I drove 2 hours, met a woman called Meb, spent 4 hours making 2 wooden spoons, then drove home, 2 hours.
And yet. When I explain why I did that, and what fun it was, and show off my beautiful spoons, the mockers more often than not confess to having a favourite wooden spoon of which they are really quite fond. They hold and stroke my new and unique spoons, turn them over in their hands, simulate some stirring of an imaginary soup or stew and are taken by how pleasing they are. And all of a sudden it doesn't seem like such a crazy thing to have done. If they choose to think about it, people are sometimes surprised by the strength of their feelings for a humble wooden spoon.
But my search for something took me to Meb's door, in Woodstock, CT on a fine Wednesday morning in the early summer. She made me a cup of Green tea, served in a wooden mug she made herself. She told me she got disheartened with the mugs when a couple cracked- enough to destroy your soul when so much time and love goes in to making them.
We sat and talked spoons. I showed her my "emotional favourite" -an unassuming little kauri spoon from New Zealand which I bought 32 years ago, just before I left my homeland for good. It's probably my favourite because I feel it's one of few things which gives me a connection with that old life. My "cooking favourite" is from Williams Sonoma, but I quickly realized that apart from its mass produced functionality it lacked any character or beauty.
Meb's collection of hand crafted spoons is vast. All shapes, all sizes, & each one unique- made from carefully selected pieces of a range of woods according to their grain and special characteristics. She explained that a piece of cut timber may hold any number of surprises once you start working with it: a knot, or even a trail of poo left long ago by a worm which leaves a special scar & tells a story of the life of the tree . All of which will add to the character of the spoon.
I was drawn to a spoon of hers resembling a giant shallow soup spoon, and decided to try to make one similar, as a serving utensil for grain or short pasta dishes. For this we chose a piece of black walnut which suggested it might be hiding a pretty little knot which would make a special feature in the middle of the bowl of the spoon.
We donned scruffy over shirts, gloves, earmuffs & face masks for the dust, removed dangly bits like bracelets and earrings, and entered the workshop. It smells unsurprisingly like wood- wonderfully earthy and a little musty. There are intriguing machines and lumber, off bits & shavings everywhere, along with projects in varying states of readiness. Organized chaos, messy, but reassuringly & necessarily so. It reeks of creativity- Meb's husband Tom makes tools to suit their needs. For sanding the bowl of the spoon, an array of sandpaper-clad molds made from bouncy rubber balls for the perfectly rounded shape shows his innovation & genius. Meb shows Tom the problem and Tom makes the tool to solve it.
We cut the shape of the spoon & its profile- well, when I say we, I mean she- Meb. The band saw has teeth and it bites. I was confident I might have been able to make a reasonable job of it but with safety in mind it was as well that Meb did that bit. It probably saved us an hour of precious time as well.
We then moved the spoon through a vast variety of sanding machines, each with a specific function. Rotating inflatable tubes (allowing adjustments to the resistance of the sanding surface, hard to soft), large & small, covered with different grades of sandpaper- ; a slender upright spindle for getting into corners. Finer still, sandpaper with polishing brushes for making the finest adjustments. Meb showed me how to turn and sweep the spoon through the machines, with varying hand pressure, sometimes strong, sometimes requiring the lightest of touches- shaping and blending the wood. Her movements are confident and deft, mine clumsy and unsure. Sometimes she guides my hand - spoon -feeding- ha! -as I learn the techniques. And gradually, the spoon takes shape, transforms, mutates, from a lump of wood into - a spoon!
The process is painstaking, especially as a nervous novice (Meb produces her spoons in "batches"- cuts 10 - or gets Tom to do it- then takes them through each stage of finishing, you can see it's more efficient for an expert. She can complete 10 spoons in the time it would take me to complete 2). But feeling and grinding, shaping & smoothing is all immensely satisfying. The life and personality of the wood is revealed as the rough edges come off and the beauty is exposed.
And there it is- a new friend. We soaked in water the black walnut serving spoon, with its pleasing comma of a handle, then baked it in a low temperature kiln (another of Tom's masterpieces) which roughed up the grain, requiring a further polishing with the finest of fine sanding machines. A logo and a signature with a branding iron as a finishing flourish, a coat of linseed oil to nourish and protect the wood, and it's finished, complete with the little eye, as predicted (& planned, by Meb) , winking at us from the middle of the bowl of the spoon. Welcome, you beautiful thing! I hesitate to compare it to giving birth, but the similarities are there. You have a vague idea what it might look like but it's always surprising, satisfying & not without risks.
Next we decided to try and replicate the boring WS spoon, making it un-boring by changing the shape of the handle and including a little divot for resting the thumb. For this spoon we would use sugar maple. Meb guided me to select an appropriate, interesting & aesthetically pleasing piece to start with. We slightly rushed through the second spoon as time was running out. Similar processes but new challenges with the rounded back to a blade like spatula shape, the thumb rest, the narrowing of the neck.
And the sugar maple- oh, the sugar maple- it shines-like mother of pearl, almost luminescent in it's beauty- the life of the tree whence it was hewn glowing through.
It was a joyful day- Meb's passion for her craft, patience as a teacher, love and pride in her spoons & her encouraging, gentle company made for a wonderful experience in the woods of Woodstock.
And you thought it was "just a spoon".