Wednesday, May 6, 2009


California is like food. Food for the soul. It gets under your skin like an ex-lover that never quite goes away. At least it has for me. Over the weekend I was trying to figure out what to write next. I haven't had time to research a couple of stories I'd like to write so I needed an alternative. On Sunday I drove from Los Angeles to the Central Coast to see my mother. She lives in Halcyon, a small town adjacent to Arroyo Grande. On the drive up it came to me. California. My state. The state where I was born, and grew up.


There's a stretch of Highway 101 just north of Santa Barbara that gets me every time. It's an unpopulated area that starts at Goleta and runs north to the Gaviota Pass. It's just incredibly beautiful. It is 'California' to me. On one side of the highway, down sheer cliffs, the Pacific Ocean crashes onto near-deserted beaches. On the other side the Santa Ynez Mountain range rises up. The distance from mountains to ocean is short. There are fields with oak and eucalyptus trees connecting the mountains to the ocean. Depending on the time of day and year, the colors of the fields, the mountains, the sky and the ocean are stunning.


California is deep in my blood. I have tried living elsewhere. I have lived in New York City numerous times, and absolutely loved it. The most amazing city in the world. I have lived in France and loved it too. I have been back often. I've spent extended periods in Italy and South America. But I always miss California. I always return to it. It is my home. I'm a fifth generation Californian on my mother's side. My mother now lives where both sides of her family settled in the Santa Maria area of the Central Coast. I grew up in San Luis Obispo, north of Santa Maria. My maternal great-grandparents lived in Orcutt, a small town fifteen minutes south of Santa Maria. When I was a child I spent a lot time at Grampa Rollie and Gramma Ora's house. They were simple people who lived off their little plot of land. Most all of the vegetables and some of the fruit we ate came from their garden. My other maternal great-grandparents, the Balls, whom I never knew, lived in Santa Maria. My father was a Dust Bowl Okie. In 1940 his mother, dirt poor and left alone with five children in Oklahoma City, chased after my grandfather who had taken off to California with another woman. My grandmother, my father and his siblings eventually settled in San Francisco -- the city in which I was later born.


Food enters our family history often. There's the story of my father, his four siblings and my grandmother crossing the California border and arriving in Southern California where they all picked oranges in the abundant citrus groves because they had no money for food. They cobbled enough money together to make their way to San Francisco where my grandfather was holed up with his new girlfriend. My mother also talks of trips to Los Angeles as a child in the 30s and 40s when L.A. was one big citrus grove; orange and lemon trees as far as the eye could see. Sadly, not the case anymore. I would have liked to have seen that L.A. One of my favorite stories my mother tells is about the trips she took with Gramma and Grampa Ball north on the 101 from Santa Maria to visit friends and relatives. Gramma Ball, quite the good cook, always packed a picnic of fried chicken and they would stop along the highway and eat lunch under an oak tree. It was always and only fried chicken never anything else. Back in those days and up to the 60s and 70s the family would stop along whatever stretch of road they were traveling to pick up produce that had fallen off the many trucks transporting fruits and vegetables. I remember doing this often as a child while driving through the Salinas Valley. Grabbing fallen celery, lettuce broccoli, and cabbage off the side of the road; it fed us for a week. When my mother was a child she went clamming with Grampa Rollie and Gramma Ora at Pismo Beach. They took clamming forks and old paint cans. Digging down an inch up came clam after clam. Sadly, clamming days at Pismo are over; it is all clammed out.

Photo: My mother, Dawn Goodman,
at Point Sal in the 1930s.


Because my mother is an inveterate explorer we took a lot of road trips when I was a child. I am lucky to have seen almost every corner of this amazing state. Now, when I travel the same roads three generations of my family have traveled I feel a part of the place like I don't anywhere else. It's part of my being; the fabric of what makes me. My mother knows the oak tree along the 101 near Paso Robles where she and Grampa and Gramma Ball stopped to eat their fried chicken picnic those many years ago. I know driving up and down the coast to visit my mother that generations of my family have traveled the same roads, or earlier versions, and it fills me with a sense of pride and belonging to place. My family is California. The story of California is the story of my family. It is without any doubt under my skin; in my blood.

I don't mean to be completely myopic here. I know that other people from other states and parts of the country feel the same way about their own little slice of where they were born and grew up, where their family hails from. They have their own pride of place. As well they should. But for me it's all about California.

California -- a definition: The name 'California' is most commonly believed to have derived from a storied paradise peopled by black Amazons and ruled by Queen Calafia. The kingdom of Queen Califia or Calafia, according to Spanish adventure writer, Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo, was said to be a remote land inhabited by griffins and other strange beasts and rich in gold. He wrote, "Know ye that at the right hand of the Indies there is an island named California, very close to that part of the terrestrial Paradise, which was inhabited by black women, without a single man among them, and that they lived in the manner of Amazons. They were robust of body, with strong and passionate hearts and great virtues. The island itself is one of the wildest in the world on account of the bold and craggy rocks. Their weapons were all made of gold. The island everywhere abounds with gold and precious stones, and upon it no other metal was found." From -- Wikipedia

Top Photo: Ora and Rolla Goodman, my great-grandparents, barbecuing at a local park.

Upcoming Posts: The Wedge Salad: a recipe, the origins of the salad and of Iceberg lettuce. Cucumbers: their season, history and a recipe for my great-grandmother's faux pickles.

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  1. Charles, what a really well written piece - not only on the culinary history of you and your family, but on California itself. It is true. There really is no place like it.

    Sure, every state in our country has it's draw. But once you get a taste of the real California, you'll find that everywhere else fails in comparison. Hell, we even make better wine than the FRENCH!!! And they'll admit that!

    It was years ago, and it sickens me to even bring it up, but Bobby Flay did an episode of one of his stupid shows where he traveled the country trying their local food, and he ended up in Los Angeles. There he was driving his convertible mustang down PCH, wearing his stupid Ray Bans -- Mr. Sunshine, Mr. Cool. He's traveling to all of the LA hot spots with this other couple, and everything they feed him elicits the same response: "It's good, but there's nothing special about it."

    Then he finally says to them "Name something California's famous for. For example, New York has the pizza. Chicago has the hot dog. What's California famous for?" I wish I could have been there. I'd have told him "We're famous for being so attractive that people from New York and Chicago move here to live, and bring their food with them."

    Well written piece, Charles. I can't wait to read more of this. It's like reading a chapter in a book.

  2. Wow! Thank you, Phil! I really appreciate your comments and support. It means a lot. We think alike. California is a great place unto itself -- it doesn't need to be 'famous' for anything. Nice slaying of Flay. I can't say I'm a fan but then again I don't much about him. Maybe I'll keep that it way. Being a slightly biased native I do feel strongly about the state. Glad to see that you do too. Thanks again, and more coming soon.

  3. Charles, As someone who recently moved to California, your post made me proud to be able to say "I'm a resident!"

  4. Steven - thanks! Phil and I are proud to have you as a resident!

  5. very sweet post. california is a beautiful place and is your home. i should do something like this about philly/jersey but it would prob. not sound anything as beautiful as this!

  6. I think you've got the introduction for your book (not your novel; the other book)

  7. Thank you We Are Never Full for your kind words. They are most appreciated - and you should write about your neck of the woods. It's some beautiful country too!

  8. I'm a full-blooded Californian as well. Have been up and down and all over the state and have relatives all over too. My father lived way up North in Eureka/Fort Bragg for a while, then moved to El Centro. My grandparents had a ranch in the middle of the state. I grew up in the Bay Area, left the state for a while and then attended college in Santa Barbara & San Diego. I can't imagine ever living anywhere else. Your post was quite nice to read. Makes me want to take a drive up the coast. Hope your relatives aren't anywhere near the fires that appear to be going on right now near Santa Barbara.

  9. Nice post Charles!! I love living in California, it is “Home Sweet Home”

  10. Thanks Lori. I love hearing other family stories... sounds like ours are quite similar. Luckily no relatives close enough to Santa Barbara to be affected by the fire.

    And yes it is "Home Sweet Home," Afaf! Thank you!

  11. Charles, as one native child to another, your blog was awesome, so descriptively correct. I too took many road trips with my family, and did the whole fruit thing from the groves. My mom after living in the Central Valley for a time as a child, when her Mom sent her to live with relatives, would never go back, too many memories I suppose, so no vegetables. But lots of apricots and strawberries, from the valley and the coast. Thanks for a slice of your life-with pictures n all. "There's no place like home"

  12. Thank you Kathy for the very kind words. Very much appreciated. You reminded me of stopping at the fruit stands & groves on our road trips. I'd forgotten about that. And the coastal strawberries - yum. They still grow them where my mother lives. There is no place like home (California!)

  13. I have the same feelings about California, moreso Southern California and Los Angeles. That stretch you write about is one of my favorite places in the world.
    Thanks for this! I enjoyed it very much.

  14. Thank you Smokeydoke! I'm very glad you enjoyed it -- and that you know the area I am referring to. It really is an amazing little stretch of highway.