Thursday, 23 August 2012

It’s what’s for dinner.

I’m really not doing this to annoy my friend Jill, who’s trying to get her head around her exciting new web project about veganism (about which, more later) but I want to delve a little bit into the meat-eating culture of this region. Not farming or ranching, as such, because I know bugger-all about that here (except that we like it to rain every now and then to make the cows grow) but rather the way meat is eaten, the way it is cut and sold- things which differ hugely from place to place.

For example, during my time in Germany the trip to the butcher’s presented its own challenges. You tend to had to know in advance what you intended to buy, because the range of option open once you got inside was so phenomenal as to be off-putting. The stereotype of the sausage-eating German is no myth. There is variety and range when it comes to your choice of Wurst. No two butchers are alike. I even used to go to one butcher (on Diezer Strasse) for sausage and another near the Neumarkt for fresh meat. Fresh meat was its own range of pitfalls. In Germany, they will cut pieces of meat directly from the large cut, to order. You can’t go into a German butcher and tell from the shape of the piece of meat an appropriate method of cooking it. You have to Know What You Are Doing. It all looks pretty much the same, and to get, for example, a steak to grill, you have to know the appropriate term to avoid ending up with something best left in the crock-pot for eight hours.

Here in the western US, as in England, beef has a centuries-old place in the heart of the local culture. It stands for an industry which is more than just a livelihood- ranches are passed down from one generation to the next. Devotion to ranching is sometimes synonymous with devotion to your granddad. Beef has iconic cultural status. As one of my favourite bumper stickers puts it “The West wasn’t won on salad.” Well, as has been borne out by my experience in California for the past year and a bit, the Americans don’t make things any easier than the Germans do. Again, you have to know the appropriate vocabulary, which is made all the harder by the fact that the Americans use mostly the same words the Brits do to refer to pieces of raw cow, but they apply them to different cuts. Sneaky, eh?

They use the term flank, just as we do, but US flank steak is what we call skirt, whereas they refer to what we call flank as a part of the bottom of the round. Everything referred to as chuck steak in the UK would be called chuck in America, but the reverse is not true. The British term silverside refers to something which is often called rump roast here in America, which is nothing- nothing- to do with the UK’s rump steak. Well, not really. Possibly a bit. It’s right next door to it, anyway, but it’s not the same. Because what we Brits call rump is mainly covered by the American sirloin, tenderloin, top sirloin and bottom sirloin cuts. I think so, anyway. Are you confused yet? I am, and I was the one who brought it up in the first place. We all agree on brisket anyway. Except you braise it in England and you barbecue it here.

1601653_690e54f3[1] By the way, these terms differ locally across America to a certain extent too. It’s no wonder that when I came over here and tried grilled tri-tip, the Central Coast’s gift to the food world, I had a hell of a time trying to get the butcher back home to reproduce the cut. It’s only in the past fifteen to twenty years that the cut has become known outside the Central Coast and the further eat you go, the less well-known it becomes. I would argue that Oliver and Eden, in the Grainger Market in Newcastle (see left), was one of the better butcher’s I used to shop at. So, knowing, as everyone with a barbecue between Ventura and Monterrey does, that tri-tip is from the bottom sirloin, I went to Oliver and Eden and confidently explained what I wanted. The butcher overcame his blank look as quickly as he could, and confidently explained that I was making, not to put too fine a point on it, no sense whatsoever. it took two return trips, with printed material and cow diagrams and incredible amounts of persistence an patience by the butcher, to get a tri-tip. It was worth it.

The other things that every trainee pitmaster knows about tri-tip are that it was first popularised in Santa Maria, 30 miles south of San Luis Obispo, and that it is not traditionally barbecued in the traditional sense of slow-roasting at low temperatures over charcoal until it could be pulled apart with a spoon, but rather grilled over hot oak logs and then sliced. It’s standard fare at special occasions here, and as such it is sometimes neglected, taken for granted and inadvertently abused. That’s because the traditional recipe is its own worst enemy. The cut itself is not the tenderest. It is hard to grill such a large piece of meat (they are usually around 3-4lb) to the point where it’s cooked without burning the outside. You don’t slow cook it. The fibres don’t break down over hours of slow heating. The dry rub makes no use of acids or any tenderising agents. When we had tri-tip at our wedding, Chuck’s Barbecue did divert from the traditional procedure. Chuck is from Kansas City (which is in Missouri….don’t ask) which is one of the capital cities of barbecue cuisine. Smoking the beef for hours ensures its tenderness, and produced excellent results. It’s hard to grill tri-tip for 100 people without it ending up tough.
Tri Tip grilling over oak
How about for four, though? I was going to Big Sur, camping with friends. There was a tri-tip in the freezer. We  had oak logs for the campfire. It was far too tempting to resist. I used the traditionally minimalistic Santa Maria seasonings of garlic, black pepper and salt. This allows the flavour of the well-marbled beef to come through, without being buried in spices. Actually, I used garlic powder- fresh garlic would have burned in the intense heat from the fire and become bitter. I tossed the frozen meat with the seasoning in a Ziploc bag and allowed it to defrost slowly in the fridge for a couple of days, turning it every now and again.

I seared it  over a hot oak campfire, taking the opportunity to take an artsy shot of it cooking alongside a cast iron pan (used to warm flour tortillas) and a pot of beans. Then, I wrapped it in foil to prevent the outside burning any further, and cooked it over the cooler part of the fire until the inside reached 135°F. I removed it from the grill and rested it in the foil until the temperature came up to 145°F. It was fantastic, served with  grilled onions and peppers, beans and flour tortillas, tequila to wash it down.

This afternoon I’ll be cutting up 14lb of pork shoulder, and it will be a rare treat. Given the reverence with which beef is treated, it’s sometimes a little disheartening to see pork come such a poor second in shops. When I say this, I don’t mean that the cuts aren’t good or that the meat is poor quality; just the reverse. When pork is on offer, it seems only ever to be premium cuts- overwhelmingly pork loin. Pork loin is beautiful, lean white meat. And on its own it’s as dull as ditchwater. It needs to be smoked, or served with a sauce, or a ridiculous marinade. And then what you often get is dull meat, with a tasty marinade or sauce. It seems to be everywhere here. Where’s the pork belly? Well, actually, I know the answer to that one- it’s all been made into bacon. American bacon is wonderful stuff, but I almost resent the way all the pork belly ends up being cured and sliced. It could be rolled or sliced and roasted, with garlic and caraway or with Chinese spices.

I’m not entirely sure where the legs of these pigs go, either. It seems they all have loins and pre-bacon bellies, but no legs and precious few shoulders. You see loin chops, but no shoulder chops, or hand of pork. A disturbing amount of pork seems to come off-the-bone too. When I say “loin chops”, they are basically medallions of pork loin. It’s frankly bewildering, at times. It’s even more so with lamb. There seems to be almost no cut of lamb other than rack or leg. What the HELL do you put in your curries, California??? I think I’ve cracked the mystery as to why Americans serve braised salt beef, called corned beef here and almost unknown in Ireland, as a traditional Irish dish on St. Patrick’s day. It’s because if they tried to make Irish stew, they’d be confronted with the uncomfortable fact that you can’t buy shoulder or neck of lamb for love nor money, and no amount of Guinness could drown their sorrows.

It has been suggested to me that supermarkets serving the Hispanic community would have more variety, particularly in terms of the cuts of pork. I don’t know whether this is true or not but it seems to me that Mexican cuisine certainly knows how to deal with the less pretty cuts of pork. Carnitas, for example, done properly- not stewed or deep-fried. The fattiest part of the shoulder I’m cutting up will be cubed and simmered in orange juice. This simmering renders out the pork fat as the water in the juice evaporates, leaving it in its own fat. You then simmer it until a golden brown crust appears on the cubes of pork shoulder and use it to fill tacos, possibly with some salsa verde made from the increasingly monstrous tomatillo crop in our front garden. Proper food!

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Spring Training

It is cold, wet and ‘orrible.

The second big rainstorm of the year has just hit the Central Coast. According to the Tribune’s Rainfall Map, Three Peaks in Big Sur has had 4.02 inches of rain in the past 24 hours. So, all in all, not a bad day to be sitting with several litres of hot tea and the second volume of Shelby Foote’s Narrative History of the Civil War; a massive dose of Southern-Fried prose; solid military history interspersed with silly anecdotes:
Though the city [of Richmond, VA] was no longer even semi-beleaguered, as it had been…the outer fortifications had been lengthened to such an extent that wags were saying “They ought to be called fiftyfications now.”
But, spring is definitely here. The rain is here to set us up for the spring. We planted beans, tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, aubergines, spring onions and lettuces last weekend, as well as a load of different kitchen herbs. The rain is falling on sprouting chives and dill as well as coriander which has been sprouting away for some time.
More than that, as the windows rattle to the beating of the wind off Estero Bay, I’m waiting for commentary to start, in about two hours, of the Giants vs Dodgers practice match. Major League Baseball is in spring training.

Baseball, I feel, deserves more attention in Britain, but is unlikely ever to get it. There’s a tendency to compare it to cricket because they’re both bat-and-ball games, which is as daft as comparing the Cheltenham Festival and The Godfather because they’ve both got a horse. The spirit of the two games, the level of teamwork involved, the social history of the the different sports, their traditions and iconography are so different from each other as to make a comparison totally irrelevant. There’s also the point that the traditional Brit response to a discussion of baseball is “What, you mean rounders?”. This is often mistaken by Americans for a serious opinion on the sport, rather than it being what it is- an easy way to annoy a foreigner. And, for the English, that’s not to be sniffed at.

There are deeper similarities between baseball and cricket than the fact there’s a bat and a ball. One is the obsession of devotees of both games with statistics and history. The reason for this is that the man who introduced statistics to baseball was a British cricket statistician who became obsessed with baseball upon moving to America.

Ken Burns’ documentary Baseball says that “It is a haunted game, where each player is measured against the ghosts of those who have gone before” It makes listening to baseball rather familiar to listening to the comfortably entertainingly, synapse-meltingly pedantic waffle on the BBC’s Cricket commentary show, Test Match Special, which sometimes sounds like a sports show, and other times sounds like the red-nosed, comfy, brandy-induced reminiscences of a retired colonel who served in India sometime before the War.
Secondly, it is the summer sport.  Here, the (American) football season is over- having come and gone, seemingly in the blink of an eye, in a torrent of  beer adverts, nachos, and vaguely homo-erotic comments about what a nice boy Tim Tebow is. So much for football.

The approach of the cricket season in England promises warm summer afternoons (no, really), the smell of homeysuckle and the buzzing of bees, and one pint enjoyed after another over the course of the day. It means a rolling-up of shirt sleeves. It means lazy relaxation in the knowledge that the evening in the garden after the close of play will be blue-skyed and possibly redolent of gin and tonics. Cricket itself has not much to do with these things, but the start of the season promises all these summer treats to fans.

Baseball is the same; Ken Burns tells us, as wonderfully schmaltzily as only he can, that “It follows the seasons, beginning each year with the fond expectancy of springtime and ending with the cold, hard facts of autumn.”

And so, while I wait for the Giants game to start, I can reflect back on the first game of Stacey’s softball season this week. She, under her nom de guerre of “The Puma” (no, really- long story) helped Where My Pitches At beat Red Scare 11-9, scoring one and batting in two.  She had played the last three games of 2011 injured, and not at her best. But she ran bases fast, caught well and hit everything she swung at. I was really proud of her; I’m looking forward to the rest of the year.

And that’s what Spring is all about, isn’t it?

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Back to the Bay

After visiting San Francisco for two days in 2009 I fell so overwhelmingly in love with the place it became my firm intention to save up all my pennies and buy the city. So far, not enough pennies yet, but I'll keep you updated.
Even in the rain which at last arrived this weekend, San Francisco is visually stunning:

Coit Tower was illuminated in honour of the San Francisco '49ers' championship game against the New York Giants.


The 1898 Ferry Building- of which more later .




California Street by
night and day .

If you’ve never visited San Francisco before you might- as I did before I went- have unrealistic expectations of what the city is like. For one thing it represents a hefty exception to the rule “California = sun + surf”. You get no surf for the same reason that the city has been one of the world’s busiest seaports for 150 years: San Francisco Bay not so much a bay as a well sheltered cove with an area of up to 1600 square miles (depending on how you measure it). No waves is bad for surfing, apparently. And, being situated on the end of its peninsula, the western edge of San Francisco is about 9 miles further west- i.e. further out to sea- than the coast of Oakland, on the eastern edge of the Bay. Shoved out to sea as it is, San Francisco’s weather is often foggy and damp and considerably more changeable than the Central Coast:

Saturday, 9am
Saturday, 10.45 am

Sunday, 12.00

When we came in 2009 we stayed with Stacey’s cousin on the western side of town. Nearby, there was a bakery which embodied two of the most fascinating things about the city. Firstly, the bakery was a Workers’ Cooperative. The city is the most politically active place I’ve been to. While popularly associated with liberal politics (the last time it gave a Republican presidential candidate more than 20% of the vote was 1988) it is often more diverse than that, which makes it an interesting place to spend time. When we were out on Saturday we ran into a pro-choice demo in the morning and a pro-life counter-demo in the afternoon. In between the two we saw living proof that while the First Amendment might guarantee your right to free speech, it does absolutely nothing to protect you from looking like a complete arse once you’ve opened your mouth.
While every president has their naysayers, and while in these times President Obama would have no trouble finding people with fair reason to disagree with him, you have to pity the two jackasses on a street corner in North Beach who felt that singing the national anthem (the fourth verse, no less!) lent validity to the point they had tried to make by photoshopping Adolf Hitler’s moustache onto Obama’s portrait. While this blog remains officially apolitical, I don’t feel I’m going too far out on a limb by agreeing with the shocked man in the expensive coat who looked somewhat ruffled, and wandered away muttering “Shameful, shameful!”. Pending, of course, the opening of the Obama administration’s first extermination camps in conquered Canadian territory. Shameful it might be- but it’s interesting that they were there at all. Life’s rich tapestry, and all that.
The second thing about the bakery (I digressed…) was that it took its food really damn seriously and produced some of the most remarkable things I’ve ever had with a cup of coffee. One that sticks in the memory was a pecan danish with maple and rosemary syrup. And this applies, more broadly, to the city at large. Just as I’ve never been anywhere so politically aware, I’ve never been anywhere with a higher density of foodies per head of population. Hipsters too, but that’s another song.
DSCF1442 The old Ferry Building was close to our base of operations and is totally devoted to artisan food producers. Pictured left is an Italian charcuterie, turning out excellent salami and prosciutto, a traditional butcher selling dry aged beef and quarter-pound hot dogs made of it; the Cowgirl Creamery, whose raclette smells cheesier than any cheese ever did, a small ice-cream and sorbet place knocking out truly chewy gelato and offering cut rates to 49ers fans in team colours before Sunday’s big game, a French patisserie, a Californian olive oil shop, an organic vegetable market, a chocolatier, an artisanal baker, a wild mushroom shop and a lady in a big hat selling posh doughnuts (I can recommend the chocolate and almond cream ones.) There were cookware shops, a large sandwich deli and a juice bar, as well as a noodle stand. Outside, there was a farmers’ market. This, in a building 200 yards long. San Francisco is foodie heaven.
DSCF1458Which might go some way towards explaining why Stace and I were so bowled over by  the meal we ate at Campanula on Saturday. The area is well-known for its multitudinous Italian restaurants but there are notable exceptions: the Stinking Rose, whose menu (pictured right) features garlic in every dish.  Campanula features unpretentious modern cuisine. The place is a joy; the atmosphere well-adjusted, the decor unobtrusive and tasteful and the service friendly and professional. The highlights included the lamb meatballs, lightly dressed in a tomato, olive and caper sauce; the wild boar sliders, served on tiny brioche rolls whose cute appearance belied just how boldly flavoured and skillfully prepared they were; the sea bass on a bed of clams and mussels (I can be sure to hate any shellfish I eat four times out of five- these were literally perfect) and the simple, original cocktails. That was just the edited highlights; I don’t want to be a bore. It was quite simply nothing more or less than the  best meal we’ve ever paid for.
While that meal was extraordinary, it really underlines just how earnest a business food is in San Francisco that even towards the lower end of the scale, food is taken seriously. A bar on the waterfront does a bit of food; its specialities are barbecue brisket and hot wings. They don’t muck about with napkins there- they have rolls of kitchen paper on every table. Rained in on Sunday evening we ordered the Serpent’s Kiss from Pizza Orgasmica. It’s a pizzeria with its own microbrewery. Next time we come to San Francisco, which might be damp but is never dull, we’ll be torn between what to try out for the first time and what we want to revisit. It’s a dilemma, but the good kind.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

American Football

Yes, there has been a break in transmission; no, there is no explanation for it apart from the fact my feet have barely touched the ground since October. I promise, I'll write about Thanksgiving this November; it's a wonderful thing. But January is not the time to discuss it.

So, the Californian winter is in full whatever. Swing is the wrong word, and so, most decidedly, is Flow. There has been barely a drop of rain since I last wrote to you. This is unusual; if California has seasons, then it has a wet season and a dry season.So far, the wet season is decidedly conspicuous by its absence. In a region of vineyards and fruit orchards, where cattle are calving and pastures are dry, this has caused more than one rancher to look skyward and frown at what is essentially a clear blue sky.This is due to change imminently; a cloud-bank the width of the entire state is approaching the coast between Monterrey and San Francisco, according to bringing some sorely needed moisture.

The winter tides have been spectacular to behold. As the waves approach the shore, the offshore wind peels the crests from the tops of the waves and flings them back out to sea in white arcs. Over the coarse of a day, the sea spray can cut down visibility quite drastically.

 Looking through 12-foot waves never gets boring. This paddle-surfer took 10 minutes to get through the breakers.

On days like this, the waves take out their anger by smashing over the breakwater at Morro Bay. Standing in the wrong place is unwise.

Now, after eight months in the US it wasn't just the frosty mornings, rain and short days I was missing. It's been a good while since I've been to a football match. Now, when I say football, I'm not talking about the American game for men with funny shaped balls. I frankly like watching baseball and basketball but I still have to get used to American football. The exciting bits are exciting, there is obvious skill involved, but the padding's weird compared to, say, Rugby League or Aussie Rules, and I get frustrated by the fact that players are only expected to do one thing well- there are 53 players in an NFL squad, but only 11 on the field, and they swap the entire team in and out depending on whether they're attacking or defending. I dare say I'll get to see a game one day, and I might even enjoy it. But not yet.

Bill Bryson, a writer who left the US for the UK as a young man, compared the baseball he had grown up with and adored, to the football he was surrounded with in Britain, and concluded that it was simply a matter of what you grew up with. It isn't that one game is inherently better than any other, it's just that sports fans tend to grow up with their sport, and it's like growing up with a language. I grew up watching football. 

Actually, not just watching it; I watched it less often than I listened to it on the radio: Metro FM used to  broadcast every Newcastle game live when I was a kid.  I grew used to the calm, authoritative voice of Charles Harrison describing the exploits of Cole, Beardsley and Srnicek, and took for ever to get used to younger, more excitable commentators when Harrison retired. Didn't they realise they didn't have to make it sound more exciting? That to us, listening at home, on a Saturday afternoon or a Wednesday night, with our posters on our walls taken from the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, the match was already the most exciting thing happening anywhere in the world?

While I don't remember much about the first football match I went to, I do remember ridiculously irrelevant details. I remember it was against Luton Town in 1992. The internet tells me it was on September 2nd. I knew we won 2-0, and the internet confirms those goals were scored by Lee Clark and David Kelly. Off the top of my head I can tell you that Dad and I sat in the Milburn Stand, ate haggis and chips from the chip shop on Clavering Road in Swalwell before the game and we parked the car in Wellington Street. It was what we- my sister and I- grew up with.

And suddenly, it hasn't been there any more. Traditionally, but not always, teams play at 3pm on Saturday. That's 7am on a Saturday for all of us on Pacific Time. That means I usually catch the live text commentary on the BBC, as well as updates on Twitter, but usually just the second half. Due to rights restrictions I rarely hear radio commentary or see TV highlights. So Stace decided to do something about it.

We sat on a cold evening in Cambria on aluminium bleachers, cheering on the Coast Union Broncos- Stacey's old High School. OK, so Coast Union vs Taft isn't quite Newcastle vs Sunderland, but never mind. The Broncos, in white, worked hard in midfield during the first half while Taft soaked all the pressure up. There was a cynical and vicious central midfielder playing for the blues; I expect he has a bright future in the game; if not, the ballet will take anyone who can get their feet up that high. At half time, Coast took off their most effective, most creative players- a number 8 who had great agility and a number 11 whose strength, power and skill made him quite brilliant. 

All right, it was a cold, misty night in Cambria with no prospect of a pint in the Newcastle Arms before the match. But, the game had its talking points, the lads all played well and it was bloody entertaining. As the Germans say, the ball is still round: football is football wherever you go. As if to prove the point, the referee was just as inconsistently awful as any in the English Premier League; if you go home talking about the dickhead with the whistle, you know you've been to the match.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Follow Up: Halloween: What Not To Do

Found a couple of articles which fit in with one of the themes of the last item, courtesy of

It's all self-explanatory. And we all know, if there are people selling them, there are people buying them.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Of Squash and Scarecrows


Durham: SpookySome places are inherently spooky. Much of upland Britain is. From the abandoned Roman forts of Northumberland and Cumbria where, once upon a time, young men from places now called Italy, Iraq and Turkey must have wondered why the hell they joined, as they stood sandal-clad, peering into the freezing mist and asking themselves whether or not the Celts were going to try to hack them to death today, to the Lancashire dales where stories of witch trials are repeated to this day. Lots of the Scottish highlands have eeriness built into the scenery, where tales of 17th-century clan massacres and 18th-century battles are blended with a landscape built of sheer-walled glens and thin soil to create an atmosphere which suggests the very hills are watching.

Germany: SpookyCoastal California just isn’t like that. It has many distinctive qualities, and while small-town eccentricity certainly is a phenomenon of the Central Coast, spookiness isn’t. California’s just not a very spooky place. It isn’t New England or Transylvania, whose genuine history has been forged into mythology by gothic writers. It has no Bram Stoker to populate the historic buildings with undead aristocrats, nor have the old Missions been commandeered by an H. P. Lovecraft to house ancient and bloodthirsty deities, and so our imaginations do not raise the hairs on the back of our necks when we think about Californian scenes. Joss Wheedon, of course, put vampires for Buffy to slay in Sunnydale, which was a fictional Californian beach town- but that was the very point. It was supposed to be unusual place for a portal into hell, so they could give a more distinctive flavour to what would otherwise have just been a nice little coming-of-age series for 90s teens. Buffy was like Dawson’s Creek with a side order of demons, rather than Sleepy Hollow with Added Adolescent Angst. California’s just not very spooky.

California: Not Spooky.For a start, it’s still in the eighties in San Luis Obispo. Although the nights are cutting in, there are avocados ripening on the trees. There are Cayucos oranges in the shops fresh off the trees. In Newcastle at the moment it’s in the forties. California’s also not a desolate place, like northern Britain, or 18th-Century upstate New York. It’s rolling golden hills, not misty, deserted glens. It’s cattle country and vineyards. It’s hard to be freaked out by a landscape which contains the ingredients of a future vintage Zinfandel and filets mignons dished up at $40 a plate.

So Californians don’t have nature on their side when it comes to creating a Halloween atmosphere, but, as the end of October comes round, it certainly does not mean they’re not going to try. Certainly in Cambria, where they’ll have a community festivity at the drop of a hat (and they’ll drop the hat themselves), they got into the spirit early. The Cambria Scarecrow and Harvest Festival has been in full swing since the beginning of the month. The festival is in aid of the Cambria Historical Society. The community throws themselves into it; over 200 scarecrows infested Cambria this October, and they’re all online at the above site. From Captain Jack Sparrow to the Headless Horseman there is a wide range of ideas, all the work of locals and many produced by kids. Personally, I don’t think you need to invoke a Johnny Depp film to make a scarecrow scary. This pair on the right look as if they’d pry themselves free of their stakes and strangle you on a whim.


DSCF9446Scarecrows mercifully aside, we come to Californians’ individual efforts to increase the amplitude with which one’s spine tingles, and the frequency with which one receives the willies. Of course, there are worse places to start than with an inflatable undead pirate ship, as I’m sure you will agree, but I know you will be just as shocked as I was to learn that, given the excuse, some people go totally over the top. One lady in Cambria has decorated her house with inflatable ghosts, a skeletal pirate climbing a 30ft mast, thirty or forty Styrofoam tombstones, three fog machines, dry ice, a custom made wrought iron fence to which her husband has specially welded skulls on every fifth spike, and a mural on her garage door (this year, she says, it’s going to be a mad scientist’s laboratory). She has to start decorating in mid-September to be done in time for October 31st, and last year she kept a tally of trick-or-treaters which topped out at 843 on the night. Her neighbour across the road is barely more restrained:


Need I draw the reader’s attention to the menacing inflatable cat twice the height of the SUV in the driveway? I imagine it’s a rare 8-year old Cambrian who isn’t experiencing symptoms of PTSD by the end of the first week in November.


DSCF8345DSCF8352San Luis Obispo, being a university town, has its own take on the season. Its economy caters to a large population of young adults with a relatively high percentage of disposable income, and, shall we say, their own special agenda. Therefore we get female costumes like Pocahottie and Miss Krueger on the left. I particularly like this one because I felt that the one flaw in the Nightmare On Elm Street films was that Freddy just didn’t look like he was going to put out, and that’s what I look for in an undead fictional serial killer.

DSCF8351DSCF8343Gentleman’s costumes are equally subtle and tend either towards the unabashedly dorky (Darth Vader, Harry Potter) or humour of the “That’s what she said!!!” variety. On the right we have a One Night Stand (it’s funny ‘cos he’s a Night Stand! He’s a One Night Stand!) and also a gynaecologist's coat.  How do we know it’s a gynaecologist’s coat, rather than the lab coat of, say, a cardiologist or dental technician? Because it’s got “Howie Feltersnatch M.D” printed on it! HONK! HONK! Ah, Student Humour. Like Adult Humour before it’s fully mature.

DSCF9178So what are we doing to raise the Californian Spookiness Quotient? We went to the Giant Pumpkin Shop, of course. For us, that meant Francisco’s Fruits in Fillmore, CA. There, pumpkins and squashes of all sizes, colours, shapes and descriptions may be found. Stacey had been there two years ago and filled the car with what can only be described as Ridiculously Bloody Huge Pumpkins. The biggest one when we went this weekend (we left it late) was a relative tiddler, weighing in at a comparatively svelte 189lbs.


We went for form and finesse rather than size. Stacey described the procedure of pumpkin shopping to me. Firstly,you look round the shop- pictured below is not Francisco’s, but another patch in Fillmore where we stopped before moving on. It gives you some idea of what we’re talking about:









It's the Great Pumpkin, Stacey Potts!

Eventually, you find the perfect pumpkin. She tells me that you get a feeling all over; in fact it’s more than a feeling in some ways- more like a whole-body event- which imparts to you the certain knowledge that there is no way on Earth you can live without this very pumpkin. Stacey, you see, is an ardent and evangelical cucurbitaphile. I didn’t feel quite this way myself, but once or twice Stacey was overcome by an almost epiphanic demeanour (see right).



DSCF9186Pumpkins and squashes and gourds; oh my! We saw striped ones and knobbly ones, bendy ones, fat ones and tall ones, in the universal colours of autumn- orange, green and gold. Stacey eventually went for one of the more moderately sized (57lb) pumpkins which had fine emerald-green veins streaking down from the stem, and picked up a similar 62-pounder for her mother. I went for a small pumpkin of a variety which has knobbly little bumps running down it. There are a lot of stencils around which I might make use of. I intend to carve into it an expression which suggests it wants to tear your face off. For the kiddies, you know.

P.S. : I had intended this to be the end of the post, but in doing research for the last paragraph I came across two things. Firstly, a lot of really, really lame pumpkin stencils. Funny faces whose use would be an insult to the squash you’re carving. Then, there was this:

I shall leave you with a quotation from the home page:

“At what point did the carving of pumpkins turn into a "cute" event? When did boys stop carving pumpkins and moms start? Where did we lose touch with one of the years coolest events?

Today we will seize back this ritual. Today is the day we throw away those safe, cute carving tools. Today we will buy a big, ugly, pumpkin so large one man cannot lift or move it. Today. We will carve that sumbitch into something ugly and plop it on the front porch. October 31st we will light it brightly enough to give visiting children suntans.
Pumpkin carving is reborn!”

Monday, 19 September 2011

Festival Season

DSCF8304Every time I write a post I look for signs of the seasons. This week, I have at times been in the dog-house because the signs of the seasons have been smeared up the walls. Ketchup-making, you see is dangerous work. You blend your tomatoes up with sugar, vinegar and spices and then boil the living daylights out of it to rid it of water, intensify the flavours and concentrate the preservatives- that is to say, the sugar and vinegar. Imagine for a moment, if you will, a bubble bursting in a gallon of ketchup which is boiling at around 230ºF. If the mental image does not resemble some of the more dramatic scenes in, say, Platoon, you’re imagining it wrong. Meanwhile Stacey, although maintaining the angelic demeanour and grace for which she is well-known, has nevertheless made it clear to me that next time I make ketchup I had better be more careful otherwise it won’t just be the ketchup which is smeared up the walls.

DSCF8315But it’s that time of year, frankly. This week’s activities have repeatedly filled the air with the eye-watering, nostril-scorching scent of boiling vinegar. As the result of a happy shopping accident, Thea ended up with enough packet mix to pickle enough cucumbers to stuff a yak. She therefore took one packet to use and passed the rest- enough to make a stone (that’s 14lb for US readers) of pickles- on to me. Well, frankly, I was brought up to believe that there’s only one thing to do when you have enough pickle for 14lbs of cucumbers, and that is to refuse to be intimidated by the scale of the project. The people at Avila Valley Barn were kind enough to sort us out with these pleasingly green specimens at bulk rates. They were washed, trimmed, cut into spears, packed, pickled, preserved and photographed looking something like an extraterrestrial barbershop quartet (left).

The beginning of Autumn is upon us; so testify the jars of ketchup and dill pickles, beetroot, DSCF8167nasturtium capers and pickled eggs in the kitchen. There will also be sandwich pickles and even more beetroot to follow if I have my way. Autumn is festival season on the coast. After Labor Day, once the tourists have gone home, the various communities start putting on their own small-scale festivals, which provide an insight into small-town American life which teeters on the cusp of being Too Much Information.

For instance, there was Pinedorado in Cambria. It’s called Pinedorado because they have pine trees there. It’s exactly that subtle. But I tell you what: Main Street, Cambria was packed with viewers on both sides for the 1.3 mile route of the parade, and it wasn’t hard to see why. As street theatre goes, it was second to none. I am reliably informed by Pinedorado veterans that it’s advisable to face hostilities fortified with more than one early-morning Bloody Mary to take the edge off the weirdness. In all fairness, the parade opened this year with the band of the 3rd Marine Air Wing (right) who really can play. They were followed by the Grand Marshall of the parade, Cambria resident Red Holloway- a saxophonist who, in his time, has played with Lionel Hampton, Billie Holliday, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, B B King, George Benson, Dexter Gordon, DSCF8184Sonny Rollins, Aretha Franklin and Lester Young, among others. He wasn’t playing as much as presiding, in line with this year’s motto “Cambria is music to our ears.”

And there then follow the usual elements of local parades- police and firefighters, local charities and the marching bands of local schools. I found them quite impressive; as a former dedicated Band Geek at school, I dread to think what would have occurred if they’d tried to get us to march as well as play. On the other hand, sitting down allowed us to cultivate a more sophisticated, big-band sort of feel, especially as we played a good few Glen Miller numbers and wore waistcoats and bow ties, rather than the frankly panic-inducing uniforms worn by the marching band kids (left), which made them look like refugees from the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. One can only assume that it’s good, character-building stuff.


DSCF8177DSCF8187As I say, this was all to be expected and, in all honesty, applauded; at which point the parade took an abrupt detour through the Twilight Zone. There was the truly unique performance of the  Friends of Cambria Library who gave an example of counter-marching while pushing book trolleys, which will not be easily forgotten.  Followed by local representatives of the Shriners, appearing as clowns on very small motorbikes. At ten in the morning, nursing a hangover, it was all a little difficult to grasp, but it was good clean fun and nobody got hurt. Everyone was watching with the same glazed expression of mild amusement and having a good chuckle at the people who’d been good enough sports to put the thing on.


Contrast this with the Morro Bay Avocado and Margarita Festival, which was held this past weekend. Far be it from me to criticise, but I would question the competence of the event’s organisers to arrange festivities within the confines of an establishment dedicated to the production of beer, ale, lager and stout. To get in, you had to join one of three lines to buy event tickets, and then join a fourth which cut across the other three in order to get in. The implication on the outside was that you needed to pay for what you wanted in advance by buying tickets which you would then hand over to traders inside as and when you wanted to buy things. In fact, very few traders inside could accept tickets, and if, like us, you had converted all your dollars to tickets, there was no way of laying hands on cash once inside. It was billed as the Avocado and Margarita festival, but the avocado farmers inside couldn’t accept tickets, much to their apparent annoyance, and the margaritas didn’t deserve billing. There was a single margarita stand. Hardly festive.


DSCF6560 The purpose of the thing was to promote local avocado growers, and I think there are worse causes to champion. It’s superb to have good avocados which haven’t been shipped halfway round the world at vast economic and environmental cost. There was an awful lot of information about the avocado and the avocado farming industry. For instance, did you know that at there are databases such as Avocado People (“Who’s who in the avocado world”) and selected articles from Subtropical Fruit News? Me neither. Either way, the whole thing smacked of trying too hard to do something which would be worthwhile doing properly. There wasn’t enough avocado. There wasn’t enough margarita. I didn’t need a marble pestle-and-mortar or an NFL t-shirt, and I failed to make the connection between those stalls and the avocado-and-margarita scene. There’s no stopping me eating avocados, I dare say, but I’ll not be queuing up to get into the “festival” next year.


At time of writing, I am looking forward to another festival in the epicentre of Central Coast quirkiness, Cambria. Coming up fast is the Cambria Scarecrow and Harvest Festival. This, I’m sure you will appreciate, is going to be charming, funny, and more than a little weird. For you, I will endure motorcycling clowns and scarecrows to boot. I’ll make sure the photos get uploaded.