists might help.
Top photo: Women from the restaurant industry hold baguettes as swords during a flash mob at the Let’s Talk About Food Festival in October. Credit: Elizabeth Comeau
by: Louisa Kasdon
Like a comet, it is coming: Thanksgivukkah 2013! For only the second time since Abraham Lincoln decreed Thanksgiving a national holiday, it coincides with Hanukkah. Enjoy the remarkable calendrical oddity this year; it won’t happen again for another 70,000 years. Officially, Hanukkah begins at sunset Nov. 27 and continues on for seven more nights. Thanksgiving, as we all know, is a big, one-day blowout with plenty of fall food leftovers, this year on Nov. 28.
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Marjorie Druker, a Boston chef and owner of the New England Soup Factory and The Modern Rotisserie, has been hard at work on her Thanksgivukkah recipes since her spring vacation on the beach. After 32 years as a professional chef, Druker still loves to be inventive, and she says marrying the traditional late-fall flavors of Thanksgiving with the traditional early winter traditions of Hanukkah “wasn’t that hard. We’d warmed up by thinking about Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur coinciding with Labor Day. In September for the Jewish holidays we made corn on the cob and apple vichyssoise.” Druker, a cook weaned on Jewish holiday foods and married to an Italian man, says, “Thanksgivukkah is sort of like a mixed marriage. You take the best from each side.”
Druker shares three Thanksgivukkah recipes to inspire us, and help make the mixed marriage of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving a success.
Pumpkin Custard Kugel
A pumpkin-pie flavor but with cream cheese and the noodle legacy and identity of a classic Jewish kugel. “Make enough and it will last all eight days,” Druker says. Can pumpkin latkes be far behind?
For the kugel:
1 stick butter, plus more for greasing baking dish
16-ounce cream cheese
1 pint sour cream
1 15-ounce can pumpkin purée
1¾ cups sugar
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
8 extra-large or jumbo eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1 quart whole milk
1 pound cooked wide egg noodles (slightly undercook noodles by 2 minutes)
For the topping:
¾ cup chopped pecans
1 tablespoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons sugar
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. In a mixing bowl, whip together the butter and cream cheese.
3. Add the sour cream, pumpkin purée and sugar and mix again.
4. Add the vanilla and the eggs one at a time, beating a little after each one.
5. Add the salt and milk and mix to incorporate the custard.
6. Place the cooked noodles in a large mixing bowl. Pour the custard over the noodles and mix well.
7. Pour into a large baking dish that has been generously buttered. Place this dish in an even larger roasting pan and add water so you create a water bath for the pudding. Add enough water so that it comes halfway up the pan of kugel.
8. Mix the pecans, cinnamon and sugar to make the topping and then sprinkle it over the kugel and place in the oven for 1 hour uncovered.
9. Remove from the oven and let rest a day before serving. Cut into pieces and warm up in a 350-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes before serving.
Turkey and Root Vegetable Soup With Sage-Scented Matzo Balls
Makes 12 to 14 servings
Druker is a well-lauded local soup queen, selling more than 100 gallons daily from her two New England Soup Factory locations. “I love turkey soup. People either love it or associate it with leftovers. But this version is wonderful,” she says. “I make it with roasted parsnips, carrots and sweet potatoes. The sweet potatoes are like rich jewels in the broth! And then, of course, there’s the matzo balls!”
She notes many people don’t know what to do with the turkey carcass. Druker uses it to make stock. “I like to be thrifty, and always use bones and carcasses to make stock, which I keep in my freezer,” she explains. “My mother-in-law, who is Sicilian, never throws anything useful away. I’ve learned a lot from her. Turkey stock is a basic staple. The way I think of it, as long as you have good stock and a bag of barley, the world is your oyster. Oysters aren’t exactly kosher, but so what?”
For the sage-scented matzo balls:
Makes 12 to 15 matzo balls
7 eggs, separated
1 tablespoon kosher salt
¼ cup chicken fat
2 cups matzo meal
3 tablespoons club soda or seltzer water
2 teaspoons onion powder
2 teaspoons rubbed sage
1 tablespoon freshly chopped parsley
For the turkey and root vegetable soup:
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves freshly minced garlic
1 large Spanish onion, diced
1 fennel bulb, diced
4 carrots, peeled and sliced
2 parsnips, peeled and sliced
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
1 pound butternut squash, peeled and diced
4 quarts poultry stock
3 cups cooked, roasted turkey, diced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
For the matzo balls:
1. Fill an 8-quart pot three-quarters of the way with salted water and bring to a boil.
2. Place the egg whites in a mixing bowl and add a pinch of salt. Whip the egg whites until they form stiff peaks and set aside.
3. In a separate bowl, mix together the egg yolks, salt, chicken fat, matzo meal, club soda, onion powder and herbs.
4. Gently fold in the egg whites, then place this mixture in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.
5. Using your hands, roll the mixture into walnut-size pieces and drop into boiling water. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook covered for 35 minutes.
6. Remove with a slotted spoon.
For the soup:
1. In a large, heavy-lined stock pot, add the olive oil and place on medium high heat.
2. Add all the garlic and all the vegetables and sauté for 5 to 7 minutes.
3. Add the poultry stock and bring to a boil.
4. Once you have reached a boil, turn down slightly and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the turkey meat, fresh herbs and seasoning and cook an additional 5 minutes.
5. Add the matzo balls and ladle into soup bowls and serve.
Challah, Apple and Cornbread Stuffing With Cashews
Druker has a smart way to handle her stuffing. She butters a large sheet of cheesecloth, sets the turkey stuffing in the cheesecloth and inserts the whole package into the prepared turkey cavity when she puts the bird in the oven. “Fabulous presentation when it comes out. All in one very attractive shape,” she says.
1 loaf challah bread, diced
2 cups rye bread, diced
6 cornbread muffins crumbled into large pieces
1 stick butter
2 cups onions, diced
1 cup celery, diced
2 cups golden delicious apples, peeled and diced
4 cups poultry stock
2 teaspoons dried rubbed sage
2 teaspoons dried thyme
2 teaspoons onion powder
1 cup large, salted cashew nuts
¼ cup freshly chopped parsley
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Place the diced bread and muffin pieces onto a large baking pan and toast in the oven until lightly browned, about 15 to 18 minutes.
2. In a large sauté pan, melt the stick of butter. Add the onions, celery and apples and sauté for 8 minutes. Add the poultry stock and bring to a boil.
3. Remove from heat.
4. Add the sage, thyme and onion powder to the apple mixture.
5. Place the toasted breads into a large mixing bowl and pour the apple mixture over the bread; mix gently with a large fork. Add the cashews and parsley.
6. Place the mixture into a baking dish and place uncovered in the oven for 30 minutes. You may add additional stock if needed.
Top photo: Turkey and Root Vegetable Soup With Sage-Scented Matzo Balls. Credit: Daniel Rastes
It’s morning in Maine, and Margaret Hathaway has already milked the goats in the back yard and fed the chickens. Four-year-old Beatrice colors in the dining room, baby Sadie is napping, and big sister Charlotte is at kindergarten in Portland.
By the time I find my way to Ten Apple Farm in Gray, Maine, the chévre is cooling in its triangular molds, and the Manchego is simmering on the front burner. “You have to slowly warm the goat milk to 86 degrees,” cheesemaker Hathaway says, whisking figure-eights calmly in the big pot on her kitchen stove.
Pushing back her bandanna, Hathaway takes a quick look at the clock. It’s time to add in her culture packet — a microbe-rich mixture of rennet, culture and salt. “Making cheese is really straightforward. All it really is is good, fresh milk — ours comes straight from the goat and is unpasteurized — seasoning and culture — and patience.” This morning, Hathaway is a little worried about her cheese. She made bread earlier in the morning, and it’s conceivable that the microbes from the yeast in the bread may have hijacked the microbes in the cheese culture. “Making bread and cheese at the same time is considered a no-no in cheesemaking, but I wanted bread for lunch,” she says. So, we eat lunch and wait — a goat cheese quiche with fresh spring herbs and home-baked bread — and keep checking to see whether the Manchego explodes instead of condensing when it comes time to put the milk in the cheese press.
It didn’t explode at all. It did exactly what it was supposed to do: lose more than 50% of the liquid volume and settle the curds into a semi-soft round cake. The cheese won’t be ready to eat for several months after it ages, but it will be a beautiful, unpasteurized goat cheese Manchego.
From city living to cheesemaking
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Before immersing themselves into the world of farming and cheesemaking, Hathaway and her husband, photographer Karl Schatz, had good jobs. An English major back from studying on a Fulbright grant in Tunisia, Margaret was in publishing, working on a novel and managing a cupcake bakery. Karl was an online photo editor at Time magazine. One day, at home in Brooklyn, eating chèvre at the kitchen table, the two were suddenly seized by the fantasy of leaving “all that” and becoming goat farmers. They left their jobs, put their stuff in storage, borrowed a car from Karl’s parents and headed out on a quest documented in Margaret’s first book, “The Year of the Goat: 40,000 Miles and the Quest for the Perfect Cheese.” One farm, many goats and three children later, Hathaway Schatz is homesteading in Maine, making cheese and teaching others how to do the same. “It was never meant to be a profit-making venture. More of a way of life.”
She is quick to point out that her husband has a “real” off-farm job as the director of a photo agency in Portland. “As someone who got a good education and great medical care, I wasn’t about to raise my kids without enough money for them to go to college or worry about health insurance,” Hathaway said. When we last spoke in early May, she was mucking the goat stalls and planting her vegetable garden. In between baby naps and cheese timers, she checked her e-mail. “Spring is surprisingly busy on the farm.”
They bought the farm in 2005 and bought their first goats in 2007. The first baby goats arrived two weeks after Beatrice, now 4, was born. The new farmers delivered their first “kids” armed with skills honed by watching a YouTube video. “Before that, the only delivery I’d seen was one where I was a participant, and on the other side,” Hathaway said.
Today, Hathaway and her family raise about 70% of their food on the farm. They’ve got a vegetable garden, and apple trees, chickens, turkeys and goats. “I like the idea that most of the food my kids eat comes right from where they live,” she says. It took a while for the couple to get comfortable with raising animals for meat. “We had to move our minds from thinking about animals as livestock instead of a collection of individual animals,” she says, shifting the baby in the backpack just enough to reach the cheese press.
The big off-farm treat for the day I was there was crisp sheets of nori seaweed, with both baby Sadie and Beatrice fighting over the last paper-thin green wafer. “Ooh,” says the mother of three. “I was hoping to save some nori for Charlotte’s after-school snack.” (Not all is so green. Beatrice found a leftover chocolate Easter egg in a drawer and scarfed it down before mom could intervene.)
Several times a year, Hathaway teaches cheesemaking classes as part of her homesteading classes. “It’s not very hard or expensive to make cheese if you can get good milk. Most of the equipment you need you probably already have in your kitchen. A large pot, some spatulas and a frosting knife to smooth the tops of the cheese.” She recommends only buying a few things with a total cost of $150: a good basic home cheese book and a cheese press with a pressure gauge. “The best kind have a thermometer attached to the pressure gauge.”
Somehow Hathaway still finds time to write. Her second book, “Living With Goats,” has just come out in paperback and she is working on a novel that she says is not about cheese or goats.
People understand the natural affinity of educated women around food, but why cheese? Why not wine, or bread, or chocolate? Hathaway has a thought. “The American artisanal cheese movement was started by women, following in the whole female tradition of milk, the whole milkmaid thing. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that women lactate. Having three young daughters and any number of goats and kids, sometimes it feels as if our farm was one big lactation factory.”
Top photo: Cheeses made at Ten Apple Farm. Credit: Karl Schatz
For almost 15 years, I was the food editor of Stuff Magazine, the fun, slightly incorrigible biweekly little sister magazine published by the Boston Phoenix. I loved every minute of it. Writing two pieces for each issue, deadline agita marked most of my Wednesdays. (Some days, it flowed all the way to Friday.) I ended up with a staggering (to me) clip file of 400-plus published pieces. I started out as a pretty good writer, but with the expertise and experience of my editors, I ended up winning national prizes.
When the Phoenix and Stuff combined last fall, I became the contributing editor for food. I began writing about food when it was still just “food” and about chefs when they were mostly known by their first and last names, if at all. There were stories about young chefs and old chefs; how hard it is to open a new restaurant; and why everyone suddenly shifted to small plates all at once. I wrote about Sunday suppers; public health issues; how to deconstruct a lobster roll; how French food came back into favor; distinguishing Salvadoran food from Peruvian and Ecuadorean; kimchee; “Top Chef” and “Chopped”; and the puzzling rise of burger joints. I wrote profiles about dishwashers and oyster shuckers, essays about “professional manners” — hostesses who were rude or oblivious, diners who just want to game the system for a free meal.
There was a time when a new restaurant would open every few months, not once a week, and when the new “hot” place had a chance of staying “hot” until at least the end of the month. When there was other riveting local news besides how soon the local Shake Shack would be serving custard.
Stuff Magazine examined Boston’s food scene in a different way
What Stuff did for the food scene of Boston was to make it safe to succeed, safe to take a chance. Safe to become a star, or not – and just do a really god job of turning out good food 365 days a year. We saw ourselves as allies — not adversaries — of the thousands of hardworking men and women who chose a ridiculous profession where you are only as good as the last meal any single patron has had at your restaurant. In the process, Stuff@Nite became the publication where Boston chefs could tell the truth — to our readers and to each other. And we became the bible for the local food community.
When I came to Stuff, I’d owned and run three restaurants. As a seasoned restaurant person, I knew that the miracle was that good, hot food ever got out of the kitchen on time and per the diner’s order. The opportunities to screw up a meal are multifarious, no matter how talented or attentive the chef. If restaurants were only about preparing good food, it would be a no-brainer job. But restaurants are complex teams of people as tightly interwoven as the rowers on a crew shell. And people are much harder to control than the produce withering in the walk-in. I can still feel the vibe gone wrong when I walk in to a restaurant. Did the chef’s wife leave him only that morning? Is someone at the emergency room? Deported? Is the bartender out on a bender? You can’t tell exactly what, but you intuit the vibrations. So, I saw my job at the magazine as helping readers peek behind the service counter, demystifying the process, understanding the minds and hopes of chefs, the staffs, the investors. And the degree of difficulty inherent in the simple act of making good food at a fair price.
Our mission at Stuff Magazine (formerly called Stuff@Nite) was to write about food and people who were interesting and had interesting life stories or simply the story of working hard, apprenticing well and coming up through the ranks. A kind of judgment-free zone. No reviews, no recipes, no scathing takedowns of Todd English or whoever was the too-big-for-his-britches poster boy of the season. If I had a bad experience at a restaurant, our style was not to Chow it or Yelp it at the universe, but to have a cordial phone chat with the manager or chef about what we experienced and go back in a few weeks. When diners emailed, wrote or called about some terrible injustice at a bistro we had liked, we gently asked that they pick up the phone and give the useful feedback to the chef. Give the chef a chance to make it right.
Note: Chefs are always willing to hear from their customers. They went in to the world of cooking because they like to please and nurture people. In general, modern chefs are people-pleasers, white-collar intellects in a profession with more than its share of blue-collar effort.
What you’ve lost in the closing of the Phoenix and Stuff, which folded in to the Phoenix last summer, is a dedicated outlet with an authentic fondness for good food and the people who create it. There are lots of other avenues to get your local “food fix” now, but each seems to have a hysterical sameness where chefs are either beatified as the “new” best chef, the next food TV star or a community saint or sinner. Or, it’s a place where we’re all panting for the new door to open.
Chefs and the professional support teams that work in restaurants are talented, hardworking men and women. With the demise of the Phoenix and Stuff, you’ve lost a chance to get to know them simply as real people who love to feed you, the no-judgment zone where a chef could read and could feel good about a colleague or competitor’s success.
A thank-you to Stephen Mindich and the entire Boston Phoenix team. You gave Boston’s culinary community a virtual clubhouse. Thanks for keeping the lights on for so long.
Top photo: Magazine covers from the Boston Phoenix, which included Stuff Magazine. Courtesy of Boston Phoenix
I crushed some of the red berries by mistake as I climbed into the seat of Clark Mackenzie’s white panel truck. It wasn’t exactly my fault. I was overcome by the scent. Pine and sap mixed with a cup of very stale black coffee. The truck belched a nuanced aroma of New England holiday, dozens of handmade pine Christmas wreaths, layered on top of fresh-cut trees. Welcome to the traveling office of the Sheffield Wreath Co. of Sheffield, Vt., where Mackenzie has been making handmade wreath for 27 years. By deft foot action, I didn’t spill the black coffee on a bag of red ribbons.
I’d agreed to spend the afternoon with Mackenzie, riding shotgun as he delivered and installed wreaths and trees. I’d met him when he was delivering a wreath to Rialto in Cambridge, Mass., the Wednesday after Thanksgiving. On a whim, I bought one too and pocketed his business card.
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We stood in the lobby of the Charles Hotel as Mackenzie manically but methodically wired up my wreath, artfully burying crimson berries among the green branches. In the three minutes, I learned Mackenzie had been up since 5 a.m., driving around greater Boston, installing his handmade Christmas wreaths all over town, on front doors and hotel entrances, on real estate offices and private homes. I learned that he has been doing it for 27 years (“All but one year!”), collecting branches near his home in Sheffield; and that the Sheffield Wreath Co. was one of the only “male” wreath companies in New England. (“It’s an occupation that women dominate in the Northern Kingdom because it is tedious and repetitive.”) I also learned that Mackenzie went to the Culinary Institute of America and was a classmate of Anthony Bourdain and washed pots and pans for the infamously nasty French chef-instructor described in “Kitchen Confidential.” One of the times he got kicked out of the CIA was for wearing his black chef’s pants to class when they were still coated with flour. Mackenzie calls himself a “dropout,” not just from cooking. “But pretty much everything except for the wreaths.”
Making wreaths can be painstaking and painful
The wreaths are a pretty big deal. Especially if you are making 800, and every one of them by hand, as Mackenzie does. When Mackenzie and his brothers decided to start a wreath company, they had to wheedle the know-how from a local Vermont lady. It’s tedious work for sure, and even a little painful. “I don’t use gloves, so I get a lot of ouches,” Mackenzie says. It’s also very time-compressed, the essence of seasonal employment. The branches are collected in the fall, before the snow season, and have to be woven into wreaths before they begin to dry out. In the Northern Kingdom of Vermont, that means the window is six weeks max to collect the brush before the snow buries it all.
Mackenzie doesn’t have a tree farm, so he collects the pine boughs wherever he can find them. “By the highway, in the forest, in the back yard. I get some from friends with tree farms who are trimming natural pine-trees into the classic Christmas tree shape.” During “wreath season,” i.e. November, Mackenzie’s day starts at 4 a.m. He sits down in his swivel chair; sets up his plywood frame; assembles his needle nose pliers, wire, and stapler; and puts on his ear buds. “Books on tape are a wreath-maker’s best friend,” he says. Right now each wreath takes about 20 minutes, a little slower than a few years ago — but much faster than at the beginning. “I try to keep a positive attitude. It took me forever to make each one until I got the hang of it.” Mackenzie used to make his wreaths with white bows and red bows until one customer married a Buddhist who was repelled by the white ribbon, a symbol of death in Asian culture. “Other than that, everyone pretty much likes the red. And everyone likes wreaths. They are Christian and pre-Christian, pagan even. A wreath is about holiday, not religion.”
He’s skeptical of people who say they buy their trees from the Boy Scouts, “a paramilitary organization” in his opinion, and gets riled when people confuse wreaths and trees from Vermont with wreaths and trees from Maine. “Maine trees are heresy. It’s like the Red Sox and the Yankees.”
Mackenzie fills his truck the day after Thanksgiving and heads into the city, where he bunks in with a friend until just before Christmas. Over the years, Mackenzie has built a pretty stable core group of customers for his wreaths in the Boston area. He doesn’t have a website, or even an email account. His card has only a name and a cellphone number. He simply arrives at homes and offices, kitchen and lobbies with his wreaths and trees. “People know to expect me,” he says. Sometimes customers change jobs, get divorced, even die from one year to the next, but by the holiday Mackenzie is sold out, and everyone knows the Sheffield Wreath Co. will be back next year.
Top photo: Clark Mackenzie hangs one of the hundreds of wreaths he makes and delivers each year. Credit: Louisa Kasdon
Sheffield Wreath Co. (“So Fresh You Can Smell the Difference”) can be reached at P.O. Box 309, Sheffield, VT. Phone: 802-626-5412 Cell: 857-366-0548