On one coast stands a tall green woman who says give me your poor and your huddled masses. Last week, on the other coast, there stood two women outside the baggage claim at the San Francisco airport saying “give me your loud and rambunctious, their summer bedraggled and inspiration seeking mother, and come play.”
My yearly excursion to the San Francisco Bay area is becoming less optional and more of a summer finish line, a place for me to end my summer on a playful, and love filled note, before the first school bell (finally) rings. Pitts’ sister, Val, and her partner, Jane live in a happy bungalow an hour from some of the loveliest beaches in America and smack dab in one of the greatest small towns known to man, woman, child, or dog…Fairfax. Fairfax is a bit north of San Francisco. They scooped us up at the airport, made a bee-line for a coffee gittin’ store, Java Beach, just across the road from Ocean Beach on The Great Highway. With a big and much needed coffee in hand, we crossed over to the sand and ran for the water, baptizing our toes in the frigid waters of the Pacific, not two weeks from the date we did so in Liberty’s Atlantic. What a crazy, beautiful summer. If my kid’s say that they have nothing to write for their “What I did this summer” essays, they are bald faced liars.
We had a plan, sort of. Thankfully, the plan was to have as much fun as possible on the way to Fairfax, which Ford took literally by chasing and being chased by the chilly waves. Fully clothed, he was a soaked and giggling turkey within mere moments. Luckily, with suitcases at the ready, we were able to peel him off and re-clothe him for a walk around the ruins of the Sutro Baths, where we were able to see crashing waves in a cave, climb in and out of the ruins of a once splendid glass bathing pavilion, and see a free spirited early morning inebriate meet some very friendly peace officers. Yes, they read him his Miranda rights. Yes, he taught my captivated children a few new words. Yes, it was fun.
We always love crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. It rises and falls and rises and falls. It bustles with people. Valerie tells me that it is never NOT being painted.
Before we made it all the way to Fairfax, we spied a little bakery in San Anselmo that needed a closer look. We thought we were in for sweets alone, but it turned out to also be a great little full service restaurant with beautiful sandwiches and pizza and breads. Of course there were sweets. After watching a gorgeous 102 year old woman carefully select a coconut cupcake from the case, I had to do the same. Excellent. Ford gave himself a facial with a triple chocolate cupcake. Lily won, in my book, with a wonderful slice of carrot cake. And the girls shared a lovely cheesecake with more character in the cheese portion of the cake than is typical. It was very nice. On top of all that, it is a beautiful space, with windows all along the back hallway so that you can watch the bakery in action. If you are ever driving through San Anselmo, stop at the Sweet Life Bakery and load up on treats.
And then there is Fairfax, lovely Fairfax. It is not so much a tourist spot as many of its neighboring towns, yet a wonderful place to be a tourist and live “a day in the life.” The tiny downtown has a number of fun shops. The Fairfax Variety store is one of those little spots whose wares run from vintage style toys, to candy, to plastic checkered tablecloths and sewing notions. It is truly a “variety store” in the old school sense. Revolution 9, just around the corner has one of the best t-shirt selections around as well as cards, toys, and gifts. It is a small store where one can easily part with a lot of time and money. Tibet Moon has a serious assortment of Buddhist supplies as well as Tibetan and Indian clothing. A great little coffee shop (yes, more coffee, please!), cute eateries, and a stellar ice cream shop are musts.
One of the highlights of the trip is that we happened into a newish restaurant on the main square called The Hummingbird Cafe. Started by a gal who did a long stint in Louisiana, the influences shined. I did not expect to find stellar gumbo in Fairfax. It wouldn’t have occurred to me. Yet, I found it. Jane had crawfish macaroni and cheese…I think it was called Crawfish Michelle. And Val had a Fried Green Tomato BLT that was spot on. You know how I feel about great sandwich making. It was a very happy accidental stop. We never even made it to the pies!
One of my favorite stops was Good Earth Natural Foods (“The Good Earth”), a very serious natural grocer. It is Whole Foods but even better. Plus, they have beautiful produce and…they carry my cards. So that was the first time I’d seen them personally in a retail location and it was a charge.
When people in California talk about “eating local,” let’s just say that they are playing by a different set of rules. “Local” produce in Fairfax means a dizzying array of the loveliest produce known to man. Fairfax is a little town but the Wednesday farmers market is a busy, happy, celebratory scene. Families park their blankets on the grass and eat all that the market has to offer, including meals from really wonderful food trucks and prepared foods vendors.
We had a handmade pizza, some dim sum, and a rotisserie chicken with potatoes that were roasted in the bottom of the rotisserie bin, crisped in the chicken drippings. The potatoes were my very favorite thing. If I lived in Fairfax, I would never miss the Wednesday market. The singer even played a little Merle Haggard (Mama Tried…of course being a stomping ground of Jerry Garcia, he also gave a nod to the Dead). I felt quite at home and happy.
[Scott Quinn, Val, Lily & Jane]
Taking the kids to Chinatown was a huge adventure. We caught the ferry to the Ferry Plaza. The Ferry Plaza deserves its own afternoon. Start with an Americano at Blue Bottle Coffee. Grab some gelato at Ciao Bella. Get a “Praise the Lard” t-shirt and some landjäger at Prather Ranch Meat Company. Frog Hollow fruits, mushrooms, pastries, bakeries, a cannoli seller. Many many more. And that is just on the inside. The sidewalks outside are lined with produce vendors, honey vendors, flower stalls, and more.
We rode the Trolley (overpriced, but novel) to Chinatown. There is nothing there that you need, but you will leave with plenty. It is overflowing with sensory input. It is colorful, crowded, and loud. It is bustling. At moments all of the wares look exactly the same and then you find yourself in a kite shop or a fortune cookie factory. The cookie tour deserves a moment…and only a moment because that is literally all that they give you. One moment you are standing in a jammed line wondering what you will be seeing, and then you are suddenly at the front of the line two feet away from a woman who is removing flat circles from the cookie machine, stuffing each with a fortune and bending it into the well known shape. She sits with a vat of money by her seat because you must pay 50 cents if you want to take a photo and you are simultaneously expected to buy a bag of cookies. Within 25 seconds the owner starts barking for you to step aside for the next person in line. It is like photographing one Olympic dive. You have about 10 good seconds to get off all the shots for the tour before you are shuffled out of the store. It was actually a very entertaining challenge. And, perfectly fresh fortune cookies are a treat. Trust me, you’ve never had a fortune cookie this fresh before.
Now, if you start from Ferry Plaza and take the Trolley to Chinatown, you are in luck because Chinatown is way up the hill. Meaning, you have a nice, all downhill, walk back to the Ferry Plaza. But get back before 5 p.m. because when the real commuters show up…the boats are jammed and you might get stuck on the “slow boat.”
You must have a beach day when you visit this part of the country. It has some of the most diverse and interesting beaches around, depending on what you are looking for. This year we picked a sandy beach, and headed for Limantour. It is a stunner. We loaded up sandwiches and pails and kites and headed across the dunes. It was windy, but it was beautiful. I watched the fog roll out. I chased an impertinent seagull just for fun. And, I saw a seal bobbing about in the surf. Ford and Val (and Fig) flew the kite; Lily and Jane played in the warmer dunes; and I watched and smiled. The sound of surf is a centering thing. We must always have one beach day.
[Fig and Valerie; Fig found Val a few years ago through the Milo Foundation; a few years later, Wasabi found Jane through Rocket Dog Rescue. I never thought I would love Chihuahuas…now I do. Cool dogs. Lucky dogs. Lucky Ladies. Lucky me.]
After much swimming and laughing and playing, we ended our trip on another market day. Jane and Val show their art at a little antiques and vintage market called La Petit Marche. They make hand soldered framed photography (which they sell far too inexpensively IMHO) and handmade jewelry. Their goal is to create art that all of us can have access to immediately. So if you see Smiling Dog Studio at the arts fairs around the Bay, stop by and say hello. They are also my collaborators on my cards and t-shirts. Val built my website. Jane is a graphic designer and now an official employee of The Meaning of Pie (expect more cool stuff).
[Bottom Left: Wasabi]
While they were working, the kids and I accompanied Val’s long time pal Herb Taylor on a tour of the San Rafael Sunday Marin Farmers Market, the “big” market to prepare for an evening feast. Herb is an incredible cook, and a son of La Grange, Texas. He was setting the stage for a dinner of Chicken Fried Steak and Gravy, Fried Okra, Smokey Mashed Sweet Potatoes, and Stir Fried Shishito Peppers. Creativity on the prowl also caused him to add an Apple Pie with Toffeed Bacon, and Squash Blossom and Pepper Quesadillas. When we parked the car I had no idea what I was getting into . When the trees parted for a moment on top of the hill it was like Dorothy spotting a glimpse of OZ for the first time…hundreds of tents. I was bowled over. Suffice to say that one could make an entire vacation of renting a house with a kitchen and simply visiting the weekly scheduled markets. For a person like me, it was heaven.
That evening, Herb cooked up a storm of southern food. He and his partner Scott, the kindest and gentlest man of God I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, opened their home to us for a festive evening of, well, absolute joyful…hilarious…delicious…happy…eating. The pie was gorgeous. We had to walk by it constantly to remind ourselves to save enough room. We bought a big hunk of honeycomb and ate it with brie. I snacked on Fried Okra right off the stove. I have trouble getting all of the components of chicken fried steak and gravy ready to go at the same time and Herb did that, plus managed four other dishes at the same time. Each one was better than the last. All of it, save the meat, came from the farmers market that afternoon. The pie was a last minute change based on the joyous fact that the market was brimming with Gravenstein apples. And one vendor had beautiful, tart Pink Pearl apples, the likes of which I had not seen since Jon Rowley sent me my inaugural batch of heritage apples from Washington. How can you not bake a pie when you have the opportunity to buy Gravensteins and apples with pink flesh.
My summer has been a series of wandering from the home of one person to the home of another. I am blessed that my good friends put up with me as I eagerly soak in home cooking and true hospitality. Val and Jane, and Herb and Scott, are truly the best family and friends a gal could be lucky enough to have. And I’m doubly blessed that they live in the fresh food capital of the world.
I can only hope that this time next year I will be bringing you another round of news from Northern California. I hope I don’t wear out my welcome, but I intend to die trying. And apologies for my summer travel slide shows. But when you get to live others’ lives in places such as Vermont, Cape Cod, and San Francisco, it is hard to not be the uncle with the new slide projector who subjects everyone to endless photos. In the meantime, I highly recommend that you make some friends you can visit in all of these locales. It is hard to stay in 110 degree heat when people and places like these beckon.