Earth Beings: Debs

Even if you’ve never heard of the Henry Brooks Adams saying that “Friends are born, not made,” you’ve probably experienced that moment of instant kinship with someone new. It’s a remarkable phenomenon that most aptly explains Debs and me. I met her in Cape Town, early 2004, and from that moment onwards, I do not remember when we weren’t friends. You, dear reader, met her briefly in my first post. Debs hails from a part of the world that’s warmly etched into my fondest childhood memories: Port Elizabeth. “P.E.,” as it is known by locals, is a sprawling, sunny South African seaside port town where the air always smells like sea salt, thatch, Sparletta Cream Soda and braais. It’s also home to some of South Africa’s great sport and creative talents.  Debs, being the latter, thrived in the city of her provenance, and enjoyed the freedom it gave this spirited, artistic eaglet, who grappled with reconciling her rebellious, ever-curious and wild side with a Catholic sensibility and deep love of her family. As Debs says, in her distinctive, 1820s English settler-flecked accent:

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“Spent a lot of my youth trawling junk stores for furniture, clothes and quirky bits of crap. I was diving head first into boxes of second-hand clothes in flea-infested shops in Main St. (P.E.) from the tender age of about 14. ‘Dead peoples clothes probably,’ sighed a friend of mine’s mum once.”

Debs’ uncanny eye for beautiful form and colour is matched by her ability to attract and inspire artistic friends. So as a young rock chick out on the town with her similarly feathered friends, she’s periodically flown through P.E.’s thrift and consignment shops to amass a collection of treasures.

“I obsessively started collecting hats at one point. I only have a few left as the moths got hold of them. Storage was often a problem as the collections grew larger. My retro crap was collected before it was even called retro. Old Soda Streams, coloured glass ashtrays and vases — people just didn’t want this stuff and I did.”

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In one loud P.E. club, she chanced upon a compelling objet d’ affection with a large warm heart on its sleeve, mop of blonde hair and a disarming twinkle in his eye. His name was Denis. After Debs came back from two years of exploring the world by herself, she married him. After a few years in P.E., Debs and Denis moved back down the coast to Cape Town in the early 1990s. They bought a “whaler’s cottage,” built in 1902, that was created with stone from the surrounding Cape mountains. Our eagle was ready to settle down on this unique rocky perch overlooking the False Bay of St. James/Muizenberg. She gave mixarella a tour of her stunning and homey nest.

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“In 1991, I swapped Denis’ much-loved faux leather couch (truly hideous) for six retro chairs, Scandinavian style. Denis was devastated but later, being the master of embellishment, he brags about ‘his bargain of the century.’ Then again, I spent an entire month’s salary on that Art Nouveau clock that’s pictured here on top of the kitchen cupboard and was made by my great uncle.”

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“My favourite pieces in my home are mostly the ones that have been made by an assortment of talented friends. Photographer Pippa Hetherington, potter Tessa Gawith of the Pot Spot, artist Jackie Jones (artworks on wall), sculptor and sometimes recluse, Dominique Rocco, artist and collaborator Arabella Caccia, and decor artist Janet Fryer. As well as the many cushion covers, throughout the house, by the prolific South African textile designer and illustrator, Heather Moore.”

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“I love old fashion mixed with a bit of now. I have a thing for Persian rugs and old wardrobes and, of course, old mirrors. The more time-beaten, the better. The mirror backsplash in my kitchen behind the basin was made by my very talented old school friend, Ms. Fryer.

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“Having children curbed the obsessive collecting phase, and I have been through a bit of a 10-year lull. However, I think the bug has bitten once again. This time it’s for collecting old South African pottery from the ’50s, Drostdy Ware, Lucia Ware, and the English and American versions of Vermont.”

“My Beswick ducks were found separately in three different junk stores in different cities. Each of them is a different size. Amazing, ey? Now I have a full set in the same style and colour.”

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“For the dining room wall, the fiercely creative Jen Mason roped me into painting it for an Earthcote shoot. Inspired by Paul Smith. maybe?”

The colours are also a nod to the famed Muizenberg brightly coloured changing huts that line the beach in front of her house where Debs swims each dawn. As she notes, “With all the grannies at the St. James tidal pool. This marks the start of my day and a coffee at a local coffee shop before I start work.”

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Her work is in photography, which is more a vocation than a labour. When she is not “working” at capturing people, places, lives and faces, she is visualizing and collaborating on art and further installments for exhibits. When Debs sets out each day, she is attired in her own offbeat expression of elegance with a hint of her past punk influences.

“My wardrobe still has a resemblance of junk store finds from my youth. My Nan (grandmother) made my mom’s clothes when she was younger. I still wear some of them (seen hanging on wardrobe door.)  I am trying to be grownup and add more neutral colours but cannot throw away my colourful past. My new (read: not second-hand) pieces are mostly from my good friend, designer Claire Kingan Jones, who recently moved to New Zealand.”

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Even at the end of the day, this bird likes to keep busy. Around the house, needles and wool are kept within stretching distance. “There is always a handmade blanket on the couch or bed in my house. My youngest, Jed (now 17), sometimes when he was little, would prefer to fall asleep to the soft clack of my needles rather than a story. I have great excuses for my knitting —my grey hair now and our little precious grandson, Luke (born to eldest son, Rip, below right, who lives in Johannesburg and is finishing medical school). Jed, below left, is an aspiring musician in a band called The Oxygen Thieves; their video, ‘Under the Sky,’ was filmed in his neighbourhood.”

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“Sun-downers” and weekends are spent on the expansive front deck, which feels almost cantilevered over the False Bay cocktail of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Below the deck is the garden, a seaside, rocky terrain strewn with an almost eccentric installation of flotsam and jetsam found by Denis, Debs and their boys, Rip and Jed, on the beaches all along the South African coast.

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“Those weird pieces of junk in the garden are Denis’ art collections. Flotsam from the beach. His collections of African heads keep a watchful eye on his collections of cacti. We always did have different taste … as you know.”

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I do know. Once, Debs and Denis called upon my critical eye to give an honest opinion about a new painting (above) that Denis had acquired. Debs and I struggled to contain our mirth, but once Denis explained how it made him think of surfing and being young and free and how the moon looks just like that when you’re on your board in the water, it became impossible not to fall in love with the acquisition. It’s always the response that gives art its meaning — just like Debs and Denis give to life. This sums up how I feel each time I am with them. Like her marvelous finds, they delight me and I want to keep them around forever.

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New Year’s Eve has many special memories, and I wished to ignite MadKat’s mind’s eye too. So, together we put on a New Year’s Eve dinner of her fancy.
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The much-loved and oft-used plastic candelabra I found on Long Street, Cape Town in the wonderful shop, Imagnius.

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The marvelous Malawian table-cloth is a gift from my close friend Pippa, as well as the ‘Madiba’ coasters, hand-made in South Africa.

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MadKat’s menu of choice was shrimp cocktail, fish sticks with tomato sauce, fruit salad and left-over Christmas chocolate.

As for 2012, I say …

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No, just joking, party on, Earth Beings!tumblr_m7qiwa2AWo1qd7x3so1_250

Earth Beings: Curtis & Albert

The first time I met Curtis, I politely declined his offer to help with an awkward load I was carrying. Something about my reply delighted him, so he invited me to dinner at his home with Albert and others with whom I was to became close. At the dinner, he was so cheeky, goading me with pretend ignorance about South Africa (“Can you ride water buffaloes?”). In mid-sparring, we fell in love. For a girl far away from home, he became my soulmate, older brother, playmate and, when the occasion called for it, my guardian.

His partner of many years, Albert, to whom you’ve been briefly introduced in my first post, is the gentlest soul you’ll ever meet. He has a rule that one is never allowed to talk badly of another person, and even when I get petulant and whine, “Bu-ut, I have to! Please!” He replies, “No way, no how.”

Both have impeccable taste, each slightly different. Curtis has a classical romantic style, and Albert has a more vibrant but elegant island flair. Together, they live life fabulously and with warm abundance. They suck the marrow — no, wait, first, they invite friends over, arrange it beautifully, perfect the ambient lighting, pair it with the right wine — and then they suck marrow out of life.

Over the last 12 years, they have taught me many things, one of them being how to get stuff done and beautifully. And they really get beautiful stuff done. (You should see them get the dishes done after an opulent dinner party, while I position myself, purposefully useless, as I loathe doing dishes, with the occasional, “Um, where should I put this? Uh, want me to dry?” to which Curtis’ replies in a melt-butter tone, “Darling, why ruin a perfect record?”)

The aunt whom I have spoken about told me that the people who really know how to be gemütlich are the best sort, and Curtis and Al are those such people. As well as being splendiferous chefs, they have entertaining down to an art. With gorgeous settings and food, one always ends up feeling like one of the Danes at Babette’s Feast, wanting to join hands and dance in the moonlight with sheer bliss. And they love Christmas just like I do. So what better time to introduce them than now?

Christmas edition of Earth Beings®: I present to you, Curtis & Albert.

Curtis and Albert. Photographed by Pippa Hetherington

Curtis and Albert. Photographed by Pippa Hetherington

Curtis explains:
“Christmas is a wonderful holiday. It was my Mom’s favorite holiday, so much so that she and my Dad were married two days before Christmas. Growing up, we all knew Mom would just go nuts at Christmas. The decorating, baking, cooking, shopping. We lived in a lovely Swiss style chalet on a lake, usually lots of snow. My folks would decorate lamp posts, every windowsill had bows and boughs and a huge garland on the balcony. Baking would start in October and didn’t end until New Years Day. It was in every way Currier & Ives. I have a favorite memory of being a boy and finding just a small wrapped box under the tree, in it was a little riddle, which led me to my present, snow skies outside, stuck in the snow on the roof next to the chimney. OK, good chat. Gotta go back to the kitchen.”

Albert’s reply:
“Christmas for me (in my mind) is spent going to the beach. A warm and sunny day with family and friends. A large potluck picnic that never ends. Santa in shorts. Palm trees that are decorated. Another wonderful reason to acknowledge the many terrific people in our lives and how fortunate I’ve been.” (Ed note: Sigh, he’s so lovely.)

For me, growing up in Subtropical South Africa with my Bostonian mother and I spray-painting aerosol snow on our beach cottage and Indian Ocean-facing windows, while my traditional Russian father gingerly stringing strands of tinsel (one-by-one, branch-by-branch), Christmas holds a strong visual memory for me. So I was in a thrall to find that Albert and Curtis did Christmas with the same overflowing flourish as I. This year is no different. Let’s take a look around (and imagine getting a waft of the delicious food being prepared in the kitchen).

This is their invitation for Christmas Eve.

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While we admire the tree, which they acquired on a completely “Last Christmas” video weekend in Utah, running around the hills adorably attired (sans frosted tips) until they found their dream tree, we can nibble on grilled shrimp canapé, pears with pancetta, goat cheese and honey, radish bruschetta, and Brie with almonds and fig jam.

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Every ornament is beautiful.

Curtis continues his mother's tradition of fresh traditional floral arrangement on the mantel.

Curtis continues his mother’s tradition of fresh traditional floral arrangement on the mantel.

This glorious hibiscus painting, by South African artist Hettie Saaiman, the oil is applied with such purposefully thick juicy abandon, it takes your breath away, while the colour almost hurts. The three of us had spied it in a gallery in Hout Bay, Cape Town, three years ago. Thinking it was unpractical to ship back to California, we let it go but couldn’t stop thinking about it, especially Curtis, who through a local art director and designer friend of mine, Penny Waterkeyn, tracked it down. He managed to do all of this undetected and successfully gave Albert a glorious surprise when he walked into their home! Oh, I love romantics.

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I call them chefs, as they surpass the cooks category. They are constantly exploring new, exotic and exciting (read: challenging) recipes. This recent discovery will be on the main menu: whiskey crab soup along with Thai curry meatballs, rainbow kale salad and the traditional honey-baked ham.

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Drunken crabs getting hammered.

For dessert, they and their other Antipodean friend, neighbour Caroline from Zimbabwe, make mince pies from scratch. Curtis excels in the dessert category and has made a very complicated Chocolate espresso dacquoise, below, left. (Luckily, eating it requires no exceptional skills.) As well as spicy pumpkin bundt cake and raspberry lemon coconut cake, Curtis makes his mother’s fruitcake, below right.

He defends it with:
“Fruitcake in the U.S. has a very bad rep. Years ago, The Late Show with Johnny Carson used to joke there was only one fruitcake and it just keep getting sent around to everyone. Given, I’ve had some pretty awful stuff. Nonetheless, my mother’s fruitcake was wonderful. Growing up on this in Connecticut, I remember waiting all fall for her to bring out the fruitcakes. She made them the previous winter and had them wrapped up in a soaked cheesecloth with plastic wrap. Of course, the cheesecloth was soaked in brandy and we stored them in the basement where it was cool all year round.”

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Curtis has acquired yet another skill, macaron-making:
“The blog Not So Humble Pie was my jumping-off point for the macarons. I think my best one to date has been the Matcha Tea macaron with a passion fruit butter-cream filling. A close runnerup is a raspberry lychee macaron with a rose butter cream. For the truly sadistic, this is the recipe for this macaron, and yes I’ve made it twice and love them, not only me, everyone who ate one. They are heaven.”

For those interested in attempting this at home, Curtis adds:
“While in Paris this spring, I took a class on macarons and the chef showed me a technique to gauge the temperature of the water without the pesky thermometer: Ice your hand in ice water and quickly stick it in the boiling sugar, then dunk your hand back into the ice water. Very frightening the first few times but it worked. If you can roll the sugar into a ball, it’s ready; if it falls apart, you need to keep cooking. The “softball stage.” It works every time.”

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So Happy Holidays to all! Whatever it may be for you this year, in the words of Albert:

“May it be another wonderful reason to acknowledge the many terrific people in our lives.”

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Thank you for reading. Here’s to a marvelous 2013!

Disco Queen

As you may remember I mentioned one of my dream acquisitions in my post, Through the Looking Glass.

Well, today one of those men in quirky brown uniforms (and tattoo sleeve or two) who inspires so much sudden and delicious anticipation arrived at my doorstop, bearing two large boxes. Excited and utterly mystified, I clawed it open and what did appear before my wondering eyes?

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Attached was this note.

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I absolutely love you, my darling Earth Beings: Emma, Pippa, Arthur, Felix, Curtis, and Al. Thank you from the bottom of my glittery heart! You made me feel like a true Queen of the Galaxy.

Season’s Greetings, everyone!

Let’s dance!

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