california nostalgia

Two Years On

20 March 2008

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California, je t’aime.

Two years ago today I got on a plane in the early-morning hours with a one way ticket on Jet Blue headed for Oakland. I had two bags, crammed with all the things I hadn’t already shipped, a boyfriend, and a lot of excitement — the kind that comes when you’ve decided to completely change your life, and try something new.

Or, in my case, something old. But really it was new because I hadn’t lived in California since I was 17-years-old, except for a few summers in college when I came back to work. I managed to get home for the holidays every year, and usually for a few weeks in the summer, and sometimes even a week in the spring when time and money allowed, but for a good nine years the bulk of my life was lived on the East Coast, in Washington, DC.

While I don’t for one second regret upending my life and moving West, I there are things about DC I miss: my friends, first and foremost; the easy access to New York City and New Jersey, to visit my grandmother; being on the same coast as my brother; the always engaging (and inevitable) political discussions; the innate Southernness of that city; the warm nights in the summer (this goes both ways of course, because I bemoaned the humidity anew each season, as if I’d never experienced it before); long weekends at the Eastern Shore, and the wonder of swimming in the ocean. I miss the inherent familiarity of the place, and the way I felt as though I’d grown up there — in a sense, I had, because I was so young when I left my little North Bay town to attend school in Maryland. I’d never even thought about Maryland, for pete’s sake, until there I was, trudging around the enormous campus in the sweltering heat, and wondering what I was doing there.

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[Keyhoe Beach, Pt. Reyes National Seashore, January 2008.]

But always, always there was California, like a pulse of blue behind every thought. I never doubted I’d be back. One September I came home to that perfect Indian summer heat, where the sun shines every day and — I’ve learned now, from living here in the city — you forget about July’s surprisingly frigid evenings. I went kayaking with my dad in Tomales and we saw a whale turning and blowing in the bay today in the early afternoon (a mother and calf had wandered in from the ocean). It was so close to our kayak we could have touched it if we had drifted but a little closer, and I was convinced that no, really, I needed to live out here — what was I doing fooling around in DC?

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[Tomales Bay, December 2007.]

But as sometimes happens, putting idea into practice is not always so simple. It’s hard to pack up your life and leave the comfort of your familiar habits (the Mt. Pleasant farmers’ market on Saturdays during the season, Dupont Circle during the winter; coffee from Tryst, never Starbucks; mojitoes from Rumba Cafe and not the Diner, although the Diner is perfect for mac ‘n cheese and catch-up dates with girlfriends; avocado and Emmenthaler sandwiches from So’s Your Mom with mayo and mustard, and a cranberry juice and Kettle chips, and then taking it to sit in the park; walking my friend (and neighbor)’s dog when he was sick; the MLK Library downtown, where I’d slip out for 20 minutes to stuff my bag with books on weekends I had to work; last-minute dinner at the organic Chinese place within walking distance of my apartment; and — oh — my sweet little studio, the first place I ever lived on my own, how I miss it still) and take off for the relative unknown. And yet, though it look me a little longer than I thought it might, I did finally manage to do it.

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There is so much to love about Northern California. For one thing, there is the food here. There are vegetarian options — often more than one — in nearly every restaurant you go into, and if for some strange reason there isn’t one listed on the menu, you can ask nicely and you’ll be treated nicely in return. The vegetables taste fresher and more delicious. The fruit is perkier. The farmers’ markets are not only well-visited, but well-supported. There is amazing local cheese. And the fabulous farmers’ markets — especially the one in my neighborhood which, if you care to know, is opening back up again for the season in about a month.

Then, too, there are all the wild places here that I love: the jagged coast that stretches all the way up to the Oregon border and continues on after that; the mountains I visit all too rarely (I will get to Yosemite this summer — somehow); the ineffable freshness of the air most days here in San Francisco (and out of town), the way it feels blue and clear and charged; the trips up to Sonoma County for a weekend ‘country’ getaway when I need a break from the city, or out to Pt. Reyes/Inverness to visit and soak in the silence.

California has taught me how to be grateful again, and has been good to me, for sure.

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[Bodega Head, Sonoma Co. coast, December 2007.]

Still, it’s strange to think that two years — two years! — have gone by since I closed the door forever on my apartment there, home to so many guests, and dinner parties. Back then, I used to give a dinner party at least once every couple of weeks and tried all sorts of things I sadly did not chronicle here: hand-rolled, home-made pasta; caramelized red onion spread, from an old Gourmet recipe; chocolate cream pies and once a coconut cream after the most amazing piece I’d ever had in my life, in a New York restaurant; lentils braised in red wine and pearl onions; tomato soufflés; red pepper tartes; sweet potato latkes; Indian-inspired feasts for 10; Amarula martinis, served in cold glasses with a dusting of cocoa powder across the top.

(I do get nostalgic, sometimes, though of course I’ve had some rather spectacular dinners here as well.)

So two years after that early morning flight, the sun is shining in California and I have had my morning Blue Bottle americano. I am off from work tomorrow and there are plans to take the visiting Swede/Brits to waffles and coffee at the Norwegian Seaman’s Church before heading north for the weekend. In a strange twist of fate, tonight will be dinner at Nopa with an old friend from DC — a good anniversary treat, I think. Perhaps I’ll even have a glass of sparkling wine to celebrate (except that — who am I kidding — I’ve been on a red wine kick for months now that will be hard to break).

As an anniversary treat to you, I offer my favorite baked tofu recipe, which I’m reminded of this brisk morning because it was one of the things I made when I was cleaning out the cupboards in preparation to move; it’s quick, easy, and makes good use of whatever you have (or don’t have) in the fridge and pantry. The only essentials are peanut butter and soy sauce, though I’m sure you could swap in another nut butter of your choice, and I’ve used tahini with good results. I also recommend lemon juice to cut the slight sweetness of the peanut butter, although my tastes run more to the savory in general. This is a loose recipe — more of a guide, really — that is a standby when what’s required is some healthful comfort food.

ps: Happy spring! It is here, at last.

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Baked tofu, for when you’re on the move, or anytime

Try to leave time to press the tofu; even 10 minutes will help get out a good percentage of the water — it will hold the marinade better and won’t bake up to be soggy. I usually put a block between two cutting boards in the (clean!) sink, and put something heavy (for example: the full Brita water filter pitcher) on top, though I must admit this is sometimes a precarious undertaking.

One package extra firm tofu, pressed for 30 minutes or so
1/2 cup peanut butter
4-5 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
pinch salt
2-3 tablespoons water
option: 2 teaspoons jam, such as plum or blackberry

Preheat the oven to 350 F (400 F is fine if, say, you’re also roasted vegetables to go along with the tofu). Oil a large oven-proof dish.

Whisk the peanut butter, lemon juice, soy sauce, salt, and garlic in a small bowl. Add the jam if using. Add 1 tablespoon water and whisk to combine. If marinade is a bit too thick, add a bit more water until it is thick and smooth but not runny.

Slice the tofu lengthwise into thick slabs and arrange in the baking dish, trying not to overlap. Drizzle the marinade over the tofu, making sure to coat each piece well. Give the pan a good shake to more evenly distribute the marinade.

Put in the oven and bake for about 40-45 minutes, checking every so often to make sure the tofu isn’t drying out. If it looks too dry, add a bit of water while it’s baking.

I love this with roasted potatoes, or wild rice with spinach, and roasted asparagus or cauliflower.

  • Molly 28 March 2008 at 2:25 pm

    I hope you’ll come up PAST that Oregon border, too. :)

  • amanda 22 March 2008 at 6:07 pm

    what can you say, california has your heart :) it’s hard to love this coast, especially the northern part. I dream of going elsewhere to stay for a while, but I know that I will settle down here because how could I leave the one place where I am an hour away from both the coast, wine country, big city, and the mountains!

  • John C Abell 21 March 2008 at 10:51 am

    Has it been two years? Oh my.