By Patricia Caso/September 9, 2013
Photos by Melinda Fager
I truly admire photographers who have that “eye” at just the right time and moment to create an indelible memory or feeling. Melinda Fager has those wonderful “eyes.” Her book, Living Off the Sea, showcases her engaging photos of the people, places, food and history on an island called Chappaquiddick where she and her family go every summer.
“I hope that people will appreciate the beauty of living simply….If readers find one thing in the book that appeals to them, maybe relates to a family memory, or a recipe, then that makes me happy.” Melinda Fager
Her story revolves around Chappaquiddick life and beautifully depicts the undervalued idea of living simply. Simply sharing. Simply caring. Simply eating. And Melinda offers simply delicious recipes for readers.
When Melinda and I met recently to chat over a freshly made raspberry lemonade, I found there is a lot more than amazing photography going on behind the lens of this compassionate and multi-talented woman.
EYE: This is your first book…what made you decide to write it?
After taking photographs for many years, I decided to immerse myself in a wonderful workshop with Alison Shaw, a photographer I’ve always admired since we began going to the Vineyard 30 years ago.
At the end of the class, she challenged us to come up with a project that applied everything we learned. I had already begun to write down my recipes from my son’s earlier requests. And, friends would say my pies or fish dinners were delicious and wanted the recipes.
So I thought recipes, my photos of the Island “way”, and essays from a friend who writes for the local paper would produce a great story. When I proposed the idea to Alice, she said, “Yes, go with it! Nobody is out there with an idea like that on Chappaquiddick.” I went for it!
EYE: Was it a daunting task?
MELINDA: Yes! Who am I to be writing about life on Chappaquiddick? There are people who have been coming out here for generations. How do I paint our life so they also relate to it, but it doesn’t look like I know everything?
That was the most daunting part. I just dove into it. My husband, Jeff, is an editor and I run everything past him all the time and could not have done it without him. We didn’t want it to be our family scrapbook.
EYE: The book involves your summer tradition to eat only fish Jeff or you caught, forage on the Island for the rest of the meal, or buy fresh from the local farm. Was this your idea?
MELINDA: It was both our ideas, just like the book. All of a sudden Jeff was figuring out the fishing, and we thought with the plentiful amount we are bringing in, we cannot waste this. Even though he would never bring home more than we would eat, we decided we had to figure this out a little better.
So started the experiment with recipes. There were wild blueberries up the road, which became a big event with the kids. Who could collect the biggest amount? Again, what were we going to do with all that? Well, we made pies and pies which we shared with friends, as well as muffins and breads.
Then we began foraging in the bay for clams and some mussels. The oysters in Edgartown Bay are delicious, fresh! Everything for fabulous meals is right there! No need to venture off “our” island!
EYE: Do you fish as well?
MELINDA: I do. But it’s Jeff who is the big fisherman and taught us all. Each fish is a different challenge to catch. The bonito is probably one of the most exciting because of the way they dart and zigzag!
EYE: What are the rewards in cooking what is available?
MELINDA: When you cook seasonally, it’s not only fresher, it’s an opportunity to do less. If it’s fresh, the flavors carry the food and you don’t have to do that much with it. You don’t need to mask it. Like bluefish. People run. They hate it.
Usually in the store it’s kind of purple. Drown it in mayonnaise, they say. My husband catches it and knows how to treat it the second it’s caught. It is not only sooo delicious, it is a beautiful fish. No mayonnaise!
EYE: How would you describe your own cooking?
MELINDA: I love to improvise. I don’t make the same thing exactly over and over. My husband will say, if we are having a dinner party, ”Now you’re going to make it like that, right?” And I say, “Well, yes…with a little variation!” It keeps it interesting. Whatever is available inspires me what to cook.
EYE: Besides making great meals, is there anything else you learned from your tradition of living simply?
MELINDA: One of our favorite essays in the book says it all. It describes this reverence for what you hunt and what you eat. Whether you’ve hunted for or caught a fish, you have such respect for it that you don’t want to overdo it. You don’t want to overeat; you want to take advantage of it and use everything you can. It’s a gift.
“I hope that people will appreciate the beauty of living simply. You don’t have to look too far for something good that you can work with.”
EYE: What can readers take away from Living Off the Sea?
MELINDA: I hope that people will appreciate the beauty of living simply. You don’t have to look too far for something good that you can work with. If readers find one thing in the book that appeals to them, maybe relates to a family memory, or a recipe, then that makes me happy. My blog is an extension of those thoughts, as well!
EYE: Your photographs are gorgeous. I can vicariously smell those soups, feel the mist, see joy in so many faces. Is there something you look for?
MELINDA: I love to bring something out that you may not have known. Looking at Slip Away Farm’s co-owner, Lily, I love that relaxed, happy, so casual person in the beautiful light. I like to think I can make people comfortable so that their personality comes out.
Light is so important, early morning and especially at the golden hour at night where everything looks great. People’s skin look beautiful. The landscapes are a beautiful glow. As a photographer for my town’s newspaper, I also loved using my lens to tell all the different people’s stories that comprise a small town.
EYE: Switching gears, you are also active in A Better Chance, which gives qualified kids from the metropolitan area an opportunity for a better education than what they might get in their own neighborhood. How did that come about?
MELINDA: I found out about ABC from another host family in town. Many are from single parent families with no father figure. These kids, like our David, whom we hosted, are introduced to a small town culture that is totally different from the one they grew up in.
They have to stay on top of their grades, fight being homesick, missing their friends and family. We wanted to support their efforts, bridge those tough moments. I am struck by their courage and focus to take this risk out of their comfort zone.
“It is about supporting young people who will be leading good lives, having families, good livings, and contributing in the way they are most talented.”
EYE: How soon after he arrived did you realize you could really make a difference in his life?
MELINDA: Initially when David would come to our house on weekends (during the week he lived in the ABC House), I would let him hang out and watch TV. I don’t let my own kids do that. After about two weeks, I said, “Enough of this! Go out and ride a bike, do something.” He said he didn’t know how to ride a bike. I said “We’re going to do something about that.”
We got him a helmet, knee pads and elbow pads. He couldn’t even move! HaHa!! I’ll never forget him going down the road. David ultimately graduated from New York University, married and is happily employed as a film editor….and, he bikes everywhere. He will always be part of our family.
EYE: So, A Better Chance has many success stories?
MELINDA: You know the name A Better Chance for me is not about being a superstar. We are not grooming Wall Streeters. It is about supporting young people who will be leading good lives, having families, good livings and contributing in the way they are most talented.
I ran this program for four of the 12 years I’ve been involved. I don’t think I’ve found anything, other than my family, that is quite as satisfying.
EYE: And you added starting a small business with your already busy life?
MELINDA: I have. It’s the Great New England Apple Company, which I say is a big name for a little company. Growing up, my mother and grandmother used to make applesauce. When I moved to the New Canaan house, there were all these dormant 80 and 100-year-old apple trees. So, we worked at pruning, fertilizing, and they came back.
They made the most delicious applesauce and cider. My daughter, Charlotte, started selling it at the bottom of the driveway and people started knocking on the door asking if there were anymore left. Now a local store sells it!
EYE: You do this from your kitchen?
MELINDA: It’s a labor of love because I cannot make it at home. I have to rent a place with a commercial kitchen which is expensive. In the end I am basically paying people to buy my applesauce. But the whole thing is fun and I thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to share something so simple that people enjoy.
EYE: Looking forward, what’s next for you?
MELINDA: Of course I will continue working with ABC. I’ve been invited to be part of the Martha’s Vineyard Art Association, which is a real honor. So, I have to pull together my ideas. And my little business with the big name has led me to my next book idea about orchards around New England–The Great New England Apple Book.
I would love to explore and document the stories of apple farmers who’ve loved doing this for generations. Photographing these working farmers, their farms, some pristine farms, some that are not, is irresistible. And new recipes are always a good source of interest and sharing!
“My mouth waters at the thought of the first grilled bluefish followed by blueberry pie.”
EYE: Speaking of recipes, do you have a favorite?
MELINDA: Favorite recipe!?! So hard to say. My mouth waters at the thought of the first grilled bluefish followed by blueberry pie. But then I also know what I would do with those fresh oysters, the clams, the seared bass.
EYE: How do you unwind, reassess?
MELINDA: Biking is something I loved since I was a teenager, and I’ll bike 10-12 miles five times a week. I just get out there and have the wind on my face. That just does it for me. Also, when I take my camera and just go without a mission, I get absorbed.
EYE: So, at his point in your life’s journey, did you ever think you’d be doing all you are now?
MELINDA: I loved and was inspired by photos as a kid and worked in graphics design, but I never thought I’d be doing what I am doing now. When I line up all that I’ve been doing, it looks great, but I don’t consider myself a master at any.
Some people are real masters at each one of the things I do. So, I try to keep that in mind, always. Yes, I am having a great time, but I will always admire someone who has her or his own fine arts studio, who is writer, or a producer or educator.
I’ve had many different projects and avenues that have been in my arena and hope that I can share what is special about them with others for their appreciation and make a difference with some.
EYE: I beg to differ, Melinda. I do believe you are a master in the art of making a difference with anything and anyone who is around you. Thank you for taking time with TWE!
Here’s one of Melinda’s favorite dishes (with recipe) from her daughter-in-law. It was adapted to call for fresh bass and bluefish.