A Beautiful Mess

Posted online: January 2018


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Newlyweds Trevor and Maddie Gordon, a photographer and illustrator respectively, skipped a starter house for life on the water. Their home is a skinny, 36-foot sailboat called Brisa (Portuguese for breeze), which they frequently take out fishing and return to the harbor for sunset dockside dinner parties. One of their frequent guests and closest pals is Mary Gonzalez, who used to work at the vegan bakery Baby Cakes in Los Angeles (she even made the Gordons’ wedding cake), and upon moving to Santa Barbara, traded the kitchen for farming. Now, her home is a red-striped 1970s Prowler trailer, parked on a Carpinteria mountaintop, where she manages a 22-acre avocado farm. Since the trio shares a love of food and unconventional living, it made perfect sense to collaborate on their two favorite subjects in an upcoming self-published cookbook, The Tiny Mess, due out this summer. 

“We have a similar style of cooking and hosting in our small dwellings,” says Gonzalez, who created dozens of recipes for the book including Accidental Watermelon Poke, inspired by her own outdoor kitchen and overflowing garden full of organic veggies and saucer-sized sunflowers. “The kitchen reminds me of farming—there’s a hustle, movement, and flow to it all. But I prefer being outside on the plant’s time, there’s a spiritual connection there.”  

In creating the book, Gonzalez was lucky to network with several people at the farmers market where she works twice a week. “I met so many people doing the same thing as me, living in vans or yurts—most of them living illegally!” she laughs. Between real life stories and social media outreach, she and the Gordons traveled up the West Coast all the way into British Columbia, cataloging off-the-grid cooking spaces, including a converted school bus, water tower, and adobe dome. The range of personal stories and regional recipes are unique (think stewed rabbit tacos, nopal cactus salad, and abalone meatballs), reflecting the people behind the pages.

“This book is about real kitchens and real food. It’s grubby and messy and amazing at the same time,” says Maddie. Every shoot was done with minimal styling to feel authentic, accessible, and achievable. At home on the boat, the Gordons know all about getting creative in limited quarters. This means cluttered countertops, makeshift strainers, and rum bottles in lieu of rolling pins. “When you live in a small place, you don’t have specialized items. You have things that serve multiple purposes.”

Mason jars, however cliché they’ve become, are crucial and work overtime on the sailboat for storing kimchee, serving cocktails, and baking cupcakes (the recipe is in the book). Rather than stockpiling plastic, which the couple generally avoids, they opt for one set of the real stuff. “We just use china and then I break it all,” laughs Maddie. “Now we have a pile of superglued bowls,” adds Trevor.

Since he was a kid, Trevor’s family has sailed to Catalina for two weeks, and now he continues the tradition with his wife. “Usually we’ll catch a fish like a big bonito that no one else would eat,” he says. 

Big on entertaining, the couple is known to have dinner parties that overflow onto the dock. Using a rail-mounted barbecue on the back of the boat, they’ll smoke a fish that’s been marinated for hours—the only time they use a lot of sugar—and serve it with style and grace.

Healthy hacks and storage solutions are what the book’s all about. Vowing nearly anything can be done with a sharp knife, Maddie says the one thing she couldn’t live without is her small Vitamix, which is in constant rotation for sauces and smoothies and then stored away in a bag underneath the counter along with all the dry goods. The Gordons’ refrigerator is a small box that pulls out of the counter—Gonzalez’s lives outside the trailer on a pallet—keeping them focused on eating fresh. Be it homemade pasta, overnight vinegar-soaked potatoes, or mackerel empanadas, the authors find exotic, inventive ways to cook beautifully, no matter the square footage. “I hope the book speaks to people and inspires them to seek a more minimalist lifestyle,” Gonzalez says. “You don’t need all this crazy equipment to create something good and good for you.”

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