Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door: A Tribute to Leo Medisch of the Back Porch Cafe

I haven’t blogged in a while, and this is a departure from my usual topics, but I just learned that someone I admired tremendously died earlier this week, and it feels important to express the huge impact that Leo Medisch had on me. Sometimes you don’t realize such a thing until it comes sharply into focus — until that person has slipped away.

Leo was the early founder and chef at The Back Porch Cafe, to this day one of my favorite restaurants in the world. Because my dad’s brother had also been one of the original founders, they were kind (crazy?) enough to hire me for a series of summer jobs that I truly had no business doing. For two summers I worked in the Back Porch Store, a gourmet take-out shop that was a couple decades ahead of its time. And the summer after the shop closed, I waited tables in the exquisitely casual, sprawling, creaky, fabulous main restaurant.

Tribute to Leo Medisch of the Back Porch Cafe

The Back Porch Cafe from Rehoboth Avenue (Creative Commons photo by ding_pression)

When I worked in the shop, Leo would come kind of sailing in, usually carrying an enormous bucket of enormous organic carrots that I had to chop or something. He had this wonderful, grand, floaty way of walking. He was usually humming or singing — my favorite was “Knock knock knockin’ on heaven’s door.” He had a lovely, Cheshire cat sort of smile and a sly sense of humor.

In my memory he kept this kind of composure, this presence, even in the outlandishly cramped, hot kitchen during dinner rush. I’d like to say that I keep my cool like this when things get crazy, but it is something I think about and aspire to. Really, Leo was the opposite of the “Hell’s Kitchen” type of chef. He definitely wasn’t pleased the time I left two lunch plates sitting under the hot lamp and reflexively dropped them, inches away from the table who’d been waiting far too long, in a crash of plates all over the back deck. But he didn’t fire me, although I probably would have fired me.

Tribute to Leo Medisch of the Back Porch Cafe

On the back deck at the Back Porch (Creative Commons photo by Susan Sharpless Smith)

Most days, he would let me write out the day’s lunch and dinner menu, which was always posted for people walking by on Rehoboth Avenue to see. When I started doing this I was 17 and I had decent handwriting, but was inordinately prone to stars and swoopy flourishes. He never criticized my style, but over time he taught me how to make it simpler, cleaner, and more elegant. (Years later when the Back Porch catered my wedding, he declared my look “simple elegance” which, coming from him, felt like the highest possible praise.)

Whenever I walked past the Porch, I always stopped to read the day’s menu — not just to contemplate the inventive offerings but to appreciate Leo’s round, stylish handwriting. Would it have been faster to just print the menus? Of course. But to me, those handwritten menus were always a soulful reminder that good things take time — quintessential Back Porch.

It also has to be said that Leo inspired me to love food and to cook. When I started working at the shop, it was like learning a foreign language. Mascarpone. Shirred eggs. Terrine. I can still remember exactly how some of the dishes tasted, and I still try to recreate them — roasted green bean salad with walnuts and lemon zest, the absurdly tasty Thai chicken curry (inspired by collaborator Siri Svasti who, I learned from reading Leo’s obituary, has since become a celebrity chef in Thailand). I also learned that Leo wasn’t a trained chef. This surprised me, but it made me appreciate him even more (not least because I have taken a decidedly nontraditional career path in my own field). Passion counts.

Tribute to Leo Medisch of the Back Porch Cafe

Brunch at the Back Porch (Creative Commons photo by grrlie)

In the big scheme of things, my summers with Leo and the Back Porch crew were a tiny slice of my life, but an incredibly vivid and formative one. They taught me about care and craft and authenticity and community. Leo, I’ll miss you, but I’ll never forget you. I hope you’re knockin’ on heaven’s door.

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Brandcrush: Glassybaby Shines

I remember distinctly when the glassybaby sign first appeared on a corner in Madrona, in 2003. I strolled in one day with my infant daughter, expecting cute onesies and maybe Scandinavian toys, and was surprised to find myself in a tiny gallery lined with shelves of colorful glass candleholders. I’ll confess that my first impression wasn’t overwhelmingly positive; I just couldn’t get my head around a store full of fancy $40 candleholders. But this brand has since grown on me like a cozy, flickering fire, and I’ve discovered that there’s quite a bit more to the story.

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Here are five reasons why I admire this exquisite brand.

  1. Powerful story: I believe there is nothing like an authentic, memorable founding story to anchor a brand and give it emotional power and richness. Glassybaby’s is one of the best I’ve come across. Its founder, Lee Rhodes, found peace in the colorful vessels as she battled a rare form of lung cancer while raising three young children. As described on the glassybaby website, “She had endured surgery, countless rounds of chemotherapy, and was searching for a few moments of serenity to escape the fear that encompassed her life. Lee filled [the glassybabys] with tea lights and scattered them throughout her home. She found great hope and healing in their color, light, and love.” One especially lovely thing about glassybaby is that each purchase, each gift, becomes its own story as you select exactly the right shade, and name, for the occasion. On Mother’s Day, I chose baby, a pale peachy hue I know will look perfect in my mom’s beach house, and red, red happiness for my mother-in-law.
  2. Craftsmanship: Each glassybaby is handmade by artisans in the Madrona hotshop–in fact, you can peek in and see them at work on any given day. The high quality is evident in the heft and stunning color of each unique piece. I love that they have been able to continue manufacturing locally even as they’ve scaled up to supply new shops around Seattle and in New York. The obvious care and craft makes each glassybaby feel that much more special.

    glassybaby

    glassybabys by greenplasticamy

  3. Generosity: Since 2003, Glassybaby has donated more than $900,000 to charities dedicated to health, healing, and quality of life. In each collection, several glassybabys are offered to benefit specific organizations that align with the company’s mission. I was surprised to see a prominent glassybaby presence at a recent Seattle Sounders Women match, but it all made sense when I read more about the partnership behind it to “kick cancer.” This deep commitment to worthy causes–in a way that authentically supports the brand’s roots–adds meaning and grounding to what might otherwise be perceived as a style-focused brand. Another generous (and all too rare) detail that stands out is free everyday shipping from their online shop.
  4. Focus: It takes incredible focus and discipline to do one thing and do it well. Pressures from retailers, media, and investors to deliver something new can be intense, but I’ve observed too many brands spin out from their centers as they rush to expand with new products, lines, and categories. There is a compelling purity and simplicity to a glassybaby shop that I believe amplifies the deep power of the brand.

    glassybaby

    glassybaby colors by mariusstrom

  5. Courage: I have a soft spot for companies that play by their own rules, and I love this quote from Lee Rhodes: “Even with my early success, I can’t tell you how many people told me that my product and my company wouldn’t work.  Many doubted that I could hand-make a product in the USA; others doubted that I could be successful with a single product; still others questioned my decision to give a portion of revenue away.  All of these people underestimated the power of color and light.  I knew I had something special because you can’t help but look at a glassybaby and feel something.”

For me, glassybaby is a model for brand cohesion. The powerful story at the core shapes everything, from how the product is made to the causes the company supports, and the effect is a warm, sustaining glow. What memorable details can your brand’s founding story inspire?

Bud’s Keys to Good, Long Living (A Remembrance for my Grandfather)

This is the eulogy I gave for my beloved grandfather, Walter Brooks “Bud” Macky (1907-2010).

I want to share some thoughts about Bud, my grandfather, my children’s great-grandfather, and, I think we can all agree, a great, great person. Whenever I tell somebody about Bud, which I do a lot, their usual comment is that I have good genes, which of course I don’t take for granted, but I think there’s more to it than that. His life was not just long, it was rich, and he did a lot of amazing, interesting things, as long as he possibly could.

Walter Brooks Macky and Catherine Carr

Summer afternoon on the porch with my grandfather, July 2010

The truth is that I think Bud had a few things figured out, things that I have learned from him, and that I want to pass on to you, because they are things we can all do in our own lives, starting today, really, and I truly can’t think of a better way to honor him and his incredible, vital, radiant spirit. So let’s call these Bud’s rules for good, long living.

  1. OK, let’s just get this out of the way: There’s a right way and a wrong way to tie a knot. The wrong way, Bud called a granny knot. The right way is a square knot. It’s pretty simple. I can show you later, if you want.
  2. Find a way to express yourself creatively. You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment, or lessons, or any of those things. You just need a willingness to try things, and the discipline to actually do them, even if it’s just a few minutes a day. I believe Bud was very creative and very talented, but what I really admire about him is how much he just did, whether it was carving ducks or building model ships or taking photographs or learning how to make pottery in his 90s or, of course, writing. If you do it from the heart, it has true value, even if you don’t do it perfectly.
  3. Walk. This is not just so you, too, can be a Senior Olympic Racewalking Champion, although perhaps you could–why not?–but Bud was just not one to be sitting around watching TV. He liked to be out in the fresh air, walking, thinking, saying hello to people, observing the changes in the sky and the trees. You don’t have to be in a hurry, and you don’t have to go far. You don’t even have to be going anywhere, actually. But walk when you can.
  4. Cultivate a sense of wonder. I think this is related to the walking, actually, but Bud had a real reverence for the beauty of nature, for the powers and forces that are beyond our ability to measure and comprehend. He appreciated the beauty of things, from tiny bugs and leaves to the vast canvas of constellations and galaxies. We live in a time when it seems to be getting harder and harder to be impressed, but I think Bud would say, there are a lot of things to be impressed about, if you just stop and think about it. Be impressed.
  5. It’s ok to have half and half on your cereal. It tastes really, really good and, I think it’s pretty obvious it won’t kill you.
  6. It doesn’t take a big, fancy house to make you happy. Bud and my grandmother Sally built their house on Kirk Lane just before they were married, and it was humble and creaky and sweet and absolutely packed with love and memories of parties, and music, and laughter, and fires in the fireplace, mint-chocolate-chip parfaits, and card games, and stories. It will always be one of my favorite places in the world. It was warm and loving. It was about family. That’s what matters.
  7. Laugh! I think one of the best things about Bud was his sense of humor. He was a character, right? When we were small he would tie our socks together and tickle our ribs until we could barely stand it. He would spend hours raking leaves and then let us jump around in them, just because it was fun. He always loved jokes, and games, he was always fun, and he had this incredible, beaming smile that I will never forget. Just a few months ago, at his 103rd birthday celebration, my mom had the stroke of genius to rent one of those jitneys with the striped awnings, that all the tourists pedal around Rehoboth, and send Bud out for a spin with four of his grandchildren–my sisters, Julie and Cara, and my cousins, Allen and Annie. I wasn’t there to see it but the report is that he was grinning ear to ear the whole time.

    Walter Brooks Macky, Catherine Carr's great grandfather, sledding

    I will never forget his smile and his laugh!

  8. Stay curious. Bud read and talked and thought and wrote, his whole life. When he said “That’s interesting,” which he did frequently, he actually meant it. He asked questions and debated and reflected and, in recent years, if he wanted to know about something, he and my dad would Google it. He never stopped wanting to know more, learn more, understand more deeply.

    Walter Brooks Macky, Catherine Carr's great grandfather, reading

    Read!

  9. Write it down. To me, this is probably the most important, and the most personal. I’m sure most of you know about his Woodshed Notes, the letters Bud typed and copied and mailed to a growing list of friends and family, every month, for decades. I consider these letters a family and cultural treasure because they tell us what it was like to sing in the Episcopal Boys’ Choir in the early 1900s, and what it was like to have a boxing ring in your back yard–and a boxing nickname (“Bearcat”), and what it was like to ski in the moonlight on wooden skis. I am so glad he wrote all this down.

This summer I discovered another treasure, which was a lovely leatherbound diary kept diligently by Honey, Bud’s mother, who I never got to meet, but who now I feel like I know because she wrote in such beautiful detail about Bud’s baby life: the first foods he ate, his babbling and cooing, when and how he had his bath, all those things that new mothers, myself included for sure, go so nuts about. Honey’s diary even solved one mystery for me, which was how young Walter came to be known as Bud by nearly everybody–it turns out that she started calling him that when he was just a few months old. “It just seems to suit him,” she wrote. I’m so glad she wrote this down.

Walter Brooks Macky, Catherine Carr's great grandfather, as a baby

Baby Bud, 1907

Earlier this year, Bud wrote down a list of all the songs and poems he could remember from his childhood, and I am so grateful that he did, because now I can surround myself with music and words that had meaning for him, that represents my family and my roots. Write it down. This doesn’t mean you have to write a book, or a blog, or a two-page letter every month, but try writing down a few simple things–maybe the song you danced to at your wedding, or your favorite books, or a special holiday memory you have, things that are meaningful to you, and share them with someone you love. Our world runs at a pretty fast pace these days, and I believe capturing and passing on these kinds of simple things has tremendous value, and gives us a sense of connectedness and perspective, and even comfort.

I want to read to you one passage from the November 1993 Woodshed Notes, when Bud was considering the question of human significance. “We have intelligence that can reach from the neuron to the farthest stars,” he wrote. “And we have imagination that transcends all that is material and factual. We have within each of us a spirit that rises above the perishable and the corruptible.” Intelligence, imagination, and imperishable spirit: Bud certainly had all of these things, and I feel indescribably lucky to have known him, to be his granddaughter, and to have all those things he wrote down.

So there you have it, nine things I hope to do to honor Bud’s memory and to keep him present, part of who I am, part of how I live, as long as I can. And I hope that you will do the same.