Kitchen Heirlooms: Anna Metcalfe

Kitchen Heirlooms: Anna Metcalfe

Makers, chefs, and scholars share the stories behind objects for cooking and dining that they hold dear.
Published on Thursday, April 30, 2020. This article appears in the June/July 2020 issue of American Craft Magazine.
Hands Cupping Dough

Last fall, American Craft introduced Object Stories, a series of pieces written by members of the craft community on the handmade objects that they cherish. In the upcoming Kitchen Table issue, we invited members of the craft and culinary communities to share stories about pieces from their kitchens and dining rooms that hold meaning to them, many of which were passed down by other generations of cooks or makers. Each story demonstrates how the objects we cook with and eat from carry vital personal, familial, and cultural history and invites readers to compliment the kitchen heirlooms in their own lives.

Story 1 of 7: Ceramist and educator Anna Metcalfe on her baking ritual and yeast starter

Bread baking has become an extension of my art practice: push, fold, turn, push, fold, turn, wait, form, rise, bake, devour. It is methodical and grounding. It creates a space where my mind can find itself at home.

Starter Anna Metcalfe Kitchen Heirloom

This grounding is something that I learned as a studio assistant to the late ceramic artist Betty Woodman in her home in Antella, Italy, where she lived half of each year. I watched and listened as she kneaded bread, cooked pasta for lunch, and explained to me that when she settled back into life in Italy, no studio work could happen until the first loaf of bread came out of the oven. She didn’t feel at home until she had felt the dough beneath her fingers and smelled it baking in her oven. So we waited. And talked.

← The yeast culture or starter that Anna uses in baking has leavened bread in more kitchens than hers.
Starter photo: Anna Metcalfe

It is methodical and grounding. It creates a space where my mind can find itself at home.

I received the starter that I use in my kitchen from a friend, who got it from a farmer friend, who got it from another person, who said that it was at least 100 years old and from the motherland (in this case, Italy). A good yeast is both a precious thing (it works!) and not at all precious, for it is multiplied and shared through a community and can be resurrected from offspring if it dies. While I am absolutely certain that I am conjuring the spirit of the person who grew this yeast during the fermentation of a grape harvest 100 years ago in the motherland, I also know that my starter is made up of parts of all the people who have used it and passed it along. It is a living organism that is constructed from the lives it touches. For that reason, it is a reflection of my community, my family, and my ancestors.

Anna Metcalfe teaches ceramics and sculpture at Minneapolis Community & Technical College. As an artist, she works at the juncture of public art, social engagement, and craft.

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