By Cheryl Angelina Koehler
Photos by Robin Jolin
“In certain villages in France, a light rain can be felt around noon in the narrow streets when people are shaking their lettuce dry out on their balconies.”
Ariel is telling me this as I reach for her “French salad spinner,” an old wire basket that I find hanging from a hook above her kitchen sink. I marvel at its elegant simplicity as I stuff it with bunches of her garden lettuce.
Taking it out to the front landing to shake over the potted strawberries, lettuces, and herbs, I can’t help feeling some disappointment that there are no pedestrians within range to shower. But more, I wonder why, after more than two decades of visiting Ariel’s Berkeley Hills home for conversation, celebration, and artistic collaborations, I have never noticed this basket hanging over the kitchen sink. After all, as I’m reminded each time I enter Ariel’s world, this is a place where everyday objects have vitality, dignity, and often an enchanting story as well.
To give a very brief biography, Ariel is the “pen name” of Ariel Parkinson, or, I should say, that’s how she signs her art, which includes painting, sculpture, and stage design, covering subjects that run from whimsical to political. She’s an Oakland native who graduated from Piedmont High in 1941. After college she married Thomas Parkinson, a poet, Yeats scholar, and professor at Cal. They moved to this house shortly after they married, and they raised their daughters here. Chrysa Parkinson is a professional modern dancer pursuing a fascinating career in Europe. Kathy Parkinson Eckhouse, along with husband Herb Eckhouse, has become renowned as an innovator in the artisanal food world. The Eckhouses make the award-winning La Quercia prosciutto and other cured pork products on their farm in Iowa. Ariel and family spent several of Tom’s teaching semesters at university towns in France and Italy, and as I understand it, this is where ideas about spinning salad, making your own prosciutto, sourcing local artisanal products, and an aesthetic appreciation for food in general were cultivated.
It was in 1987 that my former career as a costume designer first brought me up the long stairway to Ariel’s house. I was delivering some costume pieces that I had been commissioned to make so that Ariel could use them as a base for her much more lavish design. She invited me in and showed me her working drawings, which so impressed me that I asked if she might need an assistant to sew, dye, wire, and paint the costumes into finished shape. The answer was resoundingly affirmative, and so a day or two later I began my occasional but always intense work with the woman who would become a most important mentor in my design career.
But little did I realize as I was signing on that Ariel was accustomed to volunteer labor. When I eventually asked about the wages, she said, “Oh, you get lunch!” Fortunately, it wasn’t an ordinary lunch.
When the noon hour arrived, we traveled to the kitchen where I assisted Ariel in assembling the type of meal I have since enjoyed with her on many lunch and dinner occasions. The food is quite simple, but Ariel’s insistence on local, seasonal sourcing was somewhat unique back in 1987, when only a handful of people in the East Bay (most of them in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto) were regularly taking note of where their food came from. More surprising, however, was the way the preparation and presentation of the meal comes off like a scripted stage play. Here’s how it goes.
The curtain rises as we step into the kitchen. The set and players are arrayed on the wooden tabletop under dramatic, focused lighting. There is often a branch, leaf, or seed pod, picked up during her daily walk, which Ariel has placed onto broken pieces of marble tile on the kitchen table, creating an impression of an unswept Roman piazza. At the back of the table sits Ariel’s salt cellar, another piece of found art. The sculptors who made it would be the barnacles of Hood Canal, who encrusted the oyster shells so as to join them into a mass many years ago when Ariel and family regularly vacationed in that location. Several downward-facing barnacled-together shells provide a base, while the upward-facing shells form a bowl for the coarse salt. Other pearly shells stand perpendicular, appearing like angels’ wings that might lift the whole conglomeration into flight. The salt spoon is an antique silver specimen, while the sugar spoon, sitting nearby in the stoneware sugar bowl, is a shard of abalone shell.
The protagonist in any of these lunch or dinner dramas is always Ariel’s garden lettuce—copious amounts of it—laced with chopped herbs from the flowerpots on the porch or backyard. The lettuce leaves are taken to the table intact, where they rest inside a handsomely rustic wooden bowl, looking much the way they do while growing in the garden. There is always a small cutting board holding large wedges of cheese that Ariel has walked up the hill from the famous Cheeseboard Collective on Shattuck. Dark, grainy bread (Ariel eschews white flour) is heated in the oven, one loaf or more, then broken by hand and placed in a basket. On most occasions, there are vegetables—usually roots, peppers, and onions—that have been previously roasted in an enameled Rococo-style tureen. Occasionally, a gnarled, mica-flecked, delectably boiled celery root appears among the dramatis personae. In season, there are strawberries from the porch and perhaps loquats or plums from the permaculture-like jungle of trees around the house. If it’s an evening meal, a simple roasted chicken may appear as an entrée, but meat is not given top billing in these productions.
The pièce de résistance is Ariel’s homemade vinaigrette, which is often the only thing requiring much preparation before the meal. She squeezes six cloves of garlic through a garlic press into a bowl, to which she adds a good half-cupful of olive oil, the juice of a lemon (from the potted tree on the porch), and a heaping teaspoonful of coarse salt from the oyster-shell cellar. Making the vinaigrette without garlic is unthinkable, but the lemon juice is occasionally replaced with balsamic vinegar.
The beverage of choice at an evening meal will be Champagne, along with sparkling water that comes to the table in an antique glass bottle. For the notorious Lunch, we had a pitcher full of iced tea mixed with orange juice and plenty of garden mint. Placing everything on hand-painted trays (often using one on which Chrysa, as a child, had painted a scene with a dragon and a princess), we paraded outside to the garden to eat.
When it’s an evening meal, part of the staging will be the lighting of many candles. Some are already illuminating the kitchen table as we work there, but then the flame travels to the dining room table, and also to tables in other parts of the visible space.
“Peripheral lighting is important,” Ariel explained on a recent evening, as we lit the candles in the living room. But it’s not just peripheral lighting. Each of the places lit by candles is a scene in the drama, like stations of the cross. On the dining room highboy and various side tables throughout the house are more artworks of nature picked up on walks, as well as carved wooden pieces that appear like detritus fallen from a ruined medieval castle or disintegrating altarpiece. Players on these small stages include ceramic French dolls in tattered tulle, or collections of the tiny wire and clay models Ariel makes when she’s planning out the stage design for an actual public performance—perhaps Shakespeare or a new work for the Berkeley Opera.
During the meal, Ariel generally allows the guests to be the players, as she listens intently to the conversation, adding astute comments or verses of poetry relevant to the subject matter. Everything tastes splendid, in spite of the meal’s simplicity.
The final act in the drama is a sorting out of all refuse from the meal in a manner now customary in the age of composting and recycling. But remember, these meals date back to the ’80s. The first time I went looking for the trash can in Ariel’s kitchen, I found a sort of scroll—a large piece of papery bark shaped and painted to resemble a planarian—on which instructions for the required sorting of the household waste materials were inscribed so that each bit could be directed in a way that would cause the least environmental damage (or with compost, would add the most value to the vegetable garden). Shortly before I first met her, Ariel was heavily involved in local and state waste management, serving as chair of Berkeley’s solid waste committee and then hopscotching into county and state appointments. She still speaks of that work with pride, as if it towers over her art projects as an accomplishment.
Not wasting means honoring everything that comes through the house, be it rags, twist ties, Champagne corks, or broken bottles, all of which are considered to be valuable art materials. But I could see that the practice also extended to things like the decrepit period stove in the kitchen. I recall years ago asking Ariel why she did not replace it with a refurbished period unit from the oven restoration store down on Gilman Street. I had just done this at my own home for a mere $300. She looked at me aghast and said, “That’s $300 I could use to buy art!” However, the old stove did finally get retired. Early in the first decade of the new century, her daughters insisted she upgrade to a modern oven and a state of the art smoke detector to go with it. Ariel named the shiny black appliance “Darth Vader” and gradually made peace with it.
In closing, I want to mention that Ariel finds it a little silly that I’m writing about her manner with food. I guess that even now, with food journalism as my career, I’m still in the habit of studying the ways of my artistic mentor, just as I did when I first apprenticed myself in her art studio. As I learned to follow her techniques for creating sets and costumes, I would look at Ariel’s painterly and (to my eye) impressionistic sketches for the visuals that she wanted to have unfold in front of the audience, seeing sketches that looked nothing like the schematic drawings I did for my own designs, and so I was in a constant state of wonderment each time she managed to coach me through construction to finished costumes that remarkably resembled her renderings. I always had this odd feeling that we were creating visions of things ephemeral, an activity in deep contrast to the real need for the costumes to fit the bodies and not self-destruct during performance. The most arresting quality I perceive in her work is one of death or decay. It felt as if the costumes we produced were shells that the spirit of the characters in the drama would pass through as the story played out. My sense then and now is that Ariel’s brilliance as an artist is in capturing that quality of becoming, being, and then of being no more. Around her creations, I often get the haunting feeling that comes up whenever I find myself drawn into any deeply compelling work of art that speaks to this honesty of existence. I look at the dead branches and oyster shells on the kitchen table, and I think about the foods themselves—plants and animals—that die to become our nourishment, and how we too are but a beautiful shell that the spirit passes through in the drama of our lives.
View Ariel’s work on the cover and table of contents of this magazine, and at www.arielimago.com . To see the originals, visit Mythos Gallery, located at 1747 Solano Avenue in Berkeley. www.mythosfineart.com
Writer Cheryl Angelina Koehler is the editor of Edible East Bay.
Oakland-based photographer Robin Jolin has a passion for fresh, sustainable food and has devoted much of her seven-year career to photographing this subject. In addition, she documents numerous restaurants and boutiques, focusing on capturing the atmosphere of these places and the creativity of the individuals responsible for creating the items in her viewfinder. www.robinjolin.com