Archives for posts with tag: family visits

Here’s what we’re up against this time of year. In the late morning, just before noon, the sun is near its zenith. Any yet, the shadows of the trees to the south of the garden are tickling the feet of the tomatoes and eggplants as they pass by.

In a few weeks, the shadows will be patting the nightshades on the head, like a visiting uncle does his nieces and nephews, looming over the children and shielding them from the light. The kids love their uncle but are a bit relieved when he moves on.

Lengthening shadows are one of the difficulties of cusp season gardening. The already short day is further reduced by obstructions to the sun’s lower inclination. Fall is upon us.

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I’m tempted to say that we are much farther behind in the growing season this year than we were at this point in the last. The weather has been substantially cooler this spring, especially at night. Everybody—humans and plants, alike—seems to be moving in slow motion. The motor is running but the engine is cold.

However, looking back at photos and notes from mid-May, 2013, I find that we are not as far back as it feels. We have sowed the seeds for everything that we planned to start indoors and almost all have germinated and sprouted. The only exception is the Yellow Belle peppers with which we truly got a late start (after three failures of the Orange Sun seeds) and which are typically slow to germinate.

Also, we have already advanced most of the seedlings from their seed trays to larger plastic pots. Again, an exception is the Yellow Belle peppers but so are the pattypan squash and Early Fortune cucumbers. All of these were late additions to the garden lineup—and not because of the weather. Presumably, the failure of last year’s seeds to germinate was independent of what was going on outside.

More significantly, perhaps, the transplanted seedlings are taller and fuller than their 2013 counterparts. This is probably because despite the colder weather this year, we started the indoor planting earlier. We sowed seeds for herbs in January (even if only a few germinated) and again in early March. At about the same time, we seeded eggplant and peppers and in February, we planted lettuce. In 2013, we had not done any indoor planting until the end of March.

Oh, and we’ve already started eating lettuce, which had only just been planted in May of last year.

Where we have truly lagged, though, is in our outdoor plantings. Our goal had been St. Patrick’s Day; we settled for mid-April. The combination of lingering snow, travelling and (to be honest) procrastination pushed the peas, carrots, radishes, turnips and beets a month later than we would have preferred. Additional travel and additional procrastination (I can’t blame the snow this time) have also affected second plantings, which have yet to occur.

Oddly, though, everything we have planted outdoors looks to be as far along in growth as earlier plantings were at this time last year (we didn’t meet the St. Patrick’s Day deadline then, either, but had sowed seeds by the end of March). Apparently, the conventional wisdom holds true that plants will grow into their season regardless of the weather.

It’s a reassuring revelation that even if the engine starts cold, it will still get us to our destination on time.

When I was growing up in the Central Valley of California, I often eschewed the agricultural aspects of life there. My hometown of Davis is relatively large (if not the largest) compared to other towns in Yolo County and, more significantly, is host to a campus of the University of California, for which both of my parents worked. Yes, UCD is an ag school—it was originally known as the Farm—but for us it represented the intellectual side of life and it was in this direction that I was aligned.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to better appreciate the valley’s agricultural heritage. And since starting a backyard vegetable garden three years ago, my understanding of and appreciation for farming and the industry as a whole has been steadily increasing. So, while visiting my family this weekend (we were long overdue; see October 19, 2012; October 21, 2012; and October 24, 2012 for tales of our last trip), I decided to embrace my inner farm boy and take in a couple of the agrarian attractions that the valley has to offer.

Our first stop this morning—with my brother along—was the Heidrick Ag History Center in Woodland, the seat of Yolo County. Housed in two large warehouse buildings and connected by corridors at each end which create a central courtyard, the agricultural museum tells the story of farming in the valley through an expansive collection of farm equipment and associated lore.

The artifacts span more than a hundred years in age and include manual implements, horse- and mule-drawn plows and wagons as well as tractors and harvesters powered by steam or diesel engines. The steam-driven tractors are particularly impressive. One example has drive-wheels that are eight feet in diameter; its boiler is the size of a small shed and its chimney reaches almost to the ceiling. It must have been a wonder to behold when new.

The east building was chock-full of equipment, all impeccably restored and painted in bright colors. (The tractors would have been fun to climb on, had it been allowed.) The west building had previously housed a collection of antique trucks but its owners (who rented space from the History Center) recently moved it to another facility. Sadly (and inexplicably), I did not take any pictures.

Our second foray took us into the heart of the valley itself. The Yolo Bypass is a narrow but huge (hundreds of thousands of acres) strip of land running north-south between the cities of Davis and Sacramento. Parallel to the Sacramento River and surrounded by levees, the bypass acts as a detention pond for excess river flow that would otherwise flood the valley and its cities. After filling with water, the bypass slowly drains into the river downstream and thence into the delta.

Within the bypass is the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, almost 18,000 acres of protected wetlands which are home to a variety of aquatic and avian species. Wet is the operative word here because even during drought years (of which California is in its third straight), the bypass is periodically flooded, either to support the rice crops that are grown there or, in periodic fallow seasons, to support the wildlife.

In my memories of childhood, the bypass quickly filled and remained full—an inland sea, complete with waves and breakers—every winter. In more recent years (and, given the unreliability of my memory, probably most years), the water levels have been relatively low and the flooded areas distributed among the patchwork of rice fields that make up the bypass.

It rained all day yesterday (not great for visiting but a relief to everyone who lives here) and consequently, the ground was muddy and slippery. We could have parked the car and walked but, feeling lazy on a sunny Sunday morning, decided to drive the auto tour which winds its way along intermediate levees. It was dicey in spots and we could feel the car floating on a layer of muck. But had we chosen to walk, we would have sunk to our ankles, if not deeper.

It was calm and serene despite the fact that Interstate 80 crosses the north edge of the Wildlife Area on an elevated causeway. And lest we think that we were truly in the wilderness, the Sacramento skyline loomed to the east. Both the freeway and the city are good reminders of how California’s population is linked to the agriculture on which its success is largely based.

We spent some time today planning our Thanksgiving meal.  The menu is based on tradition so there are not many choices to make.  Typically, our trusty-dusty recipes dominate although we will usually consider the variety of choices presented in the November food and cooking magazines.  Often, but by no means always, something new can be accommodated.

Not this year, though.  To work around work and travel schedules, we are having the main meal early—the Wednesday before—and taking it on the road.  We’re still the cooks, so everything must be made ahead.  Further—and, hey, no pressure—we’ll be joined by relatives visiting from out of town.  This is no time for experimentation.

We always start with the basics:  roasted turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy and cranberry sauce.  Then we add another starch, some variation of sweet potato casserole or a second stuffing (and probably, I should use the term dressing because we haven’t stuffed a turkey since 2001).  Yesterday’s New York Times Dining section (see “Essential Thanksgiving”) referred to this menu component as “something orange”, a clever characterization that they expanded to include macaroni and cheese.

(Serving mac and cheese on Thanksgiving is an interesting idea; many Italian-Americans I know include pasta as a separate course on Thanksgiving, which has always struck me as a good way to combine—or, dare I say, mash up—culinary traditions.)

We agree with the philosophy that there should be something green on the table to round out the menu both in nutrition and color.  In past years, we have prepared everything from Brussels sprouts, kale, and even an arugula fennel salad (although salads are my least favorite contributor from this group).  Most recently, we have been making green beans with walnuts in a lemon vinaigrette which is a perfect complement to the meal (the dish’s acidity refreshes the palate) and has the added advantage of being relatively easy and quick to prepare.

And then there must be dessert.  Most often, this is pie, pumpkin or pecan.  Some years, we add a second sweet, which may or may not be another pie.  This year, we decided to make a Polka Dot Cheesecake, a recipe developed by Maida Heatter and featured in an early issue of Saveur magazine.  The polka dots in the recipe are chocolate but we’ll make them pumpkin-flavored in honor of the season.  (Maybe we’re experimenting this year after all.)

I like to start the meal (while the turkey rests) with a small glass of Bourbon.  This is not my usual cocktail choice but the Bourbon and its perfect accompaniment of roasted, salted pecans are uniquely American.  Both items seem appropriate for Thanksgiving which, although not uniquely American (Canadians celebrate it in October), is in part a celebration of being American.

We’ve never done much to celebrate Easter.  Growing up, the focus was on a family get-together with a spotlight on the food:  lots of candy, of course, and ham for dinner.  But now I live on the opposite side of the country from my family and few of my friends observe Easter rituals (or those of Passover, either).  We rarely do a social gathering anymore or anything, in fact, that might be considered traditional.

One year, we spent the afternoon helping friends move furniture.  I don’t recall why they decided to do this chore on a holiday but once we got their vehicle loaded up, they headed off to deliver the cargo (somewhere, presumably, not closed for Easter).  That left us hungry for dinner but too tired to cook.

We decided to swing by one of the restaurants in town and because we didn’t have a reservation, we ordered a couple of pizzas to go.  While waiting for them to bake, we sat at the bar and I had a glass of wine.  The proprietress thought I might like one of the Pinot Noirs that is not usually sold by the glass but opened a bottle for me anyway.  That’s hospitality!  It was a delightful—if unconventional—way to observe the holiday.

Another year, we decided to go to a movie.  When we got to the theater (co-located at a shopping mall), we found it and all of the other stores shuttered.  Unlike Thanksgiving or Christmas, Easter seems to be the holiday when everything closes.  We ended up back home.

So instead of planning a formal gathering or going out, we’ve made Easter weekend a celebration of spring and the rebirth of the garden.

The only leftovers from the holidays are some unfinished thoughts that are still sitting in a container in the icebox of my mind.  I could try to make them last until the next appropriate holiday but they might spoil by then.  Putting them into the freezer might also work, but I’d probably forget about them.

Traditions are important to me.  Whereas Michael Chabon would say that to follow them too closely or rigidly is to deny that things change (see “Michael Chabon Reminds Us That Thanksgiving Is Where the Meal Is” in the November, 2012 issue of Bon Appétit), I would counter that traditions provide grounding, a fixed point of reference.  I agree that change occurs frequently—if not continuously—but having a tradition to come back to can be very reassuring, especially when a change is sudden and unexpected.

In the fall of 2001, things were definitely changing.  We had all just been through the attacks of 9/11 and everything seemed unsettled.  That Thanksgiving was not the time for anything new and I fully embraced the traditional meal and its preparation.  Rachel’s parents were here with us and we spent the first half of the day in the kitchen, slicing, dicing, sautéing and mixing.  By early afternoon, the turkey was roasting aromatically in the oven and all of the side dishes had been prepped.  This is probably the calmest time of the entire Thanksgiving weekend and that year, it was particularly restorative.

But then our oven decided to mix things up.  With at least an hour left before the turkey was done, the oven beeped, displayed an error code, and shut itself off.  We all converged in front of it and, in shock and disbelief, attempted to get it cooking again.  Turning it off and then back on did not work nor did resetting its circuit breaker.  Tenaciously, the oven clung to its error code and would not let it go.

We next tried calling repair services in the hopes that someone could provide emergency troubleshooting.  One repairman actually answered his phone—we were simultaneously impressed by his commitment and sorry to have disturbed his holiday—but he could not help us.  Our other calls were similarly in vain.  If we had needed advice on how to dress the turkey or wanted to know to what internal temperature to cook it, we would have been all set.  But instructions on how to revive our oven?  That would have to wait until the next day at the earliest.

Our turkey, on the other hand, could not wait.  Even if we had decided to postpone our meal, there would be no way to get a half-baked bird back into the refrigerator.  So, we decided to pack everything into the car and drive two hours south to Rachel’s parents’ house.  Almost all of the dishes were already containerized—waiting for their turn in the now non-working oven—and the turkey, wrapped in several layers of aluminum foil, retained much of its heat.  Traffic on the roads was light (who would be crazy enough to be traveling at dinnertime on Thanksgiving?) and we made the trip in good time.  Our meal was back on track by late afternoon.

We had more than our fair share of change that year but in the end, we had a Thanksgiving dinner that was as successful—and otherwise traditional—as any other.  In spite of the turmoil, both locally and globally, it felt good to have something that seemed permanent and enduring to fall back on.

One of the things I like about traveling west is that the time difference actually works in my favor.  I’m an early-to-bed/early-to-rise kind of guy and when I visit California, my 6:00 am to 10:00 pm day becomes 3:00 am to 7:00 pm.  This means that I can get up late, at 4:00 am say (7:00 am at home), do a workout, have a cup of coffee, and still have an hour or two before meeting the family for breakfast (not usually before 8:00 am).

Those early-morning hours are useful for touching base back home (where the workday is just starting) and also great for writing.  It is quiet, there are not a lot of people around and the phone does not ring.  The only downside (and it’s a small one) is that it is usually dark (so outdoor activities are limited).  The Saturday we were in California (October 20, 2012), I sat down in the morning to write some further thoughts about our visit to Glynwood Farm (I misplaced the pages when we got home, hence the delay).

During more stressful times, I often joke about chucking it all in and getting a job as a ditch digger.  The impulse is partly about doing something mindless—in the sense of no thinking required—but it’s also about doing something that is more physical than intellectual, activities more connected to the land (and animals, too) than to the intangible concepts on which I labor in my mind.  Our visit to Glynwood touched on those feelings.

The people who work there have definitely made a connection to nature.  Many of their day-to-day activities are governed by what is happening with the weather, their vegetables and their livestock.  They are constantly responding to their environment.  (Their work requires a lot of thinking so it does not qualify as mindless.)  They make an immediate and positive impact on their surroundings and by doing so on a daily basis (farming is a seven-day-a-week occupation), they extend their influence (through example and outreach) to a larger area over a longer time period (indefinitely, theoretically).

As mentioned before (see October 12, 2012), Glynwood has a CSA program.  They also sell their meat and poultry at local farmers’ markets and are considering the formation of a community-supported butchery (like CSA, the program would supply a weekly share of animal products for a fee paid at the beginning of the season) as well.  As described in a recent New York Times article, the community-supported approach has been applied to fisheries with additional benefits to both the suppliers and customers and, of course, the environment.

The fisherfolk commit to low quotas on popular species (such as cod) that are in danger of being depleted.  To supplement their catch, they focus on plentiful but less well-known species like redfish (their motto might be “one fish, two fish; red fish, blue fish”).  On the other side of the transaction, the customers have to learn how to cook varieties of seafood that they might not have even heard of before.  The CSF helps by providing recipes and giving lessons in filleting (give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to cook fish and he is a customer for life).

A similar tack could be taken with Glynwood’s CSB.  The types of meat—beef, chicken, pork—are well-known but instead of mass-market varieties (according to Glynwood’s Farm Manager, a conventional chicken is hardly recognizable as such), lesser-known heritage breeds are raised.  And although most cooks know what to do with a chicken breast, ribeye steak or pork chop, fewer would have any idea how to prepare chicken hearts, beef kidneys or pork chitlins.  A key to the responsible eating of meat is avoiding waste.  Using every part of the animal is the only respectful and sustainable practice.

I think the folks at Glynwood get this.  Now, I wonder if they need any ditch diggers?

The farmers’ market in my boyhood home has become quite an elaborate affair.  It is located in the town’s Central Park, the southern half of which was a vacant lot when I was in school (my brother tells me the former Central School was located there until just after my family arrived in the early 1960s), under a large steel canopy erected solely for the market.  The structure resembles a long, open barn—such as would be found on a dairy farm, for instance—which I am sure is no coincidence.

The market runs the year ‘round (yet another advantage of the mild valley climate) and attracts many vendors.  The Saturday morning gathering, which we visited during our visit (I’m a bit out of sync here) in anticipation of a later picnic with my brother, was crowded and bustling with more stands than could fit under the canopy.  At least half a dozen stalls extended beyond the north end.  Luckily, the weather was clear and warm (also auspicious for our lunch) and no one seemed to mind being out in the sun.  The market also operates on Wednesday evenings; in the summer, local restaurants set up booths and sell picnic dinners.

Whereas the produce at our market at home is becoming limited to fall staples like squash, potatoes and hardy greens, the fruits and vegetables here are still of the spring and summer variety.  There were strawberries from Watsonville, grapes from Fresno and berries from a variety of towns I didn’t recognize (one complaint about this market is that the vendors are not restricted in the distance between here and their farms).

The grapes in particular caught our eyes both for their freshness and spectrum of vibrant colors.  This bounty also produced similarly multi-colored raisins that were delectably plump and moist.  We purchased a few bunches of grapes for our picnic as well as a bag of raisins to take back home.

Also of note were the nuts and dates.  The nuts arrived from some of the nearest farms—there are large groves of almond and walnut trees immediately to the west of town—and were probably harvested only days ago.  We bought a bag of roasted almonds (with olive oil and salt; yum) for snacking and resisted the urge to buy one of every other variety (our suitcase can only hold so much).

The dates, on the other hand, probably traveled the farthest, having been grown in the Coachella Valley in the southern end of the state (at Leja Farms).  I have no idea when they would have been harvested and only know that they take a while to ripen after picking.  After tasting a few samples, we picked out a large container of large medjool dates.  They were the largest I’d ever seen and had a smooth, velvety texture and intense sweetness.

At most, I think I could eat only one or two at a sitting (yes, that sweet) but they will be a wonderful basis for sweetbreads and milkshakes (a favorite, but maybe that’s another post) and a nice addition to salads (particularly with spinach and fennel).

As we were paying, the farmer asked where we were from and when we responded (New York), she threw in another small container of dates as a reward, I guess, for coming from so far away just to buy her dates.  It turns out that she grew up in an Amish community in northwestern New York and spent a lot of time traveling between there and other Amish enclaves in northeastern Ohio (she was growing apples at the time).  We lived in Oberlin, Ohio for a couple of years and mentioning this fact only strengthened the spontaneous (albeit temporary) bond between us.

We thanked her for her act of (near-random) kindness and vowed to pay it forward by sharing the dates when we returned home.

With a bit of free time between visits with family—a beautiful picnic in the park with my brother yesterday, breakfast with my sisters this morning and dinner with Mom tonight—we decided to take a leisurely Sunday drive.  We’ve been renting cars from Hertz for many years and sometimes, they give us a free upgrade.  Usually, they offer us a larger car than we asked for, a full-size sedan, say, or an SUV.  And usually, we decline it.  We don’t like to drive large vehicles and they are harder to park.

But on this trip, when we arrived at the lot, we found a 2013 Ford Mustang waiting for us.  What a treat!  Zero to 70 in no time (it is powered by an eight-cylinder, 420-HP engine, my sister later informed me) with very responsive handling.  Attractive, too.  It is the only car I’ve ever driven which draws admiring stares from the people we pass (young men, mostly).  Of course, it is not very practical (with only two doors and no back-seat legroom, it does not accommodate a large family) and probably guzzles gas.  A nice car to rent but I wouldn’t want to own one.

We pointed the car in the direction of the coastal foothills between the Central and Napa valleys.  As we passed through the eastern edge of the vast alluvial plain that is the agricultural heart of California and began our ascent into the Vaca Mountains, the terrain became increasingly rugged and dry.  Farmsteads and croplands gave way to rolling slopes of buff-colored grasses (parched after a long, hot summer) dotted with scrub oak and sagebrush.  It is a landscape of austere beauty that only a native son (or daughter) could love.

It is not until several miles beyond Lake Berryessa that the woods thickened, the topography steepened and we got the feeling of being in the mountains.  The twists and turns of the narrow highway posed a test to my driving skills and the car’s handling.  The road felt more closed to the sky and sections extended beneath a canopy of outstretched tree branches, many of them draped with thick strands of Spanish moss (apparently, this was a good year for the bromeliad).

But this is wine country and wherever the road left a space between its shoulder and the foot of the adjacent slope, some enterprising winery had installed a vineyard.  I like the appearance of vineyards—especially the newer, strictly rectilinear variety with their regularly spaced rows of carefully pruned vines—and delight in finding vest-pocket versions in seemingly unlikely places.  Based on the prices of land in the valleys, however, it is not really surprising that some growers have chosen to invest sweat equity into small plots with difficult geography.

Apparently, our visit occurred shortly after harvest time as none of the vines we observed still bore any fruit.  In fact, the grapevines had started to turn color, replacing the deep red or luminous green of the grape clusters with bright yellow and red leaves.  If we had continued our drive into the Napa Valley, we would have found the air heavy with the yeasty aroma of primary fermentation.  From a sensory point of view, it is a good time to be here.

Deep in the woods and near the peak of the mountain pass, we found Nichelini Family Winery.  The property was homesteaded in the late 1800s and the winery was founded shortly thereafter.  It is still run by the family (currently on its sixth generation) and we enjoyed a tasting and history lesson from Phil Sunseri, a fourth-generation Nichelini.  We had the place to ourselves (one benefit of visiting early on a Sunday) and took a short tour of the property—wineglasses in hand—to see the original 12-foot by 12-foot homestead cabin.

We ended up buying three bottles of wine (how could we resist?) and when we got back into the car, decided to quit while we were ahead.  We turned the car around and headed back towards home wondering how on earth we were going to get our wine back to New York.

We’re visiting my family in California this weekend.  One of my sisters suggested a day trip to Santa Cruz (her daughter is considering a transfer to the University of California campus there) and we jumped at the chance.  Rachel lived there for five years while she got her PhD and I joined her for the last two of those years.  We have many fond—if somewhat fuzzy, after 25 years—memories of the town and campus.

We made an early start, setting off on the three-hour drive a little after 5:00 am (when we travel west, jet lag actually works in our favor).  The first two-thirds of the trip were on Interstate Highways 80 and 680, roads that have become so popular (if that’s the right word) that they are trafficky at any hour of the day.  Still, we made it to San Jose before the morning rush began in earnest and crossed over the Grapevine (California Highway 17) into Scott’s Valley and then Santa Cruz without much trouble (easy for me to say, of course, I was not driving).

We arrived at 8:00 am which was fortunate because that is when Harbor Café opens for breakfast.  We frequented this joint when Rachel lived here—it is just down the street from a former apartment—and we were relieved when a web-search confirmed that it is still in business.  The day before we left home, we spent an afternoon looking things up on the internet and there were some disappointments (our favorite Chinese and Italian restaurants, for instance, closed long ago).

After a hearty breakfast, we made our way up to campus.  It appears to be mostly unchanged—still beautiful and serene, nestled amongst the coast redwood and eucalyptus trees—but it is noticeably more crowded.  When Rachel was attending UCSC, College Eight consisted of one building; now, additional classroom buildings and dormitories have been built around it.  Two new colleges, imaginatively named “Nine” and “Ten”, have been constructed as well.

From there, we drove down the western edge of town—stopping by another former apartment—to Natural Bridges State Beach.  I’ve mentioned it before (see May 27, 2012) and have been thinking about it more since reading some of the recent posts from Late Bloomer (see, for example, “Monarchs and Milkweed—Episode 16”).  A eucalyptus grove adjacent to the beach is the winter destination of Monarch butterflies who migrate from the Rocky Mountains.  They start arriving in October and by late November, there will be thousands of them hanging from branches, clustered together for warmth.

When we first reached the end of the boardwalk which traverses into the heart of the grove, we did not see many butterflies.  There were only a dozen or so early-birds flitting between the limbs of the eucalyptus trees and the occasional laurel.  But as we stood and watched, our eyes adjusted to what we were seeing, not unlike when stepping into a dark room after being out in the sun.  Gradually, we could begin to make out the wings of Monarchs that had alit on the overhanging branches.

When resting, Monarchs fold their wings together so that only the undersides are visible.  The brightly-colored topsides are hidden and the muted undersides blend in with the pale, tan-colored eucalyptus leaves.  The effectiveness of this natural camouflage is increased by the dim lighting caused by dense coastal fog.  When the fog burns off in the afternoon—always a magical moment—the Monarchs should be easier to see.

It’s hard for me to say because my memory is vague (at best) but it seems like the boardwalk (the one on the Monarch trail, not the famous one on the main Santa Cruz beach) is farther from the butterflies than it used to be.  I can recall being practically within arm’s reach but now, the nearest branches are twenty feet away.  Of course, this is probably a good thing.  The Natural Preserve is visited by many people—including busloads of field-tripping school kids while we were there—who could still be a nuisance to the resting Monarchs, even when using their “butterfly voices”.