Treen is an old world word for household items made out of wood. “Treen” is a descendent word of “tree” from an old English word that goes something like “treowen.” The upshot is that they are useful household items and tools made of wood, most often smallish items that can be made from one piece of wood or a branch of a tree.
It takes a calm moment to imagine back to colonial times and before, when the streets weren’t littered with disposable everything. There were no plastics. And metal serving ware wasn’t in common usage except by those with great wealth. People made or purchased simple tools and utensils and bowls that were carved or turned out of wood. Native Americans also had a rich heritage in Treen making that also involved burning out the interior of bowls and then carving. Imagine a table set with wooden bowls, pottery, and wooden utensils. Imagine little sewing boxes and snuff boxes.
My mother has owned several spoons, serving forks and paddle shaped stirrers for years. It never occurred to me to inquire about where she found them. They are just a part of her lovely world. They are a visual key in her kitchen, something I can’t not see when I imagine her warm and inviting home. My mother and her husband also prize several rockers carved from mesquite wood, in which they have rocked my babies to sleep since the beginning, and still do. They have a knack for appreciating craftsmanship, something I hope that I am inheriting.
[The spoon second from the right in the first two photos is mine. It is called "Cookin' Spoon" and the little curvy one in the photo on the right, just above the Cookin' Spoon, is a sugar spoon.]
One day, just a few weeks ago, I had an urge to buy a hand carved spoon for my home. I had just purchased several handmade pie plates and wanted to add a few more talismans to my kitchen. You have read my words time and again, that I’m never alone when I bake because I am surrounded by hand written recipe cards, my grandpa’s turkey needle, my mom’s French rolling pin, my knowledge gained from watching others, my memories, etc. These carefully chosen additions warm a space and add humanity to the process of nourishing a family in a way that can only happen in a home kitchen. Searching around, I came upon some images of Treenware created by a woman here in Texas named Nancy Lou Webster and it was only a matter of time before we were corresponding and I was placing an order for a spoon.
Nancy Lou is an artist. Though she creates pieces of pure function, she creates in the manner of a sculptor. She chooses branches and pieces of wood in which she sees her creations and she does not dictate to the branch what it will become. The wood tells her.
She started whittling away at wood at her father’s knee and has continued to do so in the decades since. She has developed a true sense for what a bit of wood can be. When I think “spoon” I see in my head a predefined shape. If I were a sculptor I might try, in my hardheaded way, to make the wood into my preconceived shape. Nancy Lou lets the wood tell her what kind of spoon or tool it will be. The results are flowing, artful, organic, and real. They are pieces of work that beg to be touched and used. Nancy Lou carves and whittles and sands her pieces. Many other Treen makers use lathes to shape their wood. But, I am touched by the tactile and interpretive style of Nancy Lou’s work.
[The large spoon in the foreground of the lead photo, and the center of the top left photo is a potato salad spoon. The servers in the bottom center photo are called salad paddles. And the top center photo is my new pie server. The pair in both right hand photos are each ends of "Big Cook" and "Big Bubba."]
She sent me a lovely mesquite spoon only a few days after our exchanges. It is deep brownish red and it is smooth and lovely. I will be standing over a kettle of soup tasting and adjusting seasonings in no time at all. The spoon wants me to use it and make it a part of my days. It is so simple and so personal. It cost me a mere thirty-five dollars and it is already worth more to me than any of the other modern contraptions in my kitchen. But here is the stunning thing. As I reached into my box from Nancy Lou, wrapped tightly and marked with a careful hand, I felt some other item in addition to a spoon. I pulled it out and unwrapped it. It was a hand carved pie server. I didn’t order it and I didn’t suggest it. I had merely explained the signature line on my message that says The Meaning of Pie. It was a gift. She said in a note, “Your love of pie made me think of a hand made pie server.”
I was possessed to photograph the spoon and pie server that I received, as well as my mother’s spoons. You see, as it turns out, Nancy Lou Webster is the artist who made my mother’s Treen for her, many years ago. I did not realize that until I asked.
I think you need a talisman in your kitchen, too. Not all of us are blessed with relatives who couldn’t part with old recipe boxes and handwritten cards. Many of us don’t want reminders of difficult times past. But that doesn’t mean that your kitchen need be sterile or devoid of spirit and history. Pottery, vintage aprons, handmade napkins, and Treenware can give you a connection to the past, to traditions, and to heritage that you possess naturally as a daughter or son, of a whole world of ways of doing things.
A few hand made items in a home or a kitchen can ground you and connect you.
I am grateful that artists like Nancy Lou Webster still spend their precious time keeping traditions like this alive. We are fortunate to have her.
As you go about your holiday shopping and consider the mania that awaits you at the commercial outlets, perhaps consider the artists all around you and the people who create functional art from their very own hands. Every kitchen needs a wooden spoon born from a rugged and hard mesquite branch. Every kitchen needs a handmade pie plate, whether or not it is ever used.
[These beautiful serving pieces are called "Big Cook" and "Big Bubba."]
For more information on Nancy Lou Webster, please visit her wonderful website. In particular, I implore you to listen to the audio interview by David Warner contained on the site. It is beyond charming and quite wonderful. You can hear her working with the wood, interacting with customers, and laughing her gorgeous and joyous laugh. It is not to be missed. In fact, I’ll flat out say that if you do not take the time to listen to it, you are missing out on a dose of history, therapy, and fun and straight talk from a woman I wish that I knew better. It will certainly make you understand how happy I am to have a little bit of her spirit and attitude in my kitchen.
Also, Ricardo Gandara of the Austin American Statesman, wrote a nice article about her in May of this year.