My niece, from New York City, and her best friend, visited Santa Cruz, this summer. They had been dreaming about this trip since junior high. Having just graduated high school and before heading off to college, their trip became a reality early July. My niece has visited many times with her family, my brother is her father. The summer she turned 15, she came by herself and worked at Charlie Hong Kong. Her first job. Inspired by the organic farmers markets, the food prepared from the bounty and the meals served at Charlie Hong Kong, on her return to NYC, she declared, I am now a Vegan. Her mothers calls me in desperation, please make her stop. Of course I’m powerless and didn’t make her start. Her mother, not a cook herself, though she loves food and eating, quickly comes around and supports her whole heartedly. My niece remains a dedicated Vegan. She and I share our passion for healthy food and cooking. She loves the life style of Santa Cruz. She and her friend, also a Vegan, were in awe by the array of food options here for Vegans.
Like me, she can spend hours shopping at our glorious organic farmer’s markets. She and her friend explored the Wednesday downtown market for over 3 hours before I could pick them up. Concerned I would find them bored, I was greeted with enthusiasm. They were so excited by all the free samples generously given. Apparently New York markets don’t hand out samples. Not yet done shopping, they begged for more time. Most nights of their 2 week visit, we prepared a special meal, from local organic fruits and veggies. My niece devoured my vegetarian cookbooks and would go on-line for recipes. I enjoy cooking, and though I eat at our restaurant daily, for the past 13 years, I always cook dinner at home and usually breakfast. The girls hungrily took advantage of the opportunity to be taught basic cooking skills; how to properly use a knife, different terms for ways to cut veggies,the importance of using all you senses when cooking. To teach a subject so dear to my heart was thrilling for me. I’ve discovered most young people do not know how to cook and in most homes no one actually cooks anymore. Busy schedules, stressed lives have most folks picking up pre-made food or eating out. The commitment of Charlie Hong Kong, is to offer affordable, healthy, organic, as possible meals, to ensure that people have healthy options. Feeding people is my passion.
I took the girls to the UCSC farm, one of my favorite places to take visitors. We explored the entire farm. I would point and ask what is this? Not totally surprising, NYC girls were unable to recognize the tops of onions and carrots, the leaves of a kiwi tree. We had so much fun identifying and interacting with all the plants just coming awake in the soil. We ran into Liz Milazzo the head of the Apprenticeship program at the CSA barn. She gave us 2 stalks of rhubarb and invited the girls to return next week to participate in harvesting for their farm stand. With the beyond amazing organic strawberries from Windmill Farms, the girls came up with an spectacular Vegan strawberry rhubarb crisp. Showing them how to use pot holders to remove the hot pan from the oven; observing them hovering over the steam rising from the pan; as they watch and wait for it to cool down, to taste their creation, is one of the sweetest moments of their visit. I suggest we eat it right away, since we hadn’t had lunch. A moment of hesitation, then realizing an adult offered them desert for lunch; it must be OK. I add, let’s top it with Vegan coconut ice cream. After two servings each, were stare at each other with grins from ear to ear! The girls become crisp making fools and I begin to refer to them, as the Crisp Goddess.
The next week I drive them to the UCSC Farm. We’re amazed how much everything has grown in just a week. This is prime growing time here . The long rows of plantings are lush and vibrantly green. The ocean is present off in the distance, the fog bank already burned off. Confidently the girls identify onions, carrots, leeks, chard, as we walk towards the designated meeting spot by the crating shed. We’re greeted by a smiling second year apprentice in jeans, flannel with dirt under her fingernails. She’s from the unique program, that includes academic and hands-on organic farming technique right here at our own UCSC. (http://casfs.ucsc.edu/apprentice-training) The girls are lead down a row of strawberries. I walk back through the rows watching the apprentice instruct the girls, as they bend over to inspect a plant. I think how exhausted they’ll be when I see them again and how every young person should work in the fields, bending, picking, weeding, to fully understand what goes into food that shows up on their plate. Not only will they expand the variety of foods they eat, they’ll become advocates for protecting our farms and the environment. Later when I see them, there’s no exhaustion, only excitement bubbling over from their experience in the field. The strawberries were easy; it’s the chard that was hard. They proceed to demonstrate how to twist and pull a leaf. Avoiding the bugs which seemed to be on every other leaf required concentration. They slap hands in a high five and commit to work on an organic farm, WWOOF.
So what will it take to protect our organic small farms so precious even though numerous in this area? So many people are disconnected from their food source. Food appears so abundantly on the shelves in grocery store and there seems to be an endless supply of food at the drive-up window. In my business, I’m directly connected to the farm source that supplies our products, whether organic chard, broccoli, green onions, Jasmine rice, peanuts, coconut milk. A flood, a drought, disease effects prices and availability. I’m well aware of the vulnerability present to what we consume. There are a lot of us to feed. In Santa Cruz County, we live in a garden of Eden. Consumers show up and demand product vaguely aware of the farmer in the field or the challenges of nature. This is a big topic, a huge topic. I encourage everyone to consider, like the wide eyed wonder of my niece and her friend, with your next meal, your next bite, with gratitude to the soil, the farmer, the natural world, that provides, sustains and feed us.