Wednesday, August 10, 2011

And You May Ask Yourself: How Did I Get Here?

I came to Southern California like a bride to an arranged marriage, full of misgivings despite the assurances of my friends and relations that this was a good move.  Ultimately, the demands of my husband’s job meant that we were moving regardless of my desire to stay firmly rooted in Connecticut, so I tried to be optimistic and overlook the obvious red flags: the scarcity of water and clean air, the prevalence of earthquakes and wildfires, and the three varieties of flora and fauna: prickly, venomous, and golf course.
Whenever I relocate one of my first orders of business is to find the local farmers’ market.  There are a lot of reasons for this: I believe in voting with my dollar.  I believe in being close to my food.  I believe creating food systems both ecologically and economically sustainable in turn creates resilient communities.  I believe that these are among the most fundamental lessons I can teach my children.  I also believe that the people at farmers markets—both vendors and customers—are some of the best people an area has to offer.  Salt of the earth!  Authentic! Unpretentious!  How many jerks care about kale?
It was late December in the Temecula Valley.  Sunny and 70.  The farmers market takes up half a city block, scores of parti-colored EZ-ups arranged cheek-to-jowl.  Did I mention we moved here from New England?  Where the farmers market (comprising 12 farmers, one orchardist, one florist, and a small band of elderly Methodist women selling baked goods) is lucky to make it all the way through October without a Nor’easter sending EZ-ups sailing ass-end-over-tin-cups across the town green?  My daughters clung to me, agog at the hedgerows of blooming rosemary and lavender, the buckets of cut tuberose and freesia, the kettlecorn vendors—plural!, the jams and jellies and honey and just-squeezed lemonade, all of it fresh and bright and out-of-doors in the week after Christmas!  The air was electric, which my husband tolerated with the ennui of someone who would rather be shopping at Safeway.
Hundreds of people pulsed like so many sticky platelets through the arteries of the market, forming clogs at every interesting disruption.  People of every age and race, a steady babble of languages, a constant steam of movement.  We stepped into the swirling vortex and were jostled past the tamales cart, swept by the face-painting clown, and carried through the midway lined with knock-off purses, beaded Mexican trinkets, hippie dresses, olivewood bowls, and lavender sachets.  We caught our collective breath in front of the mobile massage station in an eddy caused by a large and beautifully appointed jogging stroller.
Now, in my heyday of early motherhood back in Connecticut, I was known by locals as the “lady with the carriage,” thanks to my bright red double jogging stroller.  I had done my due diligence before purchasing it; I knew jogging strollers.  Yet I had never seen one like this—shocks front and rear, swiveling front wheel, high-denier ripstop nylon cover, redundant breaks, one-hand collapse, safety wrist tether, multiple drink holders, reflectors, clear plastic window through which the pusher could dote upon the pushee—it had every amenity a modern jogging mom could want.  Clearly, it was a high-end model, containing, I could only surmise, a high-end baby.  I glanced at the svelte woman behind the handlebars.  She was deep in conversation with another market shopper, inscrutable behind the glare of the winter sun glinting off her rhinestone-studded sunglasses.  Her velour jogging suit clung provocatively to her well-maintained frame, and she held her latte with confidence and perfectly manicured acrylic tips.
Surely, I thought, she won’t mind if I sneak a peak at her precious little one.  When my eyes adjusted to the stroller’s dim interior (thoughtfully shrouded from the sun by the silken mosquito net), I discovered the ultimate SoCal accessory—a neurotic but nattily dressed Yorkie-Poo.
My head reeled as I recoiled from the stroller and ushered the girls around the corner.  At last we found farmers and produce. There were the usual winter suspects, of course: crucifers and roots, squash and leafy greens.  But also avocados, persimmons, pomegranates, fresh dates, even strawberries.  And winter is the height of citrus season—Navel oranges! Valencia oranges! Cara-cara oranges!  Blood oranges in three varieties! Mandarins! Tangelos!  Sweet limes! Key limes!  Bearss limes! Kaffir limes! To say nothing of grapefruits white, pink, and red; all manner of lemons, pomelos, and the curiously named “cocktail fruit,” an orange-grapefruit hybrid. 
Of course, none of this bounty is even remotely native to the area—southern California has one native citrus, bushrue (Cneoridium dumosum, which ethnobotanical literature describes as allergenic and inedible[i]).  Then there’s the “coyote melon,” a wild gourd which seems to have made marginal food (it bears the appetizing species name foetidissima—not just fetid, but superlatively so) but excellent containers.  The principle native diet was built on acorn porridge supplemented by rodents, birds, seeds, insects, and the region’s scanty production of small, generally acidic fruit.  The beauty I see at the farmers market is unnatural—inspired by the Mediterranean climate, cultivated on the skin-deep layer of impoverished alluvial topsoil, and plumped with imported water.
I don’t care.  I am seduced.  As author Jeff Taylor noted, as a species we favor general thrift but personal indulgence.  If I feel any guilt about the water we pump in from all points east and north, or the sheets of plastic that veil the hoop houses, or any of the gamut of artificial inputs required to yield this bounty, I bury it under a mountain of December strawberries, and console myself that at least I buy them directly from the growers.  I buy a bag of Valencias and take it home to the bottle of local almond champagne our neighbors welcomed us with.  For the first week, I live on mimosas. 


[i] Though a 1908 book identifies it as used by the native LuiseƱo people for medicinal purposes: http://herb.umd.umich.edu/herb/search.pl?searchstring=Cneoridium+dumosum

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