We sat down at a table underneath an umbrella, the sun too strong for our unaccustomed eyes. The air was warm on our arms. Lucy shrugged off her sweater and started dancing in her seat. We waited, glancing around at the other people around us. Most everyone wore sleeveless dresses or short-sleeve shirts. Even the three men having a business lunch to our right wore sandals. Our drinks arrived, finally. I did the annoying mama thing and made everyone wait while I made a photograph.
Even by the look of the drinks, I could tell we were in California.
We were in San Luis Obispo, to be specific, at a restaurant called Luna Red. Thanks to the Find Me Gluten-Free app, we could spot on the phone that this restaurant used lots of local food and interesting salads like the farm lettuce with red onion, fennel, market vegetables, a citrus herb vinaigrette, and rosemary-chili walnuts. And it had GF next to the description. This was much better for us than a chain restaurant could ever be. (The Find Me Gluten-Free app is part of The Gluten-Free Marketing Group, which is one of our sponsors.) That app gave us many memorable meals on our trip down California.
I ate the shrimp ceviche with coconut milk, lime, cucumber, jalapeño, cilantro, and red onion. Six delicious bites, plus house-made corn chips not fried in the same fryer as anything made with gluten? In the sunshine? This was a good lunch. Lucy had the Asian tacos with brown rice, cucumber salad, and cabbage slaw. (We left off the spicy kimchi.) Danny ate a sandwich of some kind. (I rarely remember his meals!) And we all shared these avocado black bean brown rice fritters with paprika salt and lime crema.
Yes, we were definitely in California.
(We’re going to recreate those fritters, but with quinoa. Sometime soon. Probably after the manuscript for our cookbook goes to the publishers on June 1st.)
It’s a rare gift to eat a meal like that in February, in our short sleeves, then walk along the river, watching Lucy jump from rock to rock, then climb up the wall while wearing a skirt. February!
Of course, it’s not rare if you live in San Luis Obispo. Once again, briefly, Danny and I talked about the possibility of moving to Northern California.
We’re staying here on Vashon, in the Pacific Northwest, which is home. But California in February is a gift.
As I wrote before, California was my home for the first 18 years of my life. I didn’t appreciate it then. I grew up in smog and a hard slog of a life sometimes. California meant lungs that hurt and wings pinned back. But now, as an adult, I go there and feel the freedom of standing on a cliff and looking out at the ocean like this. Now, as an adult, I see its beauty. I see the gift of California. I took it for granted. But this place is something else.
Only in California have we found something like this: Autocamp, a series of airstream trailers, remade for luxury and whimsy. Tucked off a busy street in Santa Barbara, amidst other trailers that are permanent homes for other people, these airstreams are fitted with giant bathtubs, queen-sized beds, and well-appointed kitchens. We couldn’t stop laughing with delight when we first stepped inside.
(Disclosure: Autocamp comped us one of the trailers for the night, in hopes we might like it and tell you about it. Thank you. We did.)
In the morning, we drank our coffee in orange Adirondack chairs. If we had more time there, we would have taken the bicycles for a ride.
Instead, we went inside and watched our girl sleeping, this light falling on her face. California in February. My goodness.
We ended up having breakfast at a place recommended to us, a mile walk away. But if we had planned ahead, we would have bought groceries and cooked in the airstream kitchen. Places like this are a godsend when you are gluten-free and traveling. You can make your own breakfast and dinner, then spend the rest of your time in Santa Barbara, not worrying about cross-contamination. I’d go back here in a moment, if we had the time.
But I’ll always remember that morning we woke up in Santa Barbara in an airstream. Mostly, for this photo.
We spent part of Saturday morning at the Santa Barbara farmers’ market, meeting folks who knew we were coming there. It was lovely and warm, again. And there were strawberries. Strawberries! Sweet, ripe, ready-to-eat juicy strawberries, in February.
Walking toward the market, I saw person after person carrying vegetables away from their time shopping. Dozens of them carried orange mesh bags, the same one we see in our grocery stores full of onions. Confused, I turned to Danny, “Why is everyone here buying 5 pounds of onions?” He looked, and then said, “Shauna, those bags are full of oranges. There’s a farmer selling oranges picked this morning.”
I’ve been thinking about this often since we came home from our trip to California in February. Those of us on the left coast who love food like to talk about the importance of eating local food in season. I’ve done it for years. There was a time, when I first started writing this site, that I was horrified by the idea of eating strawberries from California. I would only wait until they were in season here, eat them for three weeks, freeze some for the winter, and then wait patiently for another entire year.
We don’t live like that anymore.
Since we started our family —— especially once Lucy started eating her weekday lunches at preschool, and even more especially now that we have two children to feed —— I’ve softened my stance on eating local food in season. In fact, I don’t have a stance at all anymore. It’s great to eat locally, in season, if you can do it. There’s no question of that in my mind. I still believe in supporting the farmers we know here on Vashon by going to the farmers’ market every week. (We’re thinking about profiles of some of them for the website this summer.) But the reality is this: it’s far easier to eat locally, and in season only, when you live on the west coast. As someone from Boston recently told me, “Try eating anything local in New England in February, especially after the winter we’ve endured. Whenever I go to California, and I eat in some dinky restaurant, every single salad is the best salad I have ever eaten. It’s because every vegetable was grown there. But that’s California. It’s not that way where I live.”
And, as this nuanced piece in The Guardian wonders, does local produce matter as much as those of us on the west coast and other fertile areas with mild climates claim it does? Or is this just a middle-class distraction, a way to make ourselves feel better, since we can afford it? I don’t know the answers. I’m going to keep exploring.
But I do know that not everyone is lucky enough to live in California in February. Or visit it.
We’d like to send out a huge acknowledgment and thank you to Erewhon Organic for sponsoring this California tour. Without them, we wouldn’t have been able to meet you and gather material for our next cookbook. Erewhon Organic makes some of our favorite foods in the world, including their new quinoa-chia cereal and their buckwheat-hemp cereal, which was our favorite breakfast on this tour. They do things right.