The Hero Bowl
In some food television production circles, a "hero" is the best-looking version of a particular dish, the one you would want to put on camera or use in a cookbook. When we were shooting Breaking Bread With Father Dominic, this term was expanded to include the bowl in which a particular dough would be featured on camera. I had collected a lot of attractive stoneware bowls, both new and vintage, to use on the set, but only one was exclusively referred to as "The Hero Bowl."
This stoneware marvel was a Christmas gift from my brother Marty years before I had a TV show, and had been made by Jerry McNeil, a talented professional potter who was a family friend. The rest my family got them, too, in various shades of blue, but mine was the only one that was glazed a deep rust brown--the exact color I would have chosen for myself. Jerry had made the glaze himself with clay he dug up from Kickapoo Creek near Peoria. I fell in love with the bowl immediately, or least felt a sudden, deep affection--"love " is a strong word for a monk who is not supposed to become attached to material things.
This was a roomy bowl with both height and heft, essential elements for a bread baker and occasional chef: I need to keep batter in the bowl no matter how vigorously I mix and be able to toss a pasta salad without rotini going rogue. This beauty held over six quarts and was heavy enough to remain stable on the counter while whisking egg whites or mixing a sturdy multi-grain dough.
The Hero Bowl had an unusually graceful shape: an wide inverted bell with a slight flare, perfectly proportioned. The surface appeared smooth at first, but upon closer inspection revealed the tiny ridges left by the clever and loving hands of its maker. This was a vessel that had not merely been formed but caressed into shape. It was decorated on the interior with a bone white band of glaze just below the lip of the bowl, which made it a joy to shoot from above with the jig camera. The exterior sported a series of dark brown stripes ending with the lip itself glazed the same color: a simple accent marked by elegant restraint--anything more elaborate would have appeared gaudy, even vulgar.
When I got my TV show on public television, I used the Hero Bowl for two seasons, transporting it from abbey to studio in a cocoon of bubble wrap and old t-shirts nestled in a dark green plastic tub. But layers of cushioning did not protect it from the dangers of a backstage kitchen staffed by teenage interns. One afternoon I came back to the prep room from a hiatus in Edit Suite B (best napping couch in the building) to a contrite adolescent who manfully admitted, without prevarication, that the bowl had slipped from his soapy hands in the metal dish washing sink and shattered.
I had the presence of mind to ask Josh first if he had hurt himself, even while another part of my mind was cycling through the stages of grief. He apologized repeatedly, wishing he had been more careful, offering to pay for another bowl, talking in frantic circles. I knew I had to lay to rest his real fear: that along with the Hero Bowl he had broken my trust and our friendship. "Josh, it died in the line of duty," I said with a rueful smile, "not knocked off a shelf while you were dusting it. That's something, isn't it?"
Jerry made me other bowls in various shapes and sizes, but even he admitted they weren't as soulful as the Hero Bowl, and he could never reproduce that exact shade of glaze again. For a long time I still had the broken pieces stored in a box stored in the abbey basement. Once I came across it when I was searching for some dishes for a photo shoot. Turning the jagged pieces over in my hands, I realized for the first time that without it breaking I would have never known how beautiful the contrast was between the rich brown of the glaze and the ivory of the stoneware. I thought about making the pieces into a wind chime or breaking them up even smaller and incorporating them into a mosaic or a garden tile, but eventually I threw the box of pieces away. It's the memory that matters now anyway.