Saturday, April 25, 2009
Sweet Home California
When I was six, I was convinced my mom was a mermaid. Moving like a blond Sophia Loren through life, she spent full days sunning on the beach in silence, moving only to dive into the ocean every hour, her skin as golden as late-day sunlight, her waist-length blond curls mingling with the sand. Growing up in Santa Barbara, we spent long days on the beach, and she had a way of moving through sunlight that seemed so organic, I was convinced my mom had somehow been born of the sand and the surf. If she was not a mermaid, then she was proof of evolution, like those bugs that blend in with the trees they've lived in for thousands of years. (To be fair, my six-year-old perspective may have been influenced by Darryl Hannah's turn in Splash, but my mom never shrieked in glass-shattering high pitched tones, and I was never able to find any evidence of a former tail. Still, I believed.)
When people ask where I'm from, and I say Southern California, they often return with, "No, I mean, where are you originally from." And I have to explain to them that I was actually born here. And so were my parents -- even both sets of my grandparents lived in Southern California from a young age. My parents (and grandparents) were raised in Laguna Beach. I was born in Santa Barbara, and eventually moved south to San Diego, first living in a small beach town, then moving inland to hilly horse country, before heading to Los Angeles for college and work. I am as California as they come, third generation. Most of my childhood seemed to be spent on the beach with my mermaid mom: from just after the morning chill, until our shadows were long on the sand. If you met my mom today, you still might be convinced that she had spontaneously and miraculously sprouted from the beaches of the Pacific.
I grew up with salt water on my skin, year-round summers that allowed me to live outdoors, running barefoot from the sand, to the grass, to the old Volvo that took me to my backyard. Even dinner took place outside on a picnic table, the smell of the grill beckoning you outside as the sun kissed the ocean, and the sky blushed pink. I am deeply, profoundly in love with my state, its culture, its people, its beauty, and its food.
And yet, for the most part, the image of California is blasphemed by the likes of Baywatch and Lauren Conrad, neither of which fairly or accurately represent my California at all.
My California is golden light from March until October, it's a hundred-year-old oak tree in your yard with a rope swing hanging from it. My California is year-round farmers markets, and math classes held outside on the grass, the sound of a juicer in the morning, chilled Chardonnay around a bonfire at night, driveways sticky with olives and oranges that have fallen from grateful trees. It's winding roads through rolling hills that take you down to waves that have traveled thousands of miles through the Pacific to lap at your feet. The hills are freckled with oaks and avocado trees, and indeed, the happiest cows. The smell of eucalyptus rises on the morning chill, and in May the afternoons smell like warmed strawberries. In late summer and early fall, ashes fall from fires sent by the gods to remind us we are mortal, lest our surroundings allow us to feel too exalted. In my California, it's easy to believe that your own mother is a mythical creature, because when you're surrounded by such beauty, it seems only fitting.
This weekend, we drove up to Santa Ynez, past the oaks and as-advertised happy cows, winding past Lake Cachuma until we entered the valley, rows of grapes and olive trees around us, with bright poppies adorning their feet. As I drove the twists and turns, time seemed to rewind, a year with each mile, until my mom was 32 again, and my dad had his surf board tucked under his arm, my sister's 12-year-old voice calling out to me with sororal hatred. Suddenly my family was in the car with me, as I drove past the reliable trees, the unchanged hills, and breathed in deep the air perfumed with sunshine, ocean and oak. I felt it in my chest, on my skin, wrapped around me -- I was home. My heart felt suddenly full, my blood coursed with nostalgia and I felt a strong unexpected sense of relief, as if I'd been breathing shallowly for years, and could finally take a deep breath.
It is there in the background of every family photo. It helped me grow up, teaching me, forgiving me, guiding me, surrounding me with possibilities. California is the fifth member of my family.
My fondness of California turns to unabashed idolatry when it comes to our food. Most people don't realize that there are more farms than there are lifeguards in Southern California: strawberries, citrus, asparagus, artichokes, garlic, avocados. We even make some of the world's best olive oil now, not to mention wine.
We met a woman from Greece who came to California with one suitcase and 2,000 olive trees to pursue her dream of making organic virgin oils, and a quiet man from Mexico whose unpresuming taco stand, La Super Rica, has been endorsed by both Mario Batali and the great Julia Child. (For the record, my family has been loyal to this glorious taco stand since long before the celebrity chef shout-outs.)
And this is part of what I love about California. It's a culture based on many cultures, brought together by fresh food and a love of simple, beautiful life. In my California, we live outdoors, grilling everything from peaches to pizzas. We eat simply, our plates filled with the vibrant colors of the foods that were picked only hours earlier. We are a laid back, happy people, our attitudes about life sun-warmed and well-fed.
Some stereotypes are true. I use "totally" as a generic affirmation to just about anything. I get excited about organic vegetables like most women do about diamonds. My parents were surfing, granola-making, compost-heaping, vegetarian hippies. And we Californians do smile a lot, but, wouldn't you?
La Super Rica
622 N. Milpas St
Santa Barbara, CA 93103
Global Gardens (olive oil tastings)
2477 Alamo Pintado
Los Olivos, CA 93441
Posted by Sara Reddy Coyne