Recollections and Recipes

by Jeri Magg

KATIE GARDENIA'S effervescent smile greets visitors to the Tower Art Gallery on Sanibel Island. Renown for wonderful doll sculptures, the artist has designed and written a new book, A Bubble Moment, about her experiences running a restaurant on Captiva. Proud of her gypsy heritage, Gardenia is quick to recount how life experiences have affected her art.

“My grandparents came from Poland and ran a restaurant/bar in Cleveland. I was born next to the flower bin in the kitchen,” she chuckles. At age four, she and her parents moved to San Antonio. Years later, after her husband was killed, leaving her with a young baby, Gardenia needed money. Not able to support herself as a switchboard operator, she decided to start a home business designing handbags out of lunch kits. The successful business grew into a small corporation.

Her next foray as a risk taker was buying and renovating houses. “My grandmother always told me that the most important thing to have is a home. I’ve owned twenty-eight homes.” (Unfortunately, Gardenia lost her home on Sanibel to Hurricane Charley in 2004.)

A second marriage brought the almost-native Texan to Captiva in 1978. Stunned by the beauty of the island, she wanted to buy a place and turn it into a “fern bar.” Gardenia and her husband pursued the owners of a gift shop called The Owl and the Pussycat. Erudite and elusive, these folks preferred following a daily lunch of champagne and burgers at the Mucky Duck with a nap. “After many meetings, pleadings, and bribes (my famous cakes), we finally came to an arrangement.” However, there was a problem. Having never been in the restaurant business, the couple was clueless as to how to convert a gift shop into a restaurant. “We had less than $20,000 to perform this miracle,” states Gardenia. Unable to afford converting the shop into a “fern bar” they decided to make do with less. “It was my gypsy spirit, the ability to land on my feet, whatever the outcome, which kept me going.”

Some of their money was spent on a used eight-burner stove that took Gardenia three weeks to clean. Wall decorations were made up of old movie and theater photos, framed in black and white along with treasured childhood toys. The final touch solved a lighting problem — their bankbook was empty — so old Christmas bubble lights were strung around the rooms. And so the name ‘Bubble Room’ was born. The five-train Lionel set was a last minute atmospheric addition.

On May 27, 1979, after placing flyers on cars in Bailey’s parking lot, the Bubble Room opened. Gardenia baked and cooked for three days, and was ready at 5:30pm for the onslaught, but no one darkened their doorstep. Finally at 7pm, the first customer arrived and by 8pm, the little place was full. She remains grateful for the neighborly spirit of the residents of Captiva. Aware of Gardenia’s limited funds, local workmen frequently allowed them extended time to pay bills, or bartered for dinners at the restaurant.

One of her favorite stories involves air conditioning, fish in a bag and the mayor. Soon after opening, the air conditioning quit. With no money, the couple distributed hand fans to all the customers as a gift upon arrival. One of the items on the menu was called ‘Eddie Fishermen,’ an eight-ounce filet of black grouper with secret toppings wrapped in parchment paper (except it was wrapped in aluminum foil). One night, after delivering the fish order, the waiter returned saying that the gentleman at table one wanted to talk to the chef. Fred Valtin, mayor of Sanibel, told her how he loved the dish but hated the presentation. “He told me to go to Bailey’s hardware, get a number four paper bag used for nails and a paint brush. Open the bag, put it over my hand, then brush the inside with vegetable oil, put the fish in, close and bake. Voila”, she said, “fish in the bag.”

A Bubble Moment was a labor of love. “The book brought closure to that time in my life. I’ll never forget the funny and sad things. It’s not a cook book, but a piece of art, ready for any coffee table,” she contends. “A combination of old recipes and clues for a treasure hunt, it’s something that makes my friends and admirers happy.”

Gardenia left the island in 1989 after the sale of the restaurant and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. “Things didn’t work out like I planned.” Again single, she returned to Captiva and began reading palms, a technique she’d learned from her gypsy relatives. During this time she started sculpting her dolls and was able to combine artistic talent with her love of the fantasy world. The dolls, constructed from all natural materials, have jointed bodies that move. The eyes are made with silk embroidery floss and acrylic paint and the faces are colored with German dried chalk fixed with fabric spray for permanency.

Her meticulous attention to detail is one of the reasons the dolls are so remarkable. To date, she has created well over two thousand individual figures of art that are cherished by collectors all over the world.

Not content with sculpting alone, Gardenia opened and operated Katie Gardenia’s Mermaid Kitchen on Sanibel from 2001-2003. Her legendary cakes have been the focus of private parties and public events throughout Southwest Florida.

Today the artist/baker/restaurateur has taken on a new challenge — dancing with the island stars. On January 28, Katie will be on stage at the Sanibel Community Center as one of the talents at the third annual event. “I love to dance and am honored to be helping to raise funds for this wonderful Sanibel institution.”
When asked what she’d tell people about her life, she pauses a moment and smiles, “I wouldn’t trade any of my experiences, each has helped me grow. But while I’m sewing my dolls, I meditate and wonder what I can give back. I hope it’s my art with its dreamlike quality. I never gave up on my dreams.” •

Jeri Magg’s new book, Historic Sanibel & Captiva Island (History Press) is available at local bookstores as well as Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.

January-February 2012

Their bankbook was empty
– so old Christmas
bubble lights were strung
around the rooms.
And so the name
‘Bubble Room’ was born.

Katie explains,
“It’s not a cook book,
but a piece of art, ready
for any coffee table.”

The dolls, constructed
from all natural materials,
have jointed bodies
that move.