Gathering, preparing and eating “real food” – anything, as Pollan puts it “that your grandmother would recognize” – was an intrinsic part of my upbringing in suburban England in the 1970s and 80s.
During my college years, which I spent in Nottingham, a big city in the middle of England, some of those good eating habits fell by the wayside, although I never lost my desire to eat great food. Like millions before and after me, I followed the well-trodden path of surviving my miserly student’s budget on scrambled eggs, baked beans on toast, and of course, tuna pasta. I loved returning home at weekends and during breaks to enjoy Sunday roasts, gorge on my dad’s phenomenal Chinese cooking, and raid my mum’s jam-packed larder (pantry).
After graduating, I spent a few penniless years in London at the start of my PR career. It was the early 1990s and what I earned could hardly be called a living wage. It was just enough to cover my rent and utility bills, pay for my monthly train pass and buy some food. Luckily, I worked in Soho and in amongst the tawdry strip clubs, sex shops and smoky pubs, my friends and I managed to find the cheapest eateries. I recall one Italian cafe, Pollo Bar, which we’d squeeze into on rainy summer nights to eat Stracciatella, Italian egg drop soup, for less than two quid. As many as five of us would sit elbow-to-elbow in a booth, opposite strangers. This was only on special occasions, mind you.
I reveled in my Dad’s occasional visits to the Big Smoke when he’d take me and my boyfriend out to the latest, fine restaurants like Terence Conran’s Quaglino’s, which in the mid-1990s was quite the place to see and be seen in London. Funnily enough, it was the ashtrays that everyone really lusted after. I still have mine, filched during a visit.
Mostly I cooked at home, buying provisions from the local supermarket. Even then, “Buy British” was a mantra being proclaimed throughout the aisles. With hindsight, I guess it was the beginning of the locavore movement, although it lacked the fancy name. Back then, organic food was only for the quackiest, enlightened intelligentsia, like Prince Charles who earned a reputation for being a bit mad. (Such is the blight of the enlightened.)
Then in 1998 I exported myself to San Francisco, ostensibly to enjoy the ocean, the mountains and all the Bay Area had to offer, yet finding myself working harder than ever before, during and after the dot.com boom. Along the way, I gained and lost a husband, acquired a Lab, bore a son, then in a moment of pure insanity, got another Lab, and always worked like a dog.
Throughout it all I enjoyed the amazing culinary delights that San Francisco had to offer. From dim sum in Chinatown, to the Mission’s exploding food scene: Bar Tartine, Locanda, and my long-time favorites, Foreign Cinema, as well as Nopa across town. And then, in the blink of an eye, it was 2010 and I had a copy of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food in my hands and something in me awoke. It was at that time I watched Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution on TV and was horrified to see what well-intended mothers were feeding their kids. I remember one mom, whose son was clinically obese, being so proud of her home-cooked breakfasts: deep fried donuts.
The Universe likes to make sure we really get a message when it’s intended for us, so within a month my beloved yoga teacher mentioned a book called Ravenous, by her friend Dayna Macy, chronicling Macy’s travels across the country, meeting with farmers, food artisans, butchers, a Zen chef, a forager, a chocolatier, and others. It swung wide open the door for me to adopt a more authentic real food lifestyle at home. Before I’d even finished the book, I’d signed up for a weekly CSA farm box from Terra Firma Farm (more on this here), was embarking on regular 200 mile round-trips to go on farm tours at weekends, and started to exclusively buy pastured meats, milk and eggs.
And then it dawned on me. Instead of trying to bring real food to the city, I should take my city girl self to the home of real food. So it was, that after 14 years’ holding off the damp fog that lingers over “the city” from April to late September, I found myself seduced by the idea of moving to a climate that would allow me, the most inexperienced of gardeners, to grow mildew-free roses and pluck ripe tomatoes bursting with flavor from my own backyard. After all, I’d left England in search of warmer climes and it was time for that dream to come true. And so it was that my adventures in real food really began…