Material Object: Maayan Zilberman
As told to Joshua David Stein. Illustration by Lucilla Tubaro.
Portrait by Jason Lewis.
What's the most important item in your home? In our series Material Object, we explore that very question, asking some of our favorite people which of their possessions connect them to their past, to their family and to themselves.
Maayan Zilberman is an artist, confectioner and the founder Sweet Saba, an art- and fashion-driven candy company. Maayan has collaborated with companies such as Versace, Dior and Estée Lauder and museums such as the Whitney Museum of American Art. She has also created retail collections for Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Le Bon Marche and Holt Renfrew. Below, she shares the story behind her candy thermometer.
As a candy maker, a thermometer is perhaps the most important tool I have in the kitchen. When it comes to sugar, a few degrees is the difference between perfectly translucent candy and a burnt mess. There are many digital thermometers out there with alarms and all sorts of useful features. This thermometer isn’t that.
This thermometer belonged to my grandfather; he had it from the time he and his wife had their first kitchen in the early 1950s. Everyone called him Bud but to me he was Saba, Hebrew for grandfather. When I was twelve years old, I moved from Israel to Vancouver. For a time I stayed with my grandparents. One of the rituals I remember most from that time was making yogurt with my grandfather in their kitchen. My grandfather, whose parents emigrated from Ukraine in 1902, grew up on a farm but with little in the way of food security. Ironically, when he was a boy he’d make yogurt out of powdered milk. So it was that when we made yogurt, we too would start with powdered milk, add water and active culture, heat up the mixture to a specified temperature—thanks to the thermometer—and leave it on the stove for what seemed like days. (It was probably hours but time, just like size, is always more grand as a child.)
These first experiments with Saba were the first time I was ever interested in the kitchen. It wasn’t cooking. It was a science experiment. And it was a treasured morning ritual.
These first experiments with Saba were the first time I was ever interested in the kitchen. It wasn’t cooking. It was a science experiment. And it was a treasured morning ritual. When I grew older and went away to college, I majored in ceramics at Alfred. My passion was tied directly to those mornings with my grandfather: you take something out of the Earth, fire it at different temperatures and transform it to something that looks otherworldly. Even when after college, I began to bake cakes, the impulse was toward a similar transformation.
In 2015, I decided to pursue my art more directly through candy making. I knew I needed a thermometer. I called my mother who said she had my grandfather’s, who had since passed away. My first attempts at candy making were not successful. So old and well used, the thermometer was difficult to read. And, multitasker that I am, I sometimes forgot about the sugar on the stove. After almost burning the house down a few times, I graduated to one of those fancy digital thermometers with alarms. But I always keep this one nearby in the kitchen. For in some ways, it was the start of the journey I’m still on.