The flowers were everywhere. Fat nodding peonies, burgundy lilacs, roses the shade of eggshells and buttermilk, silvery dusty miller and scented geraniums, all spilling over makeshift wooden carts and shelves inside and out of San Francisco’s Heirloom Café at the corner of Folsom and 21st Streets last Saturday morning.
The occasion was a brunch for contributors and friends of Kinfolk magazine, now on its third quarterly issue. The magazine, perfect bound and printed on thick matte stock by local custom-publishing company Weldon Owen, is serene and bookish, heavy on the white space, filled with one- or two-page personal essays about food, family, and entertaining, lavishly illustrated with photographs and watercolors. It’s a chunky Heath plate of a thing, utterly unconcerned with the flash, cash, and trash-talk of a trend-driven, chef-written magazine like the equally new Lucky Peach, put out by McSweeney's. It’s the hobby/brainchild of Portland-based, economist-turned-editor Nathan Williams, who’s created a venue for a loosely knit, like-minded crew of photographers, writers, and stylists to revitalize (and capture) the art of casual entertaining between family and friends.
Whether you find it worth the $18 sticker price may depend on your affinity for lyrical essays about spoons, crocheting, and gathering “the hen’s orbed offerings” (that’s eggs to you, buddy) next to soft-focus pictures of cheese boards, jam pots, flowering branches, and bike-riding guys in glasses awkwardly hugging their bandana-wearing dogs.
But, back to brunch. Heirloom stopped serving brunch in 2009 after its first few months in business, so this was a rare chance to enjoy the spacious, airy room with bright spring sunshine pouring through the huge front windows. The brunch was created by Heirloom Café chef-owner Matt Straus and his crew, rounded out with generous donations from local makers. On the tables were wooden boards of Redwood Hill goat cheeses paired with candied peels and fruit cheeses from June Taylor Jams, followed by sweet and savory scones from Polk Street’s Batter Bakery, run by self-taught baker Jen Musty.
To my left, much-loved chef/author/blogger Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks was taking snapshots of the food and company with her vintage Polaroid camera while lifestyle and design blogger Erin of Apartment 34 sipped coral-colored carrot-citrus juice from Living Greens Juice and rhapsodized about the joys of the Instagram app on her iPhone. There were bloggers galore, editors from Chronicle Books and Williams-Sonoma, photographers and stylists, all with Charlotte Gainsbourg bangs and high-waisted belts over puffed-sleeve pastel dresses.
The next course, silky housemade gravlax, cured with brown sugar, fennel, and dill over Acme rye bread and served with neon-yellow pickled onions, cauliflower, and cukes, was a dish to be envied by all those waiting on line for bagels and lox at Wise Sons Deli a few blocks away.
Next came a platter of quiche squares, flavored with the classic French fines herbes combo (chervil, parsley, chives, and tarragon) and served with roasted asparagus spears, followed by slices of Tartine’s country bread drenched like escargots in pungent green garlic butter made by Samin Nosrat.
For the past few months, Nate and features editor/events coordinator Julie Pointer have been hitting the road for one weekend a month to spread the good word through a shared Kinfolk meal. Each event is unique; said Julie, “For the the last one, we were setting up a table in a field in Texas,” all on their own on a sweltering day. But each one brings together local producers and restauranteurs, introducing people face-to-face after months of communication through nothing but digital words and pictures.
So, brunch: quite lovely, and Heirloom should do sun-drenched, family-style daytime events like this more often. But what kind of read is Kinfolk’s actual magazine?
In volume three, the spring issue, Kinfolk’s contributors welcome readers to their white, white world, a world of tall white walls and soaring ceilings, of creamy white cheese flaked over gold-white baguette slices and white china stacked on white shelves, of moon-glowing light fixtures and baskets of eggs, of a child’s cupped hands caked in flour and, yes, people so uniformly pale and wand-like as to appear incandescent, like waving glow sticks. The men wear geek-chic plaid; the ladies, plaid trenchcoats (for feeding the chickens, natch), creamy sweaters, crocheted lace, bare legs and stubby boots. It’s a rigorously styled life, a Hipstamic-ready, matte-finish world of rustic lake cabins and elegant Danish apartments, of family breakfasts that start with steamed milk (jolted, for Mom and Dad, with double espresso shots pulled by the nine-year-old in the house) followed by backyard chicken eggs and bacon over hunks of buttery, pan-crisped peasant bread. Clutter, ketchup, placemats, Jimmy Dean sausage: they may exist, but not in these pages.
Every contributor has a story to tell about their efforts to create a homemade life, striving to build friendship and community, enriching their family life, balancing work and home, and trying to make vivid sensory awareness part of even the most mundane morning. Clearly, for their writers, these first-person narratives were important to share: how a lunch led to marriage (and a tradition of recreating that first date on every anniversary); how a Marine wife and her husband reconnected after his tour of duty in Iraq by refurbishing a vintage Scamp trailer for a cross-country road trip.
The writing is pretty, occasionally adept, but I would bet that many of these contributors’ writing experience comes from personal blogging, not professional work as novelists, poets, critics, or journalists. (The photography, however, seems undeniably professional and beautiful.) They share their stories earnestly, too earnestly, maybe, as if their need for occasional switched-off solitude, for fresh eggs from their own hens, for leaving it all behind and starting a 2500€-a-week cooking school in Burgundy were the most important thing in the world, not just to themselves but to their readers, too.
And yet, anyone aspiring to write for a larger, slower-reading audience must be reminded that no one loves you in print like you can love yourself online. By all means, write about yourself, your dreams, your shoes and breakfasts, but remember that, stripped of links, recipes, and photos in the text, such things are rarely interesting to readers unless you work hard to make them so, by drawing some parallel between your experience and the wider world. (Or by being really, really funny—see Sedaris, David and Amy--but even then, insight and/or poignancy is still the salt in the soup.)
I’m hoping Kinfolk has enough self-awareness to have planned its final photo spread, The Manly Host, as a spoof of a particular type of (mostly masculine) foodie hipster. Here, lovingly photographed, is The Whittling Party, fueled by saltines, sardines from a can, bourbon and antlers. It’s followed by The Midday Roast, not of prime rib or a brace of ducks but s’mores, deconstructed into a waxed-paper sleeve of graham crackers, a cup of square, chunky marshmallows, a single perfect birch log, an antler-handled knife (more antlers! When is this, 2004?) and cult-status, hand-crafted bars of Brooklyn’s Mast Brothers chocolate, at eight bucks a bar. Funny, or “Funny, that’s just what we did last night!”?