When I first moved to Ojai nearly 14 years ago, it wasn’t for the food. I came for the scenery, the air, the good schools and a quieter place to raise my small children. Though I missed the myriad choices that were available to me in the city--the giant markets, the endless restaurants, the richly ethnic neighborhoods and fancy import shops--I figured I’d had my share of wonderful meals all over the world.
But gradually I found compensations. The orange juice was great. I bought a crate of oranges every week, and that led to shopping at farm stands and then local farmers markets. Even the family-owned supermarket in town often posted signs for Ojai produce. Friends and neighbors with too much of a good thing dropped off bags of lemons, feijoas, startlingly delicious apricots and persimmons.
My friend Margaret brought me armloads of fresh watercress that she had just pulled from the stream on her ranch, and I felt I was tasting watercress for the first time. One evening at her house we made a salad from that sharp watercress with slices of fat avocados, sweet Pixie tangerines, grapefruits and caramelized walnuts. As we tossed it we realized that it was all from the ranch, even the Ojai honey and the lemon zest in the dressing.
Avid home gardeners have always made eating locally an extreme sport, stepping into the backyard to pick what they need for dinner. I’m a lazy gardener--just tomatoes and herbs--but in Ojai I more or less socialized my way into that kind of eating. Pam from the upper Ojai valley brought baskets of fresh-picked walnuts. Carolyn from across the road introduced me to a woman who kept goats and made excellent fresh goat’s cheese and yogurt. And everyone had apples, plums, peaches, nectarines--varieties that I seldom saw in stores, varieties they often couldn’t name, too fragile or short-lived to ship, but so delicious.
These were the things that were lost, I realized, when we decided we had to have everything from everywhere all the time--when agriculture became agribusiness, and only foods that could be trucked long distances survived. But what’s so convenient about year-round tomatoes in the supermarket if we can’t actually eat them? When there are three kinds of apples where there once were 50. When Muscat grapes are just a memory, how is that better?
Food nourishes and delights. It brings us together in celebration, holds much of our history and makes us who we are. That’s hard to quantify in terms of shelf life. What were we giving up, and was it too late?
Ironically, in many ways our food culture has improved dramatically over the last couple of decades--and partly because of shipping. Produce is available in supermarkets that was not thought of when I was writing my first cookbook. Arborio rice, balsamic vinegar, chipotle chiles, radicchio, shiitake mushrooms, kabocha squash, even kiwi fruit ... these were all things that erupted on our food scene one by one, amazing surprises. They are all the upside of sending food hither and yon.
But at the same time, today I get calls for help from parent groups who are struggling to introduce some fresh, locally grown produce into the school lunches here in Ventura County. These schools are a stone’s throw from some of the richest agricultural land in the county, but it’s easier to buy processed food from large distributors, so the kids eat pre-fab lunches and the farmers look for crops that can be shipped away.
Did you hear the one about the farmer who won the lottery? Someone asked him what he was going to do with all the money, and he said I’m just going to farm it till it’s gone. I think it’s the dedicated local growers, the ones who won’t give up, who grapple with small markets, dry-farming and lower-yield, risky crops, who are the real heroes of the story.
A couple of years ago my young neighbor Peter, who has two acres at the bottom of my hill, started a mini-farm and a produce business, and my own supply line took another leap upward. I learned that what he does has a fancy name--it’s called community sustainable agriculture--but it amounts to this: I pay in advance for a share of what he grows, and every week I pick up a bushel basket filled with a selection of what he’s harvested, all organic, all just picked that morning.
I remember the Friday I pulled in to his driveway to pick up my first share. On a trestle table in front of the shed were lined up cheery, red-banded bushel baskets, each loosely covered with damp burlap, each with a name painted across the side. I folded back the burlap from mine. There were glossy bouquets of chard, dinosaur kale and mystery greens ruffling out the sides, snap peas and tomatoes and fruit nested in the lettuces on top, with layers of carrots, potatoes and beets underneath. “Presentation counts,” he said with a shy smile.
But flavor counts most of all, and it was extraordinary. “This guy’s a national treasure,” I said last week when I bit into his purple Cherokee tomato. I had just hauled a basket up the hill and was sitting around the kitchen table with some friends, tasting. “It’s true,” someone answered, “I’ve seen plays and paintings not half as profound as this tomato. Get him a government grant!” Because he surely can’t earn a living doing what he’s doing, I added silently.
There’s the rub--can local, personal agriculture survive in reality? Can this way of eating be part of everyday life, outside of pricey restaurants? It sounds great, people say when I rave on, but organic produce is too expensive, the farmers market is only once a week, I don’t have time to grow a garden, and not everyone has Peter at the bottom of the hill. And what about North Dakota in the winter, huh? What do you say to the people there when they don’t have fresh fruit for six months of the year--let them eat jam?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to be cavalier, and I’m not against shipping some food. It’s good for North Dakota in the winter, and good for all of us who want to buy Parmesan from Parma or olives from Greece any time at all. But at the same time, I mourn the sacrifice of regional food cultures, the loss of food grown just for great taste, the wiping out of heirloom varieties of fruits, grains and vegetables. And I know these things will not automatically be there when we feel like dropping in for a visit. Use it or lose it, as they say at the gym. If we don’t support our quixotic local growers, they will become extinct.
I look at it this way. The first 50 cents I pay for a spectacular white peach at the farmers market is for the peach. The next two bits is an investment in the future of local produce, of diversity, of the possibility of hanging on to that amazing, heady flavor. I think it’s worth it. The cost of the fruit may be a little higher at the farmers market, but the cost of not supporting that market is far greater.
Ojai is a small community, only 8,000 of us. For some time, our market was shaky, a tiny cluster of vendors and a trickle of buyers. They hung on, and now it’s thriving, a social center of our town as well as a source of great produce. On Sunday mornings I go and buy lovely food, plan the things I’ll cook and often as not bump into someone I want to invite to lunch to help eat it.
Sure, I miss the sophistication of big city restaurants, and when I drive to L.A. for business I stay for dinner. But mostly I eat where I live, often sitting down to a dinner of food grown in the area I might cover on my morning walk. I feel the seasons rise and fade. I revel in the taste of insanely flavorful and fragile Gaviota strawberries; they’d never make it to another state. The sugar peas I pick up from Peter sometimes don’t make it to the top of the hill because I eat them on the way. And when I savor my driveway harvest of bright green nopalitos or Margaret’s watercress or Larry Yee’s voluptuously soft dried persimmons, when I drink Ojai Vineyard Syrah or buy blood-orange marmalade from a local woman at the market, I know I’m enjoying a micro-regional cuisine, a subtle shading of California cuisine that is part of living in this valley, where eating seasonally and locally is not just achievable, it’s irresistible.
Thomas is author of ‘The Vegetarian Epicure’ and ‘The New Vegetarian Epicure’ as well as the movies ‘El Norte’ and ‘Mi Familia.”