Not many people have been dubbed both a Queen and a Fairy in the same lifetime. Of course, Stephanie Rosenbaum, my friends, is not a common woman. Ms. Rosenbaum, as it turns out, is way more fun than Mardi Gras and entirely more infectious than influenza. Plus, look at her red shoes. Those are casual red clogs, thrown on to just show me around her latest gig as an intern in one of the most fascinating kitchens I’ve ever been in at the Marin Headlands Center for the Arts. No big deal. Just super hot peep-toes in the woods atop a foggy mountain in a Heath Ceramic tiled kitchen designed by the jaw dropping and incredibly moving installation artist Ann Hamilton.
I met Steph years ago, God knows where, doing God knows what, but, Thank God. Besides our twinly Semitic last names, we also share an East Coast heritage (she of the mighty New Jersey, all the rage this season), a fondness for a dapper masculine women, and a penchant for stringing sentences together.
Stephanie has penned numerous cookbooks, columns, and one of my most beloved blogs ever, The Adventures of Pie Queen. She’s been graduated by Princeton (Yes, that Princeton), certified in in Ecological Horticulture by the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, and studied organic farming at UC Santa Cruz.
Maybe all this led to the perfect cooking gig. Obviously, she’s past the title of intern, with enough brains to squash the Hindenburg and enough experience to match that feat. But this is the path of a visionary. To be in her orbit is to understand genius. This is a woman who follows her talent and her skill set wherever it takes her, from the glamorous, if a little bit lonely, pomp of New York into the coveralls and dirt of Santa Cruz in 24 hours. She is unmoved by status and power. She wants to collect tablecloths and stop your heart with a pang when her strawberry jam hits your tongue. She wants to grow things and write about what happens then. She wants to talk to you and really be there, make connections and move through the world in ways that mean something. She can tell you in a field of growth what will kill you, and what will delight you, and how maybe it’s a good idea to keep the two separated.
She holds court at Farmers’ Markets teaching cooking, following the sage advice she got so many classes ago from a famous chef. She was nervous before her Fear of Pieing class and the chef leaned over and said, “Don’t worry, sweetheart. They want to eat something and they want to laugh. Just tell jokes.” Which she can certainly do. Better than most, in my estimate.
And also, she makes a mean pie.
But here at the Headlands, where she spent many years volunteering, she works alongside fellow intern Damon Little, and under the quiet head chef Keith Mercovich. She cracks Keith up with her easy conversation and chuckling. She cracks me up too. But the best is when she cracks herself up. It’s like the sky opening up, a rainstorm in full sunlight, all the best things together, a puzzle of what cannot possibly be. That’s how is to be in a kitchen with Stephanie.
Even as she claims to be “stressed out”, she makes graceful trips through tight quarters in phenomenal apron choices, smiling all the livelong day, each curl bouncing along with the pace of the meal. She does whatever the task calls for. On the evening I arrive, the artists have been at the Headlands for this session a scant two days, plus the Board of Directors is here meeting to talk about money and the fate of programs. The staff of three has prepared the meal from scratch as they do each day. And I mean EVERYTHING from scratch: the sour cream, the Hefeweizen, the sourdough starter. We have pupusas that night, refried aduki beans, a salsa of about five different kinds of tomatoes, a veritable cornucopia of delight, tangy coleslaw with the zing of vinegar and roasted peppers that set everything ablaze.
We’re flanked by a novelist, an installation artist, a dancer down the way, and an impossibly handsome board member who appears to have whisked in from Lake Como, tearing himself away from a bromance with Brad and George. Unless he actually is George Clooney, which would be fine too. Either way, he has good manners.
We wonder together if he would understand how funny the pantry signs are designating Aprons that Can Hang, and then morosely, Aprons That Can’t Hang. This Rosenbaum observation returns to me as we dine, her food and her charm providing me the kind sustenance of humanity, the happiness of a shared meal in a beautiful place abuzz with the awkward conversation of strangers engaged in the solitary task of creation here.
Over time, in this room, these people will come together with this food. They will do dishes and eat cookies with dollops of Steph’s jam. They will talk about process in the velvet blanket of quiet and fog in the sky here, while the bread bakes and the fresh coffee brews, the painters will paint, the dancers will dance, and garden will push herbs from the soil for Stephanie to make magic with, fueling these people and bonding them in the storied room, perfect light bathing the tables.
I want to spend days here. Weeks. The quiet of the outside against the bustle of dinner sets the silence off, like when the edge of a tiffany blue field careens into red, each one providing the other a perfect opportunity to sing their mightiest song. Art vs. silence. Opponents working together to manifest what has always been the language of all things meaningful: art, confection, love.
Aprons. Aprons mean something too. I love aprons but I don’t buy them because I have not figured out how to live with ruining them, which is essentially what they are made to do: throw themselves on the train tracks for your outfit. Since my outfits are usually a rotating cast of hoodies and denim, it’s possible the aprons would be far more fetching than their charges. But I left this evening with valuable information: There are cooking aprons, there are hostess aprons, and there are also date aprons.
Date aprons Can Hang.
Now a cooking apron has a job to do. It needs pockets because you might have to stash your measuring spoons in it as you dash from one end of the kitchen over to the flour, or maybe you need to tote your corkscrew over to the wine to toss some Marsala into a red sauce. Also a cooking apron needs to be adjustable because it’s hard to know what you might be wearing under it. Maybe it’s a ski vacation and you’ve got on an L.L. Bean fisherman’s sweater that will match your duck boots. Nobody wants to get a bunch of crap on wool. It’s expensive to dry clean and it smells when you get it wet. You don’t want your guests to feel like they are dining with a sheep.
A hostess apron is the pretty one you replace your super comfortable, yet cute, functional cooking apron with when you notice your guests will be arriving in the next 30 minutes or less, and the things you have left to do are essentially disaster proof. You are done creating, mixing, kneading, doing the hard messy labor of the meal. The work remaining consists of plating, table setting, fluffing appetizer plates and dotting the cheese plate with grapes and strawberry slivers.
You change into a classy number. You like the details of it and don’t want to ruin the thing. Maybe a friend has bestowed it upon you or you feel an affinity for it based on the perfect braised duck you served in it one time. You can eschew pockets because it’s mainly for receiving your guests, another layer to your fabulous outfit underneath, an unveiling of your dinner self, effortlessly and gorgeously sipping water with a perfect circle of lime shimmying across the surface.
Or maybe you grab a hybrid. This one over here with the ladies on it, trimmed in the Eiffel Tower and gingham, was a gift from Stephanie’s dear friend Susie Bright. Of course it’s got a great color palate. It’s fun and engaging. It has pockets. The fit is fantastic–shows off a curve, has pom poms to jiggle. But the real thing is about the day she got it.
She was working on the farm in Santa Cruz doing her shift at the farm stand. The guy making lunch that day really “screwed the pooch” serving depressed Brussels Sprouts bedazzled with boiled aphids as the main course. It was cold and raining and nordic and finally when lunch arrived, the protein factor registered in miniature bugs.
Susie pulled up in her truck, a tough femme superhero armed with this particular apron (it’s reversible too), a mason jar full of hot, fresh tomato soup, and the warmth of a listening ear. The apron, like many kitchen items, becomes not just how it looks or what it serves to do, but the story it contains.
It’s the way it all goes here. Stephanie is about the story. She doesn’t mention technique in her cooking. She never talks about line or design in her clothing. She talks about stories and people and loves found and lost and deeply appreciated. She speaks about flavor and texture and pattern but only in terms of narrative. Her cookbooks tell stories. Her clothes and bedding and pajamas tell stories.
She cooks by plot and her career has been shaped by what appears to always be divine intervention. While most people at the 6 month farming program in Santa Cruz spent their breaks from the kitchen grabbing naps, Steph grabbed a small dreadlocked mandolin-playing punk friend and threw in batches of homemade cookies for the workers in the fields. The two of them would don slips, heels, and frilly aprons, grab the cookies and head out into the fields delivering. The farmers named their operation Cookie Fairy, akin to Florence Nightengale, saving the farmers from long punishing days with an unexpected ray of light. Women in aprons with cookies. A mirage? No. Cookie Fairy. And a Cookie Fairy, of course, needs her rest.
“You know, my lovers have always thought I’d wear something sexy to bed. But that’s just not my thing. I really like pajamas. These L.L. Bean flannel ones are my favorite! Now I just warn them ahead of time…I know what you’re thinking but I have to tell you, I sleep in flannel and oversized t-shirts. They seem disappointed at first but eventually they always end up getting me pajamas or giving me their shirts. This t-shirt was my ex-girlfriend’s when she was in the Army. I’m happy for her now and her new girlfriend now that DADT has been rolled back, but there’s something bittersweet about it.
About how we had to be so quiet and never got to be where we were. I wonder how many people have one of these.” She stares at it for a minute, some unimaginable soft consolation prize, her memories a quiet package of the unsung casualties of war. I like the red flannels better myself, and also this woman’s hint of sadness is almost unbearable, and perfect, to be sure, the bite of unexpected cinnamon in a pot of chili.
And speaking of hot, That sundress down there on the right is that kind of hot where someone is blessed with the perfectly fitted article, and when a woman puts it on, the whole street looks up wanting to just strike up the band or fall silent just to hear her footfalls down the lane and watch as the purse bobs back and forth across her thighs.
That’s this dress below, coral and white continuing her march of floral prints. It’s all the same: her clothes, her cooking, her terribly enchanting conversation, her red shoes and piles of tablecloths. Her writing is like this and the way she walks you to the car after in the cold night.She’s the beautiful girl who has always been right in front of you. She’s the most talented intern in the country, the quietest bombshell and the girl you wish your best friend would dump that haughty empress for.
If you ever have the chance to take a class with her, do that. Maybe you could read one of her books, take a journey through a beehive with her, grow potatoes or take her on the best date you’ve never had the guts to have. Stephanie Rosenbaum is an event, really, a triple threat: your taste buds, your eyesight and best of all, your imagination… each on a flight of fancy together. May you all be so lucky, my friends.