Saturday, April 25, 2009

Sweet Home California

(Typical California Family (mine), circa 1978)

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.)

(Mom and sister in natural habitat, Santa Barbara, 1976)

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.

(Culinerapy, Age 2, Santa Barbara)

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.

(Santa Ynez Valley, taken through sunroof while driving)

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.

(Los Olivos, California)

I tasted (a few too) many of our beautiful wines, this weekend, and I also tasted local olive oils, and fell in love with a strawberry-infused balsamic vinegar, aged 15 years. In two days, we ate everything from honeyed yogurt with fresh-from-the-oven granola and bright strawberries, to made-to-order tortillas filled with roasted pablanos and melted cheese.

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.)

(La Super Rica, exterior, present day)

(La Super Rica, kitchen - you can see the woman in red forming a mound of masa into tortillas)

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?

(Sunset through tree, from porch chair)

Driving home to Los Angeles on a sunny Sunday in April, the turquoise ocean spread out vast before me as the 101 took me south along the shore, I felt like the luckiest person alive. I felt, more specifically, like a Californian, born on strawberry fields and raised by a mermaid mother at the edge of the Pacific. I am not Elle Woods, or Pamela Anderson, or a character from The OC. I am an artichoke-eating, flip flop-wearing, make-up forgoing, blond haired, freckled nosed, recycle-happy Southern Californian, and I'm damned proud of it.

La Super Rica
622 N. Milpas St
Santa Barbara, CA 93103

Global Gardens (olive oil tastings)

2477 Alamo Pintado
Los Olivos, CA 93441


  1. 2 things:

    You take amazing pictures.

    I can't believe how much you look like your mom.

  2. Lovely post. Growing up on the Jersey Shore, I spent my childhood in the sand. I wasn't lucky enough to have wineries and olive groves, but I was definitely a sand loving girl and still live within a mile from the beach. I can't imagine living anywhere else.

    On another note, I'm posting a Jersey Food post tomorrow. Not an organic bite in the bunch. We're not known for our health conscious specialties.

  3. JerseyBites - I can't wait to read it!

  4. This post gave me goosebumps, you are an amazing writer. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself here, your family, your life and your heart. I feel like I want to know you more. If the rest of your blog is this beautiful, I'll be here for hours!

  5. Love the photographs and the nostalgic writing. I didn't grow up on the beach but I might as well have because every time we went to the waters I spent all my time on the sand or in the water. People, even families, were forgotten the moment I smelled that salt air. You took me back. Great post.

  6. Thanks Venus. I swear, there's just something about the ocean -- salt air has a chemical affect on my brain.

  7. When I moved to Minnesota from CA's central valley during my sophomore year of high school, I almost died. It took me years to get back, but I did.

    Thank God I did. Thanks for being such a great California fan.

  8. I was totally engulfed in your writing and loved the photos that came with it. Beautifully done. You do a great job of getting your readers to relate to you. Thanks for sharing.

  9. of course I loved this post! wine, travel, and your family! I have many fond memories of that 100 year old oak tree. I can still remember us giggling and hollaring at your Dad to push us higher, so our toes could reach the sky. So many good memories with you and your family! Thanks for taking me back.

  10. WOW! I found a tip about your web site- and it was so awesome to read about my hometown in such a loving manner- love your pictures, your memories and view points of the Valley and California!

    I live next to a olive orchard- which is growing on 100 acres bought by my husbands grandfather in the 1920s...they came here from Santa Paula. The other next door is a vineyard. Across the street is a winery that has been producing sauvignon blanc (6 releases this year alone) for 20 years!!

    I can hardly wait to make the blueberry muffins, and look forward to many more posts that shine like this particular one!

    Love from Los Olivos!!!!

  11. This is an awesome post....I wish I grew up in Ca....Or actually lived in the state for that matter....

    -Amy C

  12. Thank you for letting us share your wonderful story and pictures. Much appreciation.

    Vavu in New England

  13. I absolutely love this post -- it says so many things I feel about my home state. I, like you, am a third generation Californian, though unlike you, I had to leave for nine years in order to appreciate it. (Well, more like 5. The last 4 were spent convincing my husband to move here.)

    Even though it's home and familiar, it still makes me catch my breath with beauty. Earthquakes and budget shortfalls and Proposition 8 and all, it's still the golden state.

  14. I love love love this post...2nd generation CA blondie here! I live and work in Ventura county where so much of what you wrote about is lovely to know that not only do you appreciate it, but you put it in words that I can't.

  15. I am in love with this post and your writing. I am a CA born, but NY raised girl who has returned SoCal a year ago. Your post made me realize I've spent so much time thinking I'm not California, when I was nodding in agreement to every word of your post. From one composting, flip flpp wearing, makeup forgoeing CA girl to another, thanks for taking the time to write this glorious post. It's made my day.

    -Laura :)