Aug 31, 2017

Judy's Lesson

Earlier this week I was honored to give a talk at an event called "Women Who Inspire" for a group of women in the fields of food, education and farming. I decided to center my talk around my aunt Judy, a talented artist, who taught me some lessons that helped shape the way I see the world, and the way I approached launching Curio. Below is a slight adaptation of the talk.

Starting a business is hard. Beyond that, starting a mission-driven business is even harder.
When I started my business a few years ago, I didn’t realize how challenging it would be to balance the everyday business duties with my long-term vision of making positive impacts on spice communities around the world. Curio is still young and doesn’t have big purchasing power, nor big budgets for charitable donations. But what I do have is an incredible community – such as the one right here in this room – one that pushes me and inspires me and keeps me moving forward. Tonight I hope to share with you some stories of how I got started, including one from a women who inspired me. 

Judy Garlow, Self-Portrait, Watercolor
This woman was my aunt Judy, who was also my god mother. Since she passed away relatively young - at age 64 - I hold my memory of her, and her impact on my life, even more dear.

Judy taught me to paint watercolors starting when I was just six years old, and though it's not something I do as much now, the underlying message it taught me is something that drives the heart of my business and my philosophy behind ethically sourcing spices.

I started Curio from pursuing an obsession with the spice saffron.  Saffron, as you may already know, is the world's most expensive spice, being so labor intensive to harvest. But something that's not as commonly known is that women in Bronze Age Greece held a special relationship with saffron. While it's not a watercolor, there's a painting - a fresco - from 3500 BCE (think Stone Henge era) on the island of Santorini that depicts women harvesting saffron, using it medicinally and offering it to a Goddess. Scholars still argue over what this fresco means, but it's clear that the spice and its depiction of women held some weight.

A section of the Xeste III fresco from Akrotiri, Greece. Circa 3500 BCE

After graduating from college with a degree in environmental studies and creative writing, I wanted to learn more about it - I wanted to write about it and how perhaps the reverence for a spice might teach us a new way of relating to food and agriculture. In classic post-college optimism, I envisioned writing a 300-page book on the subject while successfully publishing articles in well-known food and literary magazines. But that didn't happen. In classic post-college reality, I got a job as a barista and mastered the skill of latté art. But my aunt Judy had just passed away, and had left me some money, so I also planned a trip to Greece to start my saffron research. Besides, one of my customers at the coffee shop had a brother-in-law in Athens, so how many more reasons did I need?

So I travelled to Greece and found the brother-in-law, whose cousin's wife's best friend knew someone in the village of Krokos where they produced the saffron. I showed up and she greeted me with a jar of cherry jam and we drove out to the saffron cooperative together. I asked a lot of journalistic-like questions and took a ton of photos and they all smiled and wondered who was this saffron obsessed nut-case.

I also made it down to Santorini to try and see the fresco, but the dig was closed because a roof had collapsed killing a British man. So I stood outside the chain link fence and talked to the German shepherd guard dog.

This was just my first trip to Greece to research saffron - later I'd raise money through a Kickstarter campaign to return to the saffron fields and learn how to harvest saffron first-hand. My favorite moment from that trip was our last day in the field harvesting the saffron crocuses when my host-mother, Thomae, who didn't speak English but was the best saffron picker in the village, asked her son to tell me something. Her son Vasilis stood up and said "Claire my mother wants you to know something. She says her two favorite things in life are cooking and harvesting saffron." I laughed and told him to tell her: "Me too."

Researching saffron was sort of the symbolic beginning of my small business. In starting with the mysterious history of this spice I became curious about how our relationship to food had so changed over the course of time - how so many foods we eat today (including spices) have turned into mere commodities, with no significance as to their origin, quality or production values, and certainly no goddesses in site.

This intellectual dive into saffron led me to consider other spices as well, so 5 years after that initial trip to Greece, and after working in several spice-driven restaurants and also self-publishing a short book of watercolors and recipes about saffron (dedicated to Judy, of course!) I moved to Thailand for four months to travel to more spice origins and learn first hand the stories behind the spices. I visited cinnamon farms in Sri Lanka, pepper farms in Cambodia, Vietnam and India, talked with cooks and food producers everywhere I went.

Central Sri Lanka

I was painting regularly at that time - in fact with a travel kit that Judy gave me. While she never told me this explicitly, the lesson I learned through painting watercolors was simply to slow down. To be successful with watercolor you have to wait for layers to dry, so a lot time is just spent sitting in a meditative-like state, literally watching paint dry. And when you're traveling alone there's often many moments when it's ok to do just that. Every time I'd pull out my kit to paint a picture I had to physically slow down and breathe and look. See the shapes and colors of the scenery, watch the people working, talking, and living.

This process of slow observation and patience is what drives the mission of Curio forward - in offering unique spices sourced directly from sustainable farms I hope to show how the difference in taste is not just an empirical difference in flavor but an awareness about the spices, the environment and the people who grow them, a richness that no stale commodity spice can compete with. In a way, you can think of sustainability as empathy with producers—by understanding their challenges and goals, you can work with them and help sustain the production for years to come.

For me this awareness started while watching my aunt put brush to paper, trying to make sense of the world. Perhaps you have a person in your life like my aunt Judy - who taught you something simple that has stayed with you throughout your life. Or perhaps you can be that person for someone else. 

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