An Alameda Blacksmith Is Behind Alice Waters’ Favorite Egg Spoon
Shawn Lovell hand forges the $250 iron spoons Waters’ daughter Fanny Singer started selling online at The Permanent Collection in March.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
As a modern-day blacksmith, Shawn Lovell spends most of her time alone in her Alameda warehouse over an open flame forging metal — pounding, twisting, cutting, and bending it while red hot into new shapes like a baker might with dough.
“I usually don’t do this much talking,” said Lovell, 54, a long and hearty laugh following. Her hair is pulled back by an orange bandana and coal ashes cover her hands as she walks through the warehouse, sidestepping hundreds of handmade tools and machinery large and small. In one section sits a coal forge, where she heats up and hammers out the metal, in another, an old Japanese knife-making contraption used for power hammering. “I always have my head in my work, so the past few months is definitely the most exposure I’ve had. It’s crazy.”
The exposure she’s referring to? Being unexpectedly thrust into the limelight as part of a battle-of-sorts taking place in the food industry around Alice Waters’ legendary egg spoon — yes, that’s right, a carefully crafted iron spoon intended to cook an egg to perfection over a wood fire. Lovell has been the blacksmith hand-forging them for her.
The whole skirmish stems back a decade to when Waters used the spoon to cook an egg for Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes; Anthony Bourdain later lamented it as elitist and referred to Waters as a “Pol Pot in a muumuu.” The remark caused a furor from feminists, with the central question being: If a man had invented such a device, would it be lauded as a brilliant technique rather than as elitist and precious?
Back then, Waters had used a version of the spoon made by San Francisco blacksmith Angelo Garro. Lovell had seen it and decided to try to make her own but change the shape slightly to make the bowl deeper as well as other stylistic changes. She sold her version through the store Gardener in Berkeley.
Waters saw it, and she liked it even more than the original. She bought two. The rest is history.
Together, the mighty trio of Lovell, Waters, and Waters’ daughter, Fanny Singer, worked to perfect the prototype. They put it up for sale on Singer’s online store, Permanent Collection, back in March for $250. The heavy price tag may have only fueled the elitist argument, but there was no denying this rustic iron spoon — with a five-inch concave bowl and a 16-inch handle displaying Lovell’s initials — was a handcrafted, beautiful work of art that took time and careful attention to detail.
The reinvention of the spoon caught the attention of The New York Times, which published a piece refueling the flames of what it called a “bite-sized culture war,” bringing out all the old arguments of food elitism, sexism, and culinary technique. Lovell was quoted in the piece, as well as in Vogue and other national media.
It was supposed to be a small project, a few dozen here or there, but the egg spoon took off. So far, Lovell has made nearly 500. “It’s been unexpected on both of our parts — they didn’t expect it to be such a success, and I didn’t expect to be making so many of them,” she joked.
It seems the project has opened up other doors for her — just recently, a chef at Zuni Café in San Francisco asked her to make a nearly 5-foot-long device that they’ll use to turn their famous chicken while cooking in the brick oven.
Aside from the food world, most of her projects center on building pieces — gates, railings, fire screens, and furniture — for private clients. She’s also wrapping up her first public project: crafting an archway and gate for both entrances to the Gardens of Lake Merritt. The enchanting, towering 13-foot-tall gates are “organic” in style, with leafy, winding vines.
“The gardens right now have a chain-link fence and are kind of hidden, so hopefully these will give them more of a presence and a look of an old-school park entrance,” she said. “Most of my work goes hidden in a private homes, so it will be nice to see this up.”
To build something so enormous, Lovell first had to build the proper tools to support the project. In this case, that meant building huge supporting beams and, casually, an actual crane. “That was a first,” she said, chuckling.
That’s the thing about blacksmithing: You have to think in two parts, the art and design, and the logistics of how to get there. “You’re thinking about a lot at once,” Lovell said. “You need to decide what tool you need. Sometimes you need to make that tool, and other times, you need to make a tool to make the tool. It’s just endless.”
It’s also time-consuming because you have to heat up the metal for 20 to 30 seconds, and then you have nearly exactly that much time to work with it before you need to heat it up again. “With clay, for example, you can grab it and make it look how you want with your hands, but obviously when metal is in its red-hot plastic state, you can’t touch it, you have to use your tools,” she said. “It’s like trying to tie your shoes with chopsticks.”
So how did Lovell land on blacksmithing in the first place, an age-old profession believed to date as far back as 1500 BC? After studying graphic design as an undergrad and deciding it wasn’t for her, she went back to school to get a graduate degree in sculpture from the California College of Arts and Crafts. There, she worked with mixed media, including but not limited to metal, primarily on conceptual art installations. It wasn’t until she started apprenticing for a metal fabricator in Berkeley that she got into the more practical applications.
In 1997, when she was in her early 30s, she set out to form her own business and took up blacksmithing, which differs from metal fabrication in that you actually work with metal in its red-hot plastic state. The art of the blacksmith is done pretty much the same today as it was thousands of years ago. The one upgrade is using an electric fan to heat up the coals rather than a manual bellow.
For Lovell, she was drawn to the excitement and challenge of the craft.
“It’s pretty amazing that you start with something hard, turn it into something malleable, and then it goes back to something hard,” she said. “You have to make decisions as it’s changing in front of you. It’s pretty nuts, and it’s definitely never boring.”