Food Matters: California love, Dreamin’ of the land of plenty
A RIPE TOMATO in April? Fuggedaboutit! in most parts of the country. But that’s exactly what I enjoyed in California two weeks ago at a roadside eatery on the rough outskirts of a town halfway between Sacramento and San Jose.
I had searched for an In-N-Out near my current location, but decided to detour to the local favorite: ¼ Lb Big Burger. Situated on a blue-collar block less than a mile from the interstate exit, the meek white building lacked signage. I knew as soon as I pulled up that this must be the place.
¼ Lb Big Burger is a diner-style joint: small, stuffy, perfumed with hot grease, the very definition of hole-in-the-wall. I expected no-frills food, and I got it. The onion rings (included in the $9 combo) were sweet and extra-crispy; scoops of real chocolate ice cream made the shake. The double cheeseburger came paper-wrapped to hold the fillings together, and I took a bite to match my appetite. As juices from griddle-smashed beef, sautéed mushrooms and molten American cheese dribbled down my wrist, I tasted freshness: a juicy tomato slice and crunchy iceberg lettuce. This was a garden burger, done right at a dive.
Any meal I ate in California offered similar revelation. There was a generic-sounding salad at the Wild Goat Bistro in the Petaluma Mill — baby Romaine with dried cherries and Point Reyes blue cheese, made by the coast 20 miles away — that was anything but generic. At Spinster Sisters in Santa Rosa’s Arts District, hipsters of every age sipped fresh-pressed OJ and tucked into farmer breakfast bowls: roasted veggies and house-made sausage topped with poached eggs, yolks the color of dandelion petals. This was standard — who ever heard of an upcharge for organic eggs?
Dinner at the Swiss Hotel following a Sonoma wedding was a love letter to local harvest, including butternut-squash ravioli in hazelnut brown butter and succulent pork chops. At a taqueria beneath a tattoo parlor in Ocean Beach near San Diego, corn tortillas came smeared with spicy, seedy chile paste (no doubt crushed from hot peppers by hand) and stuffed with shrimp plucked from the wild Pacific and cabbage, onion and cilantro so zingy and bright.
Even a pre-made cheese sandwich melted my mind. I bought it at Acme Bread Co., in San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace, on a mad dash to catch a boat up to Larkspur. No time to overthink an order, I grabbed a sourdough baguette cradling slices of Cowgirl Creamery’s luscious triple-cream Mt. Tam, a schmear of seedy fig preserves, and lots of zippy arugula. While the bakery is known for producing legendary loaves since 1984, the sandwich’s supporting cast didn’t slouch, either. No matter whether at a Michelin-starred Moroccan restaurant in the city or strolling a suburban supermarket, it seemed impossible to encounter a bad apple in California.
While Colorado boasts its fair share of locally grown foodstuffs — heritage meats raised on family ranches, orchard fruits in Paonia and Palisade, thousands of acres of vineyards in the Grand Valley and West Elks AVAs — early spring abundance isn’t quite a reality here.
The Central Valley of California, however, is the most productive region in the most fertile state in the U.S. — and it ranks high among world agriculture, too. The Central Valley supplies more than half of fruits, vegetables and nuts to the entire country. Out of more than 200 crops, many are near-exclusive to California: 99 percent of artichokes and walnuts, 97 percent of kiwis, 95 percent of garlic, 89 percent of cauliflower, and 71 percent of spinach, among others, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, funded in part by the USDA.
California is the land of 10-for-a-dollar avocados, advertised by handwritten banners visible from the road. Unlucky for us, those same avocados shipped and sold elsewhere are way more expensive yet less vivacious. Studies have shown that nutrient value in fruits and vegetables can decrease by as much as 30 percent in one day after picking.
That California’s land is so abundant and food everywhere is so fresh might be one reason why its residents bask in sunny optimism. While staying at a bungalow high in the hills overlooking Napa vineyards, my tour guide pointed out charred scars left from the October fires that crept to the edge of the property. Here and in Calistoga, new green growth was sprouting up over devastated areas, regenerating before our very eyes.
During a food pairing at Ashes & Diamonds Winery — a buzzy fledgling operation marked by Bauhaus architecture, the name allegedly inspired by a 1958 Polish war film and conceived before the fires — we chatted with the sommelier about how, unbeknownst to the outside world, the Napa wine industry is very much intact. Just like the spring asparagus and peas bursting from gardens, community morale is robust, too, he said.
I understood what he meant when my pal pulled over down the road.
“This is the oldest market in California,” he announced, proud to show off a sturdy building emblazoned “1881” above the entrance. Here on the side of St. Helena Highway, Oakville Grocery is where residents and tourists alike gather, nourished by the region’s bounty.
That’s what restaurateur David Roth hopes Oakville Grocery in Aspen will become, because it’s what Leslie Rudd wanted. Rudd, 76, a Napa Valley food and wine magnate who founded Rudd Oakville Estate and once owned Dean & DeLuca, passed away last week on May 3. Just as he’d purchased and revitalized Oakville Grocery near Napa in 2007, Rudd championed the costly preservation and renovation of Aspen’s Main Street Bakery, the landmark brick building constructed in 1884.
“It was the handshake when you come into Aspen,” says Roth, Rudd’s partner in the project. Both lived nearby for ages, and agreed that the 6,000-square-foot property was underused; gathering places in Aspen were fading away, especially in the wake of Peach’s closing. Rudd was passionate about infusing the Oakville Grocery philosophy into a rebirth of Main Street Bakery.
“That’s what he stood for—he brought back buildings of vintage,” Roth explained in an emotional phone call. “He was a forward-thinker.”
Now, with the Main Street Bakery-into-Oakville Grocery project’s main investor unable to make a personal appeal, Roth can only rally the corporation to push plans forward in Rudd’s honor. Here’s hoping Rudd’s vision wins.
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