BRATTLEBORO — For Sharon Myers, food, fabric and flowers flow in artistic confluence.
Myers, 77, who lives in West Brattleboro, recently retired as a professional chef after 43 successful years in the field; she plans to spend more time in her art studio and her garden.
“For me, cooking, the garden, time in the studio - they are all art forms,” Myers said. “Making art. Making something beautiful and delicious. Making people happy. What could be better?”
When you first meet her, you might think this worldly, well-traveled, and sophisticated woman grew up in a metropolis. But she grew up on a farm in Greenfield, Mass.
“My father was a cattle dealer,” Myers said. “He grew his own hay and corn, and my brothers worked in the fields with him and drove tractors and trucks. I made the iced tea for the hired hands.”
“My father grew corn to eat, and we had a corn stand out front that was well-known,” she continued. “He also put in a vegetable garden when I was in my teens. That was my fun job. I have milked cows and counted bales of hay. I had horses and rode western style.”
Hers was one of about 100 Jewish families living in Greenfield at the time.
“My grandfather was a cantor, so it was a Jewish house,” Myers said. “My father was a farmer who grew up in Greenfield, and my mother, a violist, was born in Russia but grew up in Springfield, Mass. So I had that interesting combination.”
“I left Greenfield when I was 16 and went away to school,” said Myers, who first went to Connecticut College, where she earned a degree in sculpture with a minor in art history.
“I was always an artist,” she said. “That wasn't an issue. And then I went to graduate school to get an MFA in Indiana, but I didn't fit into Indiana very well. I came back and taught sculpture in a private school in Bryn Mawr, Pa.”
Then, Myers said, she earned a master's in education in aesthetics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and from there, she went to Boston to teach art again.
Inspired by a friend
Sharon Myers began cooking at The Morning Glory Cafe in Nantucket in 1979; she put in three summers there.
“Plus a year on Nantucket doing my artwork and cooking for another café that winter,” she said.
While living in Boston, she became close friends with philanthropist Diana Bingham.
“We had a mutual friend who had a mutual friend,” Myers said. “And Diana wanted to open a catering business. She was looking for someone to do it with, so our mutual friend put us together. I was just sick of teaching, and I thought 'What else can I do?' I love to cook. Everyone has always been telling me to open a restaurant, which I've never done. But that was interesting. So I did that for a year.”
But Myers still had family in Greenfield and wanted to move closer to home.
“So I, on a whim, looked for houses in Brattleboro to start a business,” she said.
She moved here permanently in 1985. (Bingham moved here about 10 years later; the two remain the closest of friends.)
Once Myers was settled, she began Sharon Myers Fine Catering by advertising in the newspaper.
“I didn't know anyone here,” she said. “And then people liked what I did and told other people. It's all word of mouth. As far as I can tell, that's how you build a reputation and a business.”
By then, Myers had learned how to scale up dinners.
“I learned how to multiply,” she said. “It's so many ounces per person per item, but then you either add them up or cut them back, depending upon the number of items. For example, if I served you coleslaw, I would give you a half a cup or three-quarters of a cup on a plate with something else.”
“If I was serving 500 people coleslaw, and I had six or eight salads, they would get a tablespoon because they're going to try everything and they're going to put it all on the plate,” she continued. “You have to take a look at the entire menu, and the number of people, and the things that you think are the favorites.”
Take beet salad, for example.
“I happen to love beet salad,” Myers said. “Two-thirds of the population don't like beets. So I'm going to make less of that than I am of something I know they do like. And I'm going to feed the bride and groom first, so I make sure they get their beet salad.”
“It's the same for cakes,” she added. “There's always leftover cake. No matter how many times I think everyone's going to eat cake, there are people who just don't eat dessert. But I haven't yet had a bride who's unhappy to have cake to take home.”
Myers made from scratch those huge, beautifully decorated wedding cakes we see in magazines. She also made pies and pastries.
“I've always made my own cakes.” she said. “I like making pies. I do like making pastry. And I did make wedding cakes, but I really don't want to do that again.”
The customer is sometimes right
Myers has great catering stories.
“The biggest event I ever catered for was for 500 people,” she said. “And it was held at a ski lodge. It was all hors d'oeuvres.”
Most of the people, she said, just came there to drink.
“I remember at the end of the job, we had to carry all of this food back,” Myers said. “That included one tablecloth covered with vegetables that I had the staff pick up. We dropped it in the kitchen and I slid to the floor, laughing and crying at the same time.”
One time, a bride decided to add an extra 150 people to the guest list the week before the wedding. Another time, the bride planned for a warm September wedding with all cold food, and the temperature dropped to freezing the night before.
Another time, a bride started choking on something, and Myers gave her a piece of French bread. It helped move whatever was caught in the bride's throat and probably saved her life - or at least the wedding.
“And there was the one job in which the client wanted bacon on every, every item of food,” Myers remembered. “The hors d'oeuvres were going to be like bacon lollipops. There were scallops wrapped in bacon. They even wanted a drink with bacon in it. There are lots of alcohols now that have bacon, like a bacon vodka. They wanted green beans with prosciutto.”
“I kept thinking we're just gonna kill everybody,” she said.
Since Myers is an observant Jew who won't eat pork, how did she handle - or not handle - all that bacon?
“I had a great staff who know how to cook everything,” she said. “I don't touch it. They do. They tell me it's great. I trust them. Then the guests are out there lapping it up. They love it. So it must be good.”
Once, she catered a wedding in a field.
“We had no running water,” she said. “We had to bring in electricity generators. Then it rains and the ground is just sopping wet. We're putting bales of hay down to sop up the water so people can walk. But it works out somehow.”
And then, there was the client “who didn't want us carrying food through the dining room,” she said. “So we had to crawl through the window to where we were serving.”
“Everybody has their own ideas,” she observed.
Myers remembered one couple who wanted buttercream frosting on their wedding cake.
“It was 102 degrees, and buttercream was like slowly, in a cloud-like way, falling off sides of the cake,” she said. “It was very beautiful, but it had a totally different look than what we were going for. The bride and groom were adorable, and they loved it.”
“And I have to tell you, one day I got a phone call. And this woman said, 'Hi, I'm so-and-so, and you catered our wedding 17 years ago.'
“And I said, 'Right, with the melting wedding cake.'
“And she said, 'We were thinking about you today, so I wanted to call and tell you that we still love you. And we still talk about the cake.'
“Then she sent me photographs of them as they are today,” Myers said. “It was really sweet.”
She said that every caterer has “a taste palate” they bring to the table. Her favorite flavors include tarragon, cumin, coriander, and cardamom. She loves chipotle peppers and smoky ancho chilies. Many of her recipes remain on her website, sharonmyers.com.
“The food that I make tastes a certain way,” she said. “It has certain flavors and herbs and spices that I like to work with. Other people have a totally different palate. And they're going to give you a different kind of food.”
Often, families give her recipes for foods from their native countries.
“Very often they're from Venezuela, or they're from Mexico, or they're from Holland, and there are certain foods that they want at their wedding that are traditional,” she said. “I always remind them that I'm not going to have here the right ingredients and the products that they're using in their native country. But I will find something that I can work with instead that will be close.”
Myers doesn't like making the same food over and over.
“It's much more interesting to do a varied menu,” she said. “But, yes, I still ended up making tenderloin and salmon and green beans a lot. People like meat and potatoes. And it's OK. But there's much more variety now.”
“When my brother got married, I was still living on Nantucket and just starting in the catering business. He wanted a salad at his wedding. I made an arugula mixed salad with raspberries and nuts and goat's cheese, which to us today is very normal. But in 1985, when I sat down at the table with the rest of my relatives, I ended up with eight salads in front of me because they didn't get it. They were looking for their iceberg wedge.”
Scaling up, winding down
At the height of her career, Myers had up to 18 people working for her.
“At the end, I had probably four or five people working for me because it was the pandemic and you couldn't get people,” she said. “That was very hard. This last year, I did mostly a lot of drop-off dinners. And then I did events where I really knew the people well and trusted them. And so I only needed three or four staff. I didn't do any huge weddings this last year. And the year before was the pandemic, so there was nothing.”
Somewhere along the way, Myers herself married and divorced. She has shared her home with a long line of handsome Shetland Sheep Dogs, and currently lives with one of them, named Marlowe. She painted her house and barn - which houses her studio - her favorite color, purple. And for a while she had a business making marmalades and chutneys under the brand name The Purple Chef.
All this time, her art has played into her cooking, just as her cooking has played into her art.
“I'm always using my eyes to see what it looks like,” she said. “Visually, how do you present the food? When you're arranging a plate, you have to figure out what goes where. Is there an overlap? Is there a sauce? How is the plate decorated? So that's all part of the artistic decision.”
Myers started out making sculptures, then moved into fabric and fiber and weaving and quilt making. She loves the color and placement of fabrics.
“And it's also very tactile, which is another thing about cooking,” she said. “You're touching it, and you're working with it, and you're moving things around. And then in 2002, I went back and started working in sculpture again. And I worked with a sculptor who was a portrait artist. I worked with him for maybe four years. And then I set up a sculpture studio and started working on my own again.”
She began by sculpting realistic, life-sized heads out of clay. But when she decided she needed new inspiration, she took a five-year MFA at the now-defunct Heartwood College of Art in Maine.
“This was an amazing program for people who were working full time,” she said. “It was off premises. You worked in your studio. You worked with mentors.”
For her final program, she combined the two things she knows best: weddings and art. She created an art installation about marriage and weddings and broken promises.
The installation was called “The Wedding Gown Project” and it was exhibited in Brattleboro on Flat Street at the C.F. Church Building in 2015, as well as at Heartwood College of Art the same year.
“I was buying wedding gowns at Experienced Goods and wondering why people had thrown them away and didn't want them,” Myers said. “And what did that mean about weddings and marriage? All these weddings that I've catered! Then five years later I run into the bride or groom and they're with somebody new. And they say, 'Oh, that didn't last. We got divorced.' You just marry one, it doesn't work, they bore you, on to the next one.”
“So in the installation there was a part about words, the broken promises,” she continued. “And then there was a section with the vows. And another section called fragments - that was pieces of clothing and things leftover from bygone weddings.”
She also did an installation by working with cash register receipts from supermarkets.
“The Grocery Slips Project was about marriage and divorce again, and women being left with children to support and no money and no husband,” she said.
Myers' art changed during the pandemic. She began working with fabric and color again.
“Everyone was so questioning,” she said. “They were looking at their lives differently. And we were in a way trapped. We couldn't go out. We had to hide behind masks.”
So Myers started doing “a series of pieces that were like scraps of fabric put together in a confusing way.”
“They weren't neat and orderly,” she said. “They were just all askew, which is how I felt life was - or is still. And I really got into those pieces. I love doing them. And I have two shows booked for those pieces next year.”
Forty-three years is a long time to do something as physical as cooking, and cooking for up to 500 wedding guests at a time has played havoc with Myers' body. Multiple surgeries and painful arthritis have come with her success.
Retirement means Myers can spend more time in her studio. She is a member of Brattleboro-West Arts, where she enjoys the dialogue and support she gets from other working artists in the consortium.
She also sits on the board of the Friends of Brooks Memorial Library, for which she hosted an elegant fundraising tea in her garden last summer. She will soon be giving cooking classes in her home as well.
“Retirement means I can work at a slower pace,” she said. “And I can give myself time to read in the afternoon if I want to. I can exercise on a more regular basis. I can walk. I can go to the studio at whatever time of day I want. And you know, there's life.
“But I have to say that I have actually loved catering,” Myers said.
“And at the end of the day, when you see this event that has happened, and you have orchestrated it, and everyone is smiling and everyone is well fed and happy,” she observed, “it's a real sense of joy.”