Patti Grabel and I disagree on how we like our matzoh balls. I don’t know what that tells you, but it tells me almost everything I need to know about a person. Patti was happy to share the rest of her story with me over two types of her homemade challah bread pudding, that yes she actually ate. Patti explained how she has gone from stay-at-home mom to unscripted television creator to artist, all inspired by her love of telling stories and cooking.
Growing up, Patti spent some weekends with her beloved grandmother. Patti says her grandmother “inherently understood that breaking bread with others binds communities, it’s the ultimate act of kindness.” After a homemade dinner on Friday night, Patti and her brother would ride the elevator in their grandmother’s Brooklyn apartment building and check in on neighbors. Their grandmother got to show off her grandchildren and check in with friends while collecting their leftover challah, which she would turn into something amazing.
After soaking the torn bread overnight with cream, butter, eggs, sugar, and vanilla she would start Saturday morning by baking up pan after pan of bread pudding. Patti remembers waking up to the “smell of sunshine.” Her grandmother would return to her neighbors to deliver their leftover challah, now something even more delicious. Through this, Patti “understood that smells and aromas and tastes had this way of just sending messages without words that you’re loved…we knew we were loved the second we walked in her house on Friday night because we could smell the chicken soup.”
When Patti’s grandmother was passing, Patti asked her for the recipe for the bread pudding, but her grandmother told her, “There is no recipe! It’s like life, you’re going to figure it out.” After her grandmother passed, Patti tried relentlessly to recreate the bread pudding. Even if it tasted slightly different each time, the smell was always there and she felt her grandmother’s love and presence in her own kitchen.
There was one moment when she was stirring the ingredients together that led Patti to a profound realization; “when I was stirring the ingredients together I was reminded that I was stirring in love, that I was infusing love into the dish and that when my kids would taste it they would taste the essence of me.” From a young age, Patti learned to love cooking and entertaining as a way to connect with her friends and family and show them how much she cared.
There was one moment when I was just kind of stirring the pudding and I remembered my grandmother stirring the pudding and I was thinking, wow, this is when you’re adding the love so your hand extends the spoon, extends your hand, which extends your arm, which extends our heart, which extends our soul so it all has to work in unison.
What does any of this have to do with Patti becoming an artist? For years, Patti was writing a story about a woman and wooden spoons – utilitarian utensils with tremendous meaning to her. As the spoon aged and became cracked and imperfect through use without losing its purpose, the woman was able to see herself and her own aging in the same graceful light.
One day the woman in the story goes to cook her signature bread pudding and realizes no one is home to eat it as her children were grown and out of the house. She pauses and realizes that she is finally cooking for herself and she has to figure out who she is if she isn’t doing everything for her kids. She ends up taking all the beloved wooden spoons from her kitchen to her garage and swirling them in cans of paint she finds, stirring almost as if she were cooking. She creates a makeshift clothing line in her backyard and hangs the spoons there and, as they drip, they mimic her tears. “She sees herself in those dripping spoons. There are tears, there’s fear, there’s trepidation, there’s elation, there’s joy, and, eventually, there’s liberation,” Patti recounts. When she finishes and returns to the kitchen the pudding has burnt; but such is life. The woman turns those painted wooden spoons into art and makes a career out of it.
As Patti told me about her screenplay, it was very clear to me that she had written the story about herself, but it took her a little longer to admit that to herself. After raising her kids, Patti had a career in unscripted television, prompted by continuing education classes in screenwriting at New York University. The shows she created all centered on strong women, including Suddenly Single, which aired as a pilot on TLC. Her dream was to have a show on the air before she reached 50, and her pilot aired on her 49th birthday. “My kids were in the screening room and happy tears were streaming down. They were so proud of me and for that reason alone all nine years before that, all the hard work and persistence really paid off,” Patti told me. Although it didn’t get picked up, Patti made connections in the industry that allowed her to pitch her ideas to power players in the business.
Finally, Patti realized she needed to live the story she wrote. After receiving constructive but harsh feedback from a respected producer, Patti decided that she had written a character that had gaps because she herself was afraid to live and experience the things that the story was missing. Pretty immediately, Patti did just as her character had done and put spoon to paint. She grew up the daughter of day camp owners and was always crafting, so painting and decorating the spoons came naturally to her. Using her script as her playbook, she created the life she had written but hadn’t dared to live. A gallery owner advised her to photograph the scenes she made with the spoons and blow them up on plexiglass. The results are vibrant, colorful vignettes that tell stories without words.
Since she started her art career, Patti’s work has appeared in several commercial galleries, in charity auctions for the Museum of Arts and Design, and in installations at Bloomingdale’s flagship store in New York City. She was connected to their visual arts department and started by reimagining a pair of jeans for the launch of the store’s new denim section. She put 150 metal spoons on the jeans and filled them with vines and faux berries. After the success of her first project, Bloomingdale’s gave her an opportunity she would never have dreamed of, including an on site studio for her to work in. Her task was to apply her artistic practice on three oversized versions of iconic perfume bottle silhouettes. She used fabric and wallpaper with some of her art printed on them along with buckles, words, leaves, chains, and, of course, spoons.
One of the bottles had messages written by Patti on plaques. She wrote things like, “where there are well worn wooden spoons there is love,” “spoons give and receive in a single, humble motion,” and “we feed our children, our children feed themselves, our children feed their children, our children feed us.” Next to the exhibition, Patti left a book of empty pages with the messages about spoons on the top of each page and asked visitors to write what spoons mean to them. She visited Bloomingdale’s each and every day to see what people wrote to her and ended up filling four, thick volumes.
On March 2nd, Patti cooked her bread pudding in the Bloomingdale’s test kitchen in an event sponsored by Le Creuset. She created recipe cards with her artwork and served samples throughout the afternoon surrounded by some of her prints. “It will rain on March 2nd,” Patti predicted, “because my grandmother will be crying tears of joy. She’ll have to stop playing bridge and canasta with all her friends to watch me.” Patti called the event, “Life is a Circle of Spoons.”
Hundreds of spoons later, Patti is only looking forward.
While life can seem like a scary roller coaster ride and we can’t control everything, there are some things we can determine for ourselves. What will you fill your real and metaphorical spoon with? What do you see for yourself as you write a new chapter or head in a new direction? My art celebrates liberation, passion, risk taking, reinvention, spirituality, and the creative spirit.
Patti encourages people to go for what they want, even if they’re afraid or think the field is full. “I love spoons and I love the stories they tell and I guess that’s why it’s sort of working, because I chose an object that was in my hand and I was using it for a good purpose, to cook and feed myself and others. Now I’m using it to help hungry New Yorkers by donating a portion of the proceeds from sales of my prints to City Harvest”
So what’s next? “I guess I’m going back to my original days in television – it’s unscripted!”
Follow Patti on Instagram for more of her story and work.