The thrust of the 777 set me back in my seat, I sat tight as we raced down the tarmac, I felt squished, it was snug fit between the two blokes sitting either side of me on a Delta flight to LA. "Heading to LA?" one asked. "No, Brisbane" I replied. A blank look was returned.
Across the Pacific lay a world waiting to be explored; not in the sense of discovering new lands, resources or landscapes, it was waiting for me to discover people, to connect. After a few days of shuffling from one airport to another, plane changing, luggage retrieval I finally arrive in San Francisco. I called my host, Daniel, on my cheap AT&T disposable phone - it crackled, the line was as cheap as the handset. "You're earlier than I expected" he announced. "Sorry dude, but I'm here now". He said he'd be there in a minute, and by there he meant the BART rail system. I waited at Daly Station and stood observing the people as I waited. There were subtle differences in clothes, cars, number plates but the people were fundamentally the same. Kids giggled and sucked on soft drinks, people spat on the footpath, passengers were dropped off by loved ones, hugged, kissed and left for their destination. Yep, all normal human activity.
The Toyota pulled up with a wave from the driver's steering wheel. I had no idea what this bloke was going to be like, I'd just opened my arms up to San Fran a week earlier and asked anyone for help with accomm, and this couple said come on over. I hoped he didn't have some hard metal implements and a lot of rope in the back of that pick up. Too late now. "Hey man how you doin?" and we were off.
Daniel turned out to be a real gentleman, one with so many of the same thoughts as myself, especially obvious when I spotted the Walden Pond picture framed, hanging on the wall in the lounge. I settled into my room and checked in with home while the smell of Dan's beer bread filled the kitchen. I knocked the top off a coldie and we talked for a while, it wasn't anything dissimilar to what I'd be doing at home. The bread finally made it from the oven and what a ripper it was. We grabbed one loaf, wrapped it up and headed out for coffee and to drop the bread off at his mates restaurant, Outerlands, where we'd be hopefully tucking into a meal later that evening. At Daniel's favourite cafe we sat on high bench stools while this fella that looked like a 60's revolutionist/beatnik called Jay poured our coffee, He was right into the whole process of the coffee creation, he had passion about what he was doing and reasons why he was doing it. Just like some people I know back home. We sipped our black gold, chatted and headed out to see some San Fran, well to be more precise, Dan's view of San Fran. We walked a high suburban peak that looked over the sprawling Golden Gate park, which we ventured into and I fell completely in love with. Not only is Golden Gate Park an absolute jungle of botanical gems, but more impressive is that it has bison in it. Yes roaming bison in the middle of San Francisco. Beat that Central park?
We didn't drive to see the steep hill with the bendy road with the pretty flowers, we didn't go to Alcatraz, go down town or walk the Golden Gate bridge, instead we headed straight for a park that resembled a jungle, a piece of nature right in the middle of a bustling city. It's one of Dan's favourite features of the city and I can see why. When you live in the suburbs with human environment constructed all around, your heart must yearn to see, touch and smell nature.
In the early evening we ate at Outerlands. I rarely eat out, I'm not rich enough. But here I was happy. The place has a reason, a carefully pondered reason behind what they do and why they do it. The have relationships with growers and suppliers, they know where the food comes from and the actually cook seasonally and not in some wanky foodie way. As impressed by the values I was, I was more impressed with the food. As each dish was brought out, wow. Each mouthful an exciting experience. How the hell do people like eating horrible food when you can eat this? Glazed young carrot with a ricotta the guys make, savoury oats, eucalyptus honey (grows like a weed in SF) and wild fennel. Turnip and smoked onion soup topped with crispy pork shank, oregano and a few slices of home made bread. Fresh (in season) morels, with soft poached egg, crispy barley, mugicha and some sexy-as sauce. Moaning ensued, so much so that Dan explained to the waitress it wasn't him making me moan, it was the food. After all he has a lot of sailor tattoos, he's well groomed and we are in San Francisco. The experience is one that I'll never forget. Thanks to Dan for dragging me out. I don't make recommendations often but there is a reason why people queued out for a seat. Try the fish. Try the mushrooms. We finished the night with a few drinks at a bar, but eventually after being on planes for a few days I was ready to hit the hay.
We headed out to the big farmers' market in the morning to meet up with Casey who worked at a peach stall on weekends. The market had a lot of the artsy foods, the stuff that tourists get a kick out of but when we made our way passed the stalls and shops inside we came out into the open where the real action was. And again I saw it was just like back home, stalls of food lovingly grown by people that give a shit about what they're doing and passionate about why they're doing it. Everything was grown locally, the seasonal food was a treat as its a the flipside of what we're doing down south. Ripe cherries, plums and peaches found their way into my mouth, the variance in taste, texture and sweetness making me one happy bloke. I was tasting California and I liked it.
By late afternoon after I'd done a talk at Omnivore books, I found myself on a small prop plane leaving the tarmac for Portland. On recommendation from Dan I was reading 'Farm City' by Novella Carpenter, her story of becoming an urban farmer. As engrossed as I was with Novellas story, I couldn't help but put the book down for a spell, I had a huge amount in my mind to digest. What I'd seen so far was a people similar to those in Australia. It seems that we're facing very similar problems and subsequently I saw that there were some people trying to deal with those problems in similar creative ways as back home. For instance, Dan's baking of bread, he's little porch garden, the food he and Casey eat from the farmers market. Sure this is nothing new, and for a town like SF it seems pretty standard, but let's face it they could eat takeaway constantly and shop at the supermarket for everything.
The majority of people in the city still eat food from a supermarket, that's why Safeway there is doing a good trade. And as much as I think the farmers' market is wonderful and full of amazing Californian produce I can't help but lament that it's a once a week affair with only a handful of stalls in comparison to the big corporations that feed the nation. Same can be said about the restaurant Outerlands, it runs on a concept of understanding where their food comes from, it's done with care and thoughtfulness and appreciated by a few. But in the scheme of things it's not something everyone can access, afford or even contemplate. I wonder how do we get people excited about good food that ticks all the boxes, the food that had me moaning at the restaurant table. And by people I'm not just talking about well-off middle class I'm talking about all of us, all backgrounds, all people, rich, poor, Aussie and Yank. How do we get people to change from eating chicken nuggets to new season carrots?
I reckon it's something only achievable when there is no other choice remaining. The more I look into the woes of the food system of the first world the more I get cynical about the future. With all this amazing stuff happening all around us we are but a few, a small percentage lost in a much larger number. Sure there is a tide, but we really need a tsunami. Currently people have choice. It's easier to buy food from a supermarket than it is to grow your own and eat seasonally. It's easier to eat food that been processed, added to and packaged than cook a meal from raw ingredients. So what would entice someone to change? It's a first world problem thats the same in both America and Australia. The only way we'll see change is financial hardship. Because that will remove the choice. If the price of food eventually does skyrocket because of rising fuel prices then the choice will be removed and thus the Cuba approach will be implemented. Until that time, while the choce for people remains, the easiest, cheapest food will rule supreme. The down side is the impact we scare the environment as a result.