"Do you like stories?" he asked. "I've got a 60-second one that I can tell you in 59. And it even begins with Once Upon a Time," he added for good measure, as I stepped closer to his tented space at the Bentonville (Arkansas) Farmer's Market.
I had stumbled upon the town square of white tents on Saturday morning as I waited for Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art to open at 10:00. Bins of fresh vegetables, bars of goat's milk soap, farm-fresh eggs gathered from humanely-raised chickens, and jars of Ozark honeys and jams surrounded Pop's Southern Sourdough table. All tempting, but no one offered to tell me a story.
Once Pop (Dan Maestri) said the word story, he didn't have to say another word. Not a single word to entice me toward his loaves of homemade bread or spiraled rolls slathered with cinnamon. Little did he know that the word story to a writer is a magnet. He could have been selling cilantro, which I hate, and I would have been all ears.
"Once upon a time," he began, "when I was teaching school, "one of my students brought me a loaf of bread her grandma made. It was some of the best bread I had ever tasted. I asked for the recipe. Her grandma sent me the recipe and something even better, a piece of her sourdough starter."
"She'd had that starter for 50 years. . . 50! And I've had it for 25." He paused momentarily for the math to sink in. "This bread here," picking up a loaf of rosemary sourdough, "has the same DNA as bread made 75 years ago." Then he lost me in the biology and chemistry details – yeast, lactic acid bacteria, metabolism, fermentation . . .
As someone who's never baked a loaf of bread from scratch, much less tried to keep sourdough starter fed and happy, I can't begin to appreciate Pop's commitment to his breadmaking. What I can appreciate, through, is the sense of history his loaves and rolls represent. Generations of hands repeating a process to bring bread to their tables, to feed families and friends – perhaps a hungry stranger or two.
"My bread's a little different from the West Coast variety. I put a bit more sugar in mine," Pop offered, which reminded me of my grandmother's cornbread. She always added sugar to the batter. I wondered if that's what makes Pop's Southern Sourdough more southern. Regardless, it makes for a good story.
I selected a loaf of rosemary garlic (no garlic in today's batch) after Pop spiced up his story with details of chopping fresh rosemary himself and sprinkling it in the dough.
"You can eat it as is," he explained, "but it'll be a tad doughy. "It's best to bake it for about 10 minutes until it's nice and brown, then slice it up and dip it in olive oil."
Seemed like a perfect ending to me, except that I should have bought two loaves and a cinnamon roll while I was at it.
** Pop's Southern Sourdough Bread is served on selected days at Eleven Restaurant, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas
During a recent visit to The British Museum, London . . .
I thread my way through packs of school children, up the stairs to the fourth floor, past the mummies to the not-nearly-as-popular Prints and Drawings room. The door is locked. I press the small black button to the right, and moments later a woman’s face appears in the window. She unlocks the door, pops her head out – ever so slightly – and says, “Yes?”
“My name is Twylla Alexander, and I have an appointment to see Mary Delany’s paper mosaics,” I explain, in the most library appropriate whisper I can muster.
“Oh yes, Ms. Alexander. I notice you’re on the schedule. May I see your identification?”
"Identification?" I wonder, but dare not ask.
I present my passport then enter my name and address in a leather-bound ledger atop a mahagony lectern. All so wonderfully proper.
The research librarian, Angela Roche, ushers me into a long rectangular, two-storied room of paneled walls and hushed tones. Four other visitors are scattered among tables pouring over books, so intent in their research that not one looks up as we walk in.
“All is in order for you,” Ms. Roche says, pointing to my official spot at one of the tables.
“Here is one box (10 pieces) of Mary Delany’s collages, a pair of white gloves and a magnifying glass. Be sure to lift, never slide, the frames. As you know, they are over 200 years old and quite fragile. And by no means, no photos. (Imagine Queen-like British accent).
A year ago, I had never heard of Mary Delany (1700-1788), had no clue that she had created a new art form of paper collage, that she had produced almost 1000 botanically correct flower “mosaiks,” (as she called them) — all after the age of 72!
Then the cover of Molly Peacock’s book, The Paper Garden, caught my attention while browsing the shelves of a bookstore in Portland, Maine. A delicate pink rose in full bloom, surrounded by a host of pink buds, looked like a delicate watercolor. But it was one of Mary Delany's creations, crafted entirely of cut paper – layer upon layer of meticulously cut paper.
Every afternoon for a week I sat on a bench on Portland’s Western Promenade, reading Mary’s story. I copied her quotes in my journal and sketched Maine’s spring flowers in the margins. I collected my own specimens and pressed them between pages.
I became inspired, energized by a woman who died 230 years ago! A woman who walked her talk, even when she literally couldn't get out of her chair. She proclaimed, "An ingenious mind is never too old to learn."
I was determined to meet her – or rather her art – stored in box upon box in the British Museum, when Drew and I visited London next year. I felt as if Mary had sent me a personal invitation.
I scour Mary's mosaics through the magnifying glass, taking notes in my journal, marveling at details, until I reach the final frame, The Opium Poppy, created in 1776. I sit back in the creaky wooden chair, take off the white gloves and allow the beauty to soak in. I imagine Mary, at age 76, cutting and gluing at a table beside an open window, with a brilliant red poppy spread before her. She is totally in the flow as the morning sun shifts from table to floor then melts into shadow.
I (gently) hold the same cardboard frame that Mary once held and feel her presence. For a moment, we are connected. I sense her vitality, her resilience, her ability to reply "why not?" when a creative voice speaks of new possibilities. Qualities that travel through time – and cardboard – to me.
I smile at her across the centuries and mouth, quietly, "Thank you, Mary." I tidy up my space, walk back past the mummies, skip down the four flights of stairs and out the front door. It comes as no surprise as I pick up my pace, that I feel as if I could do. . . anything.