california life nostalgia san francisco

The Last Lovely City*

11 November 2008


[San Francisco, looking west, February 2008.]

I wrote out some cards last night — thank-yous, which are my very favorite kind — and as I put my return address in the left corner I got that same little thrill out of writing “San Francisco, CA” I always do. I live here now, and have for ages, but sometimes I still have to remind myself of that. Just the idea of San Francisco, with its tall, steep streets that slope down into the ocean seems terribly romantic — a very go-to-hell, end-of-the-earth sort of town. Do I truly live in this city perched above the sea? Sometimes it seems like a proper earthquake could send it tumbling into the water and we’re living on borrowed time.

Probably my romantic ideal of San Francisco really established itself when I read “West From Home,” Laura Ingalls Wilder’s account of her journey from Missouri to San Francisco to visit her daughter Rose who was living in the city by the bay with her husband. The First World War was ongoing, and it took a whole week to travel by train from the Midwest to the coast. The book is composed of letters she wrote to her husband, Almanzo, back on their farm.

Before Wilder set out, Rose wrote, “… It will be foggy and dusty and windy and gray and you will not like San Francisco while you are here, and then when you go away you will always want to come back. Tis ever thus.”

As I’ve lived here almost three years, I must both agree and disagree with this statement. First off, San Francisco certainly is a quite foggy, dusty, windy, and gray place, especially in the summer. This defies any and all expectations because it’s summer and you expect it to be at least somewhat similar to East Coast summer — and it’s not. July can be frigid. This past 4th holiday, for example, I wore a down vest and baked brownies because I wanted some way to heat my apartment (turning the oven on was a nice trick). But I can’t say that I do not like here, despite the unreasonable fog, and I do miss it when I am gone and always do want to come back.

(I guess I’m already feeling homesick, though I haven’t even left for the weekend yet.)

I love to think of San Francisco as it was then: gleaming with hope and teeming with horses and trolleys. Ships sailed in and out of the bay and there was no bridge yet (if you have ever seen that Ansel Adams photograph, “Golden Gate Before the Bridge,” you’ll know how strange and different it would have been to our modern eyes accustomed to seeing the great span). Way out at the edge of town, in what is now the Sunset District, the few people who did start building houses found themselves thwarted by sandstorms when they planted gardens. The tram line ran out there and the tracks were often covered by drifting sand; still, I bet as a kid it was a fantastic place to live. All that empty space along the beach for hiding out and rambling, whichever you chose.

I remember years ago reading a piece by Louise Erdrich in which she wrote about moving to the East Coast from North or South Dakota and how once there she suffered from horizon sickness. This struck a chord in me when I lived far from water or mountains, although I think what I had was a perpetual sea-sickness — or, the missing of. I would tell myself that the lesson was to learn to find peace and beauty where you are — yet I wondered if you can ever ‘cure’ yourself of missing the empty spaces of land or sea or sky? I still do wonder that.


[Lunch, July 2008.]

Well, anyway. It was a weekend of good eating, that’s for sure. I had my veggie burger and chips (of course) and the tiniest taste of goat cheese (not as bad as usual, but it’s going to take me some time) and that lovely apple on Saturday. I came home to eat roasted cauliflower and asparagus (out of season! I’m going to hell!!) and spinach fettuccine pasta and the last tomatoes from the neighbor’s garden. Sunday night my mom made roasted vegetable and cheese sandwiches with baked, sliced potatoes alongside that were just fantastic. I’ve eaten probably my weight in pesto lately and I have good vegetable soup to tide me over until my trip later this week.

Unfortunately with being out town last weekend and then again this one coming up I shall miss the farmers market twice in a row. Oh, woe! I am a little anxious to see what new squash has arrived at the stands and I wonder if there will be any apples left when I return. I must start thinking about my contribution to the Thanksgiving dinner table: surely a pie or two, perhaps some cornbread dressing, sweet potato biscuits? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about vegetarian main dish offerings for the big meal, mostly on how to incorporate as much seasonal produce as possible. I guess I’m sort of a broken record.

Yesterday morning on the drive back from Sonoma County the mist lay low and heavy still over the fields, shrouding the cows and turning the grass silver. I sipped my coffee and nibbled on a corn muffin (another gift of the weekend) and tried to prop my eyes open. Even when we hit traffic in San Rafael I knew just around the bend the city beckoned — the lovely city, burnished and golden in the clear sunlight shining off the water.

I hope Laura Ingalls Wilder found it so, too, for even on its foggiest days there is a certain mystery and recklessness that infinitely endears.

Here’s a recipe from her book — perhaps an old San Francisco recipe? No matter. It seems very old-fashioned regardless.

German Honey Cake, from “West from Home, Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder San Francisco 1915

1 cup honey or molasses
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. cloves
1 tsp. cinnamon
2 tsp. baking powder

Beat honey and sugar 20 minutes, then add spices, baking powder, flour. Bake 15 minutes in a ‘modurate’ oven. Cover with chocolate icing.

* With thanks to Alice Adams

  • Jesse 12 November 2008 at 8:36 pm

    I’ll be living in San Francisco for a few months this spring and this post gave me chills- I’m so excited! I was in San Francsico for several weeks this summer, and I can’t get it out of my head, just like Rose said.

  • lunch at 11:30 11 November 2008 at 10:05 pm

    geez, i don’t think i could ever write anything like that about stinky *baltimore*. (i mean, some days, it really does stink here!) i really love dc, but to have a love affair w/a city the way you do w/san fran?? it’s so inspiring. the way you talk/write about it, if it were closer (like, um, on the east coast) we’d totally be moving there. see you (gulp!) soon!!!

  • EB 11 November 2008 at 12:15 pm

    What an fabulous love letter. I’m glad our little city opened its arms to you.

  • justrun 11 November 2008 at 6:12 am

    Sheesh, girl, you make me want to move.