Thursday, November 27, 2014

Dont Fret: How To Set a Proper Table for Thanksgiving - or any meal - Plus Homegrown Goodreads Book Giveaway pop

Happy Thanksgiving to all! 
As Americans, we are so blessed with an abundance of riches.  It is fitting then, that no less than a national holiday was created to elevate, worship, and fete the very notion eating, dining, and drinking. 
It is both a happy and solemn occasion today, Thanksgiving.  We honor Nature and the harvest.  And celebrate with loved ones – over the course of an entire day devoted to nothing more than Food and Drink!

However, amidst all the joy of cooking, baking, sipping, and stirring, I was surprised and saddened to read this morning that so many people don’t know how to entertain or specifically, to set a table.  Wow. 

The French have a saying, “The eyes eat first.” 
The presentation of the food on the plate has us literally salivating and “tasting” the food before we take even a bite.
And a burgeoning genre has emerged about how to decorate a dining table. 
The art of Tablescapes has given Pinterest and home magazines a shot of joi de vivre that anticipates the seasons and forges an exuberant creative style that makes us hungry to see and enjoy the table composition – even without the food.  
However, unlike some news reports I’ve read, Tablescaping is, in my opinion, very different from table setting.  Tablescaping is much more about the creative and most often, elaborate, table d├ęcor that was once the province of professional stylists.

But what about the place setting?  A perfectly placed, properly set table is the canvas for a beautiful meal. It’s about more than just grabbing a tool.  There is an entire, fascinating history and art of how tableware evolved to reflect a culture, culinary tradition, and manners.
This is the heart of the dining experience.  Especially home dining and entertainment.  Too many rely on a buffet set up.  Yes, buffet is easy to do, and easily allows for that second or third helping and let’s face it: all-day grazing. Plus it speaks to that American notion of self-help.
But it seems that when a formal sit-down at the dining room table occasion presents itself there is an increasing reluctance to do so simply because the hosts don’t know how to organize the china, silver and crystal. 
It drives me and other dedicated hosts, hostesses, and dining enthusiasts crazy to hear someone say, “Don’t go all fancy.” 
That is really a euphemism for “I have no clue how to dine properly -- so let’s do it cafeteria style.” 
Please -- Don't’ succumb! 
If one spends days shopping, cooking, and preparing a stellar meal, the least we can do to honor the ingredients, the menu, the cooks, and the guests, is to sit together and embrace the dining experience properly.  Setting the table need not be intimidating.  Think of setting the table as a way to organize a table and make dining easier for guests. 

So if you’re wondering where the water goblet goes in relation to the wine glass or whether the bread and butter plate goes on the right side of the dinner plate, following is a primer on how to organize a table setting.   It’s a cheat sheet to help stage a memorable meal.  This is a very simple, basic place setting.  

Use a tablecloth or place mat topped by a charger if you own them.  I love these glass beaded place mat/chargers – they shimmer like jewelry – and pick up the candle light while accenting our Royal Doulton china’s sleek, silver lines.  

But one doesn’t need formal china.  If the wedding gift registry didn’t provide the service for 12, there are very good-looking tableware dishes available. Plus there’s antiques, or flea market finds, or even good-looking recyclable plates.  The table setting doesn’t have to be all matchy/matchy. The important think is to get the tools to the table.

Place Setting:
Think of the dinner plate as the center or the sun – with the cutlery and glassware orbiting it.
The salad plate can go on top of the center plate.  Most often I put the napkin on top of the salad plate, for a polished look.

Place setting names are an extra-lovely way to show your guests you care – that you anticipated them and the act of dining.  To encourage conversation as sparkling as the wine, don’t seat couples together – attempt to spread out the personalities so that there is a newfound story to one’s right and left. 
Place setting names cards are available in all manner of styles, colors  -- and holders.  The holders are dimunitive works of sculpture art.
One can even use nature in the name setting: a leaf or a leaf spray-painted and tied up in the napkin is fun, foraging option.  The sky is the limit.
Put the names either in with the napkin or at the head of the center plate for easy identification.
The napkin can also be placed to the left of the setting.

The salad fork goes on the left side of the plate, next to the dinner fork.
At the top of the plate is the dessert fork with the tines facing right and the coffee spoon, on top of the fork, bowl side is left, handle side right.
To the right of the plate is the knife, with the blade pointing toward the plate.
To the right of the knife is the teaspoon (Continuing out, place two teaspoons followed by a soup spoon and a cocktail fork there if the menu includes these courses).

The bread and butter plate, topped by a spreader is off the dinner plate’s 11 o’clock – to the left of the dessert fork and coffee spoon.
The far right side is where the coffee cup and saucer is located.

The crystal or glassware is placed to the right of the center plate, to the right of the dessert fork and coffee spoon at a descending (or ascending) angle, with the water glass at the top, followed by the red wine glass, and then the white wine glass at the bottom, nearest the right hand side of the center plate’s cutlery.
I add a champagne glass placed on the left side of the center plate.

It’s easy to set a table.  In my family, it was a tradition passed down from the adults to the children and helps engages the kids in the dining process. Gives them a job to do, too. And conversation about past meals, where the china came from – as in heritage pieces passed down or brought back from a trip  -- are sure to start the dinner table conversation.

The centerpiece or tablescape should not be so large or consuming as to block guests and thereby prevent conversation and dinner table talk and toasts.

For a low but nuanced look that also always guests to see the incredible view of the Manhattan and Brooklyn skyline and the South Shore of Long Island that sparkles just beyond, I’ve recycled old grains and popcorn after I cleaned out the cupboard, layering them for an intense autumn harvest look, topped with a battery operated candle that sits in the grains.  The three glass vases sit on a brown-mirror that was a backsplash sample.  I used the adorable teeny milk pitchers given me by my cousin: author Garden Glamour book review for Alive & Cooking - and Academy Award winner!  I fill the little glass holders with sage from the garden and tops of some of our ornamental grasses that are gloriously wispy and creamy this time of year. Goes so well with our antique brown table and gold walls and stone fireplace..

Enjoy Thanksgiving dinner.  And use the Table-Setting How-To for everyday dining.

Oh and there’s still time to enter my Goodreads Thanksgiving book give away for a chance to win a copy of my book: The Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown Cookbook

Oh and there’s still time to enter my Goodreads Thanksgiving book give away for a chance to win a copy of my book: The Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown Cookbook
As written, “With Thanksgiving here, what better way to celebrate “The Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown Cookbook," with its abundance of good food stories about the Island's best locavore chefs and the growers and makers who inspire them, along with the incredible, fresh, local food and drink ingredients.  These are the real stars.
Thank you. Homegrown Hugs.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Landscape Design NYBG Lecture Review of Japan's leading Garden Designer & Zen priest: Shunmyo Masuno

The Adult Education program at The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) kicked off its celebrated Landscape Design Portfolios Lecture Series with featured speaker, Shunmyo Masuno; hailed as Japan’s leading garden designer according to his bio.
Now in its 16th year, it was the first of The Garden’s three lectures: part of this season’s theme: “A Dialogue with the Elements.”

Just prior to the Design Portfolio’s premiere event, attendees received an email noting it was a “Sell Out,” suggesting we come early (and presumably to not bring an extra guest hoping to attend.)
Needless to say, anticipation for the presentation shot up a notch to a very happy, landscape-design pollinated-pitch.
On the night of the event, the attendees registered rapidly, (foregoing much of the hearty hello’s and network chatting that is a key part of attending NYBG’s talks), and scooted to get a good seat.  The room soon darkened; the audience hushed as Barbara Corcoran, NYBG’s vice president for Continuing and Public Education welcomed the audience.  
Then, Gregory Long, CEO and the William C. Steere Sr. President NYBG, thanked the guests, Mr. Masuno, and Susan Cohen, coordinator for NYBG's Landscape Design Certificate program, noting Susan has successfully shepherded the NYBG Landscape Design Portfolios Lecture Series since she inaugurated the program. 

Clearly the guests/attendees were already familiar with Masuno. His reputation certainly must have predicated the over-subscribed attendance.

Masuno-san is a Zen priest and a world-renowned landscape designer. 
Or should I say a world-renowned landscape designer and a Zen priest?  His art and his religion are so inextricably linked it’s of no consequence ordering his titles.

Masuno-san is the only garden designer I have ever encountered who is also an eighteenth-generation Zen Buddhist priest; “presiding over daily ceremonies at the Kenkohji Temple in Yokohama,” he notes in his book.  

While most everyone might say there is a spiritual practice with regard to creating gardens – Masuno elevates the spiritual discipline to another dimension – creating spaces “that are inseparable from his Buddhist practice so that each Zen garden becomes “a special spiritual place where the mind dwells.” His book, ZEN Gardens The Complete works of Shunmyo Masuno Japan's Leading Garden Designer published in 2012, is a coffee table work of curated art: a compilation of the master’s landscape designs, featuring 37 completed gardens’ imagery and more than 400 landscape design schematics and drawings, as well as an exploration of his design principles.  It is sure to be used as a reference and as inspiration. It is the “first complete retrospective of Masuno’s work to be published in English.  

Masuno-san took to the podium in his monk’s vestment robe, fan in tow, bowed, and asked the guests - in a measured, soft-spoken voice -- to “Please excuse me” for his language deficiency. 
Susan Cohen, Coordinator NYBG Landscape Design Certificate program, Portfolio Series creator & Shunmyo  Masuno  

He read most of the talk but honestly, his English language skills on display were more than accomplished.  No worries.

Masuno-san’s demeanor and delivery offered an aura of otherworldliness and no small amount of transporting mysticism.   
His oeuvre is at once traditional and contemporary; residential and commercial; urban and rural; modern and traditional. 
Long recognized in Japan for his landscape art, he is now increasingly hailed internationally, with clients from all over the world commissioning his signature designs.  In 2011 he completed his first commission in the United States: a private residence in NYC. 

Key to my interest in this lecture is that I’ve had the good fortune to possess a sort of Japanese garden portfolio of my own -- with on-sight, first-hand experience, too.  I’ve had the pleasure and honor to have visited Japan on numerous occasions – and am privileged to have seen a variety garden design disciplines there.  In addition, I studied and researched Japanese gardens as part of NYBG’s Certificate of Landscape Design program; I’ve worked in the area’s botanical gardens noted for Japanese garden installations, not to mention utilizing inspired elements in my garden design work (especially the rocks and stones) and in my own Gotham garden.  So you see, I have a fairly good understanding of the Japanese garden aesthetic. 
However, taking no chances on the level of his audience’s familiarity with Japanese Zen gardens, Masuno took the time to present a backdrop of various art genres – from painting to pottery to calligraphy and sculpture; comparing and contrasting an Asian art aesthetic to a Western one.
You might think of it as a sort of elevated “Pinterest Cultural Context” prior to presenting his opus of garden art.

Perhaps he assumed that Americans don’t really know what Japanese garden design is at its essence. (I’m kinda’ with him on this.)
On the other hand this was -- safe to say -- a pretty sophisticated audience. And willing to meet him halfway with an overview in the cultural arts, we could all better understand and appreciate his garden designs – in other words, to have a reference point. 
It was a good presentation strategy.  However, the general consensus after the talk was that Masuno could have condensed this portion and featured more of his noteworthy designs. 
After all, that is what the audience came out to see.

He did reference his personal narrative somewhat in relation to his art and that was insightful. For example, he referenced that while his family is rooted in Zen Buddhism, he said,  “After World War II, the government took over our lives and for the first time, we experienced the very idea of separation of church and state.”  Prior to that religion was part of the fabric of their culture and their more homogeneous cultural identity.
He continued: “Perhaps this change is responsible in some way for why, even today, the Japanese feel a loss – of something missing.”  (Yet) This sense of loss is rooted in a foundation of love,” he continued.
I was so fascinated by his references that I did further research on this sense of loss and nothingness.  I learned that Shinto Buddhism places an emphasis on wholeness of nature and its celebration of the landscape. In the Buddhist tradition, “all things are considered as either evolving from or dissolving into nothingness.  However, this nothing is not empty space.  It is rather – a space of potentiality. “

When it comes to garden structure, Masuno’s main point of distinction is that Japanese design is asymmetrical and not just focused on the scenery whereas beauty in the West is all about the symmetry…
I dare overlay a concept from a recent talk at The Horticultural Society of New York Art & Nature Symposium where, alongside some very provocative and compelling new garden-inspired art installations were – it can be readily argued - some American-based Zen garden concepts for the new century and beyond that embrace this sense of nothingness and space of potentiality.  One in particular is a good example of this emerging yet Zen-like garden art: the organically created one featuring “just” soil laid out in a sinuous display. 

Masuno showed trees and water while he described how thinking organically, creating harmony and unity, was not just as a reflection of nature but a freedom of the mind.
He said these elements deepen our understanding of Japanese Zen gardens and that to share the secret of beauty is linked to the understanding of Zen.
If I understand this – then sharing via social media – especially the beauty of garden design – is the essence of Zen.  Ahhhh…
Follow the path of truth found in each one of us, urged Masuno.  
And I urge you to "Follow" me @GardenGlamour and @ChefsGardens  Ha! )

One element of his cultural art comparatives that I found enlightening was in the realm of pottery and ceramics.  This art form, along with the tea ceremony especially, directly informs Zen garden designs, he said.  Masuno showed side-by-side images of a Western Meissen teacup and a Japanese teacup.  He went on to explain that a western aesthetic embraces the concept of a “perfection” whereas a Japanese perspective reflects a sense of “unfinished” or “incompleteness.”  The difference in the pottery is profound. 
To my Western eye the Meissen teacup did look finished and elegant in contrast to the simple, made-in-ceramic-class look of the Japanese cup.  

I learned with later research that this part of the Wabi-sabi Japanese aesthetic describes a mindful approach to everyday life and defines the true beauty of things as “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.”  Whether in bud or in decay, the object is more beautiful because it suggests the transience of things.  The difference in the perception of art and the reverence for arts’ meaning, expression, value, and contribution the culture is key to understanding the purpose of Zen and to finding a true self – to that search for spiritual stability – and to Zen garden making: both design and construction.  And its path of truth is found in each one of us, Masuno explained.

Masuno Garden Designs
In terms of his own portfolio, we learned he launched his commissioned work with two gardens, using sand and stone in the Karesansui style, supervising the entire construction project all the while thinking how to marry inside and outside and how to use the garden to entertain guests.  

To better understand Masuno’s moss garden reference, I researched Japanese Roji gardens and found it is the garden - - a transporting path  -- through which one passes to the tea ceremony.  It is a place for quiet reflection.  Roji means “dewy ground.” Masuno described his garden design using “Moss as water. “ The maple trees there are peaceful in appearance in what looked like a misty dream garden.

In contrast, a landscape he created for a hotel conference courtyard used material of metal and concrete and glass between artificial foundations he had constructed.

He designed another hotel lobby – in Tokyo – creating the garden along with it as “one entity.”  He designed everything in this wood and stone textured lobby project including furniture, fabrics, and cutlery. He described how he “Controlled the scenery in order to view the garden from behind it.”  He showed the lobby from a second floor coffee lounge – and remarked that he designed it to be lower by a measure of 45 centimeters.
The walls were created to offer a feeling of a water pattern, and included a large boulder. 

The banquet hall was made lighter – with its center cut out, bordering one side of the tiered garden.  He created serenity via his composition of tall walls of water and stone backed with layers of green plant material.

In terms of a residential home garden he explained the need for silence in a busy city, so he created a “controlled scenery” viewing garden, using light rocks and a running waterfall effect. He created the waterfall using an exhaust duct and then making it green on top. Masuno talked about how applying a slight adjustment to the rocks, he can produce shadows – an extremely important element.

In Germany he recreated a tea garden that at the same time hewed to the genius loci principle, giving homage to the historical significance of both the “Brandenburg Gate and the true sense of unity of the German people, “ he explained.
“You wouldn’t know it wasn’t in Japan,” he said proudly.  

A spectacular design was the one he did for the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo – it floats four stories above the street and uses backlit cut stone pavers!  Very dramatic.
He also showed the work he did for the Japanese embassy in Singapore featuring a courtyard and the use of select stones as art, placed around the circle. 

But it was the work on the Guard House that drew awe.  
First Impressions: Guard House: extraordinary design greets visitors 
He noted he wanted to make this First Impression a beautiful and memorable one.  It is indeed a far cry from the typical, institutional and scary first greeting found at most embassy complexes.  He designed the windows in the wall – and used black wall lumber and national, natural stone, achieving a modern classic and enduring look.
He showed a spectacular roof garden the he said was an ongoing vacation space for the client, as well as a Zen garden resort in Singapore located along a golf course.   Some might argue that is a double Zen (vs. a double bogie!)

Masuno-san doesn’t create “just” gardens but entire worlds. 
There is so much quiet dignity in his gardens and – true to the lecture’s theme: “A Dialogue with the Elements” – he utilizes a great variety of elements: water, rocks, plants, sand, and wood, for example, and yet the look is complete, intrinsic integration – as in nature.  
This is one of my favorite designs: small space/big looks


Some are quiet gardens in repose – the dry landscape (sand) Karesansui gardens in particular and the garden type most closely associated with Zen Buddhism. 

Others pose with an organic dynamic with waterfalls, streams, and ponds.  My observation looking through the book is his extraordinary use of the “borrowed landscape.”  

The viewing gardens incorporate many elements: power, calmness, tranquility, and elegance – and all change depending on the rock arrangements.  He believes designers must stand at the scene and “Converse” with the space in the garden.   He said, “Japanese gardens never can be formed by drawing up a plan alone. “ The garden must be experienced.”  
Masuno on-site in a garden design installation

So he visits the garden site and waits until the rock seems to speak and say where it wants to be put.  Masuno oversees all the selection and the placement of the large rocks in his garden rock groupings. 

The overarching impression of these garden art installations is serenity; stability and they are shaped like boats and mountains…  Talking with us…
Zen rock
Zen garden rock
Gazing at them, one feels they are alive.

He said the same is true for tree placement. The trees tell him where they should be planted.   “Don’t plant trees just for their beauty in the landscape design,” he noted.  “Trees should be used to create shadows and express contrast or elegance especially in the ways they are trained and pruned to bring out their distinguishing characteristics.”

Masuno writes, “The idea of garden design as a dialogue between the designer and the elements in the garden is clearly stated in the first known Japanese garden manual, the eleventh-century Garden Making… implies the requirements to have a dialogue with the elements in the garden in order to have a complete understanding of the unique character of each element.”

Masuno-san autographing my Zen book
I don't know what it says, but it sure looks special!

Masuno-san and me