Santa’s Little Helper
As soon as temperatures start falling each autumn, I tell myself, “This will be the year that I eschew shopping malls and mail order! I will handcraft my mom a Christmas gift. I will create one-of-a-kind holiday greetings for all my friends. I will channel my inner (albeit unborn) Martha Stewart.”
Then I forget about my pledge. Come late December, I go packing to the mall.
I’m breaking that mold, dear reader. This year, I will be a maker.
And I’m living in the right place for my reincarnation. In San Francisco, crafty classes aren’t relegated to the parks and rec department, thanks to a creative instruction trend that has sprouted up like a colony of sea monkeys. Can you remember the last local shop you visited that wasn’t selling something handmade? The artisans behind those baubles are your neighbors, and many are eager to teach you their creative process.
Crafting has become a cottage industry here, and perhaps this DIY resurgence is the logical outcome when the recession hits an artistic populace. But I view it as a way to make some personalized gifts for the holidays.
Whether my friends and family will cotton to my newfound love of making things has yet to be determined.
Kelly Malone is arguably the face behind the DIY movement in SF, and her classroom, Workshop, is where the magic happens. So naturally this was my first stop. Kelly founded the school in 2009 and also runs Indie Mart, a series of music-infused craft fairs held around town each summer.
Browsing through the many Workshop classes, the words “Glass Jar Terrariums” stood out from the many other offerings such as fabric art or screen-printing. I’ve always thought plants made great gifts, but there’s no real handiwork involved in potting a fern and tossing a bow on it. A terrarium, on the other hand, is a little ecosystem. Plus, it’s pretty! And it doesn’t require wrapping paper! (I’m a crappy gift wrapper.)
As I ducked into Workshop’s art-lined studio on McAllister Street, the first things I noticed were the crock pot of whiskey-spiked cider and the Motown hits playing in the background. This rainy Sunday afternoon was like a Friday to Kelly. She’d worked the previous two weeks straight, teaching classes and running an Indie Mart at the Treasure Island Music Festival. The music and libations helped her let off some steam in anticipation for her upcoming day off. And this casual atmosphere also helped all of us pupils get comfortable and zone into our tasks. There was no judging here – just lots of soil, rocks, and plants.
With those ingredients spread out on a large table, Kelly walked us through each element in the terrarium’s architecture. She pointed out the common pitfalls that newbie planters make, mistakes she’d learned from experience. She also noted that the rock layer at the base is key because it allows drainage and lets you see when the terrarium is adequately watered. Adding a layer of charcoal helps ensure the terrarium will remain mold-free.
We each selected a jar from the large assortment of shapes and sizes that Kelly had grabbed from the Salvation Army, and got to work. I swiped a perfectly cute candy jar that looked straight out of a ’50s diner and then selected a big rose-like succulent as the centerpiece, combing through the many smaller plants and mosses that would be used to cover the soil in green. Kelly urged us to personalize our creations with a little plastic toy or tchotchke. (My class was right before Halloween, so she offered us some spooky knickknacks to create “terroriums” if we wished. Har!). I chose a little plastic doggie as my bit of bling.
I was putting the finishing touches on my terrarium when I heard the opening chords of Color Me Badd's "I Wanna Sex You Up"streaming through the speakers. One of my tablemates started singing along. This definitely wasn’t my grandmother’s crafting class.
I left Workshop with a small and a medium-sized terrarium, having sowed the first seeds of my handmade holidays. Thus far I’ve managed to keep the pretty little succulents in my tiny forests alive, so it’s looking like they’ve made it onto the gift list.
Kelly showed us that making a very low-maintenance terrarium is fun, and I’ll be passing her easy maintenance tips along to my giftees.
After getting dirt under my nails, I considered moving on to screen-printing or bookbinding. But learning a culinary art seemed like a better fit for holiday festivities. After poking around at the various cooking and canning schools in town, I settled on the sweet-sounding DIY Holidays: Infusions and Liqueurs. It’s part of a menu of holiday-focused classes at 18 Reasons, a nonprofit food art center that grew out of Bi-Rite and Bi-Rite Creamery.
The first thing I learned in class is that Everclear is awesome. The 151-proof grain alcohol tastes great – once it's been sitting in a jar with grated grapefruit rind for 30 days, and then cut with simple syrup for another month. At that point, you'll have some pompelmocello on your hands. That’s the grapefruit version of limoncello , but with a fancier name.
I know all this from spending two hours with Sean Timberlake, a cook, writer (see Punk Domestics and Hedonia ), and the infusions class instructor. He held court in 18 Reasons’ small gallery-like space in the Mission's magical fancy-food crossroads, 18th and Guerrero. All of us eager booze makers gazed with longing at a table full of vodka, fruits, spices, jars, and strainers as Sean explained the basics of infusions and liqueurs. (Did you know that whiskey is an infusion? Me neither.)
We broke off into five groups and set upon the evening's tasks, which included grating, crushing, peeling, straining, and doling. By night's end, we had created enough concoctions to form an impressive cocktail menu at the swankiest of artisan bars. Quince liqueur? Check. Ditto, handcrafted gin in a jar and pomegranate processed into an aperitif.
As I milled around the room, checking out each experiment, my classmates shared their own attempts and misadventures with infusions. One couple tried to replicate rucolino , an arugula-based spirit they'd fallen in love with during their honeymoon near Naples. “It’s like a sweeter Fernet!” they gushed. Their brew had gotten lost in translation, sadly. But some of the other booze students had been striking alcoholic gold in their kitchens – one woman relayed her current dalliance with poppy-infused martinis.
Once the concoctions were mixed and the sugars and spices started to concoct, we tasted a sampling of drinks that Sean has been creating over the past many months. My classmates swooned over a bergamot-infused liqueur, but to me it tasted like someone had just sprayed perfume in my mouth. Once I'd imbibed some perfectly dreamy, aged pompelmocello , however, that funky orange flavor was a distant memory.
I doubt I’ll ever be hand-spinning yarn, propagating exotic plants, or setting up a distillery in my bathtub. But I’ve definitely psyched myself up for a handmade holiday, and I feel emboldened by these classes. They’ve managed to incubate a bit of my generally dormant creativity, and I’ve finished some of my holiday “shopping” – not to mention getting the inspiration to make more gifts. This town is filled with artisans who want to share their talents. Take them up on it, and save yourself a trip or three to the mall.
Workshop offers multiple classes each week. Want to make a pie in a jar? Just one of many new skills to learn. Most classes cost between $30 and $40, and supplies are included.
18 Reasons is a membership-based organization, with $40 annual dues getting you into the group. You don’t need to be a member to take classes, but they are cheaper that way. Browse the full list of what it offers (for around $10 to $20 a pop) here: http://www.18reasons.org/