Late last year I uprooted the merry band that is my family – my third-grader son, Monkey, and our two black Labs I call “The Muppets” – from our long-time home in San Francisco. Our destination was South Sonoma County, just thirty minutes north of the Golden Gate bridge–a land literally rich in milk and honey, not to mention free range chickens and their golden-yoked eggs, bountiful organic fruits and vegetables, and vineyards along every highway.
It wasn’t a decision that I took lightly, or for that matter, one that came easily. We were leaving a lot behind: a jewel of a home that I had painstakingly restored from top to bottom believing I would live out my days under its roof; our friends; a loving school community, and proximity to my day job, which mostly revolves around Silicon Valley. Not to mention San Francisco itself, a place I think of as the food capital of the world.
Yet I yearned for a Slow Food lifestyle that would allow me to buy seasonal fresh veggies straight from the farm and procure pastured meat from the place it was born, grazed and made ready for my table. I hoped to hone my skills in the kitchen by cooking only what was in season: finding 101 ways to turn zucchini into a tasty meal was a problem I was dying to have. I wanted my son to grow up knowing where his food came from: seeing carrots at the farm store complete with their flouncy green tops and still muddy from the field, not packaged in convenient bite-sized pieces.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me take you back to my childhood where my love affair with real food began, albeit rather begrudgingly on my part. I was raised in the Midlands, a part of England that’s not surprisingly in the middle of the country. It’s rather flat and quite drab, not known for much besides its clothing and hosiery factories, which back then were being shuttered as cheaper imported goods flooded the market from India and China. My hometown, Leicester, was surrounded by good farming country and I was fortunate enough to live in a house with a large vegetable “patch” (as we say back home) and a fruit orchard to boot.
Back in the mid-1970s the memory of wartime rationing was still fresh enough that frugality would often show up in my grandparents’ and mother’s cooking. No doubt, this is why my “mum” raised the four of us on ‘real food’ despite the fact that convenience foods like Findus frozen dinners and spaghetti Os were gaining in popularity as more women were working and had less time to prep a family meal at the end of the day. As I look back today, older, wiser and a parent myself, I have a newfound appreciation of the real food foundation that my mum gave us.
She cooked our breakfast every morning. Always eggs, often with meat. We didn’t go to school buzzing from sugary cereal, although we did love staying at our grandparents in the summer holidays where we would feast on mini packets of Kellogg’s Frosties and Coco Pops.
Mum grew most of our vegetables and lots of our summer fruits. From raspberries to gooseberries and even figs, our summers were punctuated by trying to get stray birds out of the fruit cages, worrying about the uncooperative weather that made it hard for the figs to ripen, and arguing about whose turn it was to go pick the fruit. We’d complain bitterly when we’d find earwigs in the artichokes, grit in the spinach and the odd worm in an apple. Couldn’t she just buy food in packets like our friends’ mums did?
My mum baked all of our bread. A typical baking day would produce mostly whole wheat loaves, a couple of white ones and on special occasions like Christmas, and for dinner parties, poppy seed rolls to accompany her homemade soups. There was always an “emergency” loaf of sliced, squishy white bread in the freezer and we would BEG to be allowed to toast a slice, slather it in butter and smear Marmite over it.
She bought meat by the half-animal about twice a year. During the summer holidays we’d go with her on a trip to the local abattoir (slaughterhouse). I used to love wandering through the farm, stroking the cows with their wet noses and long, rough tongues, while she bought many different cuts of beef and pork. I made no link between these beautiful docile animals and what was coming home in plastic bags to be stuffed in our deep freezer.
She foraged, and despite our protests we had to go with her. During the summer months she would bring all four of us, each armed with a used yoghurt or ice cream container, and march us through bramble-filled fields under the steady gaze of inquisitive cows who’d warily eye us on our hunt for blackberries. Quickly grumbling about being tired, scratched and probably wet–it was British summertime after all–we weren’t allowed to go home until each of our pots were full. These blackberries often found their way to the freezer, and boy did we love the wintertime apple and blackberry crumble that would land on our table at Sunday lunch accompanied by a thick, yellow pouring cream.
She entertained often. As the wife of a surgeon, it was expected she’d host regular dinner parties for 8-10 people. It could take days to cook these four-course meals, with at least two or three choices for dessert and several local cheeses to round it all off. (Cheese is always served at the end of the meal in England, just like in France.) These gatherings were a highlight for me as I got to earn a few quid doing the dishes while devouring the leftovers in the kitchen, as I cleared the plates course by course.
And most important of all, she never kept me out of the kitchen. I have memories of being about three and donning an apron to embark on some elaborate baking escapade of my own.
So it was that my reluctant love affair with real food began. While I wished that we could be just like other families and eat packaged food bought from the supermarket, unbeknownst to me, my mum was planting the seeds of what would turn out to be a life-long passion.