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Melancholy, memories, and moving to Minnesota
I am no longer a Californian.
Such an odd sentence. After all, I am New Jersey born and raised, but I spent more time in California than any other state, longer even than my childhood. I became a Californian in a way that very few states allow: Embrace the place, and ye shall be accepted.
And now I’m gone. Gone to St. Paul, Minnesota, a city where I lived briefly in the early 2000s, just before Cali. I just bought a house here, a scary thing — it is my first house, if you can believe it. (Holly did the buying of the California place; I arrived a few months later.)
The slow process of moving in and settling in will come later. I will soon be fishing commercially in Alaska until mid-September, then will be doing one of my culinary hunts in Oklahoma, then I’ll be the camp chef at the Pineridge Grouse Camp here in Minnesota until early November.
“Here in Minnesota.” Again, it doesn’t ring quite right. Not yet. Maybe it will by the end of the year.
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Right now I am ruminating on my time in California. To be clear, I am not leaving the state because of its politics — and I will delete any comment that rags on the state politically. This is not the place for that.
I am leaving because to really start fresh, I need a change of scenery. Too many ghosts in California. I also want to give Holly, a native Californian, all the space she needs to heal at her own pace.
And if I am brutally honest, I could not afford to buy a house in California. That’s about as deep into that state’s politics as I’ll get.
I am going to miss “my” state. California is a dreamland in many ways. Something is ripe and lush and wonderful to eat, whether from a farm or nature, every week of the year. It is the Land of the Lotus Eaters, a place where, if you are attuned to it, fresh, seasonal and local just happens.
Even in winter. I once created a recipe for a Dungeness crab salad that evoked derisive laughter from basically the rest of the world because 1) Dungeness is a winter thing in the North Pacific, where everywhere else crab is a summer thing; 2) it’s a salad with pomegranate, persimmon and avocado — all wonderfully ripe in December. Sorry, rest of the world, I wrote then.
And now I am the rest of the world.
The diversity in people and climate and geography in California is unmatched. It is by far the most beautiful state in North America, and I’ve been all over Canada, the US and Mexico. Lots of other states have their own beauty, but California has it all: the highest mountain peaks to the hottest desert, temperate jungle, savannah, deep forest, big cities, everything. The foraging is unique, the fishing great, the duck hunting world class.
I could grow weird and unusual plants from Mexico without any special concern. I had spots for all the wild plums I wanted, all the pine nuts, mushrooms, elderberries, huckleberries. I could start fava beans in November and eat them in March. Oranges and lemons were free. So were olives.
I’ve hunted ducks all over North America and none are as fat and sweet as NorCal birds in December. Period. End of story. SoCal is home to two of the greatest fish in America, the white seabass and the yellowtail. Other places have a one-two punch about as good, but none better.
New York Chef David Chang once scorned California cuisine by calling it “figs on a plate.” Well, I happen to have had a fig tree in my yard, and yeah, David, if you had figs and other produce as good as we have, you’d do the same.
It’s going to take a while to ease out of this mindset. But despite what you might be thinking, I am eager for it. More than eager, really.
The reason is this: Just as Odysseus found with the Lotus Eaters, California can be a drug. With all that going on all the time, two things happen: I can get overwhelmed by the abundance, and I can get lazy. When everything is perfect and ripe and wonderful, just cook it simply and move on. I can’t tell you how many times I’d make fantastic preserves… and never get to them because some other alimentary bauble caught my attention.
That will not happen in Minnesota.
Minnesota has real, harsh winters. The world sleeps deeply here then. And in summer, my friends who live here, or in Canada or the Dakotas, all speak of a frenetic pace, a tsunami of FOMO with everything everywhere happening all at once. Daylight can last past 11 p.m. in some places. But each thing has its opposite, and November and December can be punishingly dark.
Nothing grows. Everything good comes from under the ice, the frozen woods, or your pantry. I’ll finally start relying on all the preserves I love to make. I’ll finally get to practice the preservation-based, New Nordic cooking I’ve been working on for years in California, only here it will be required, not just whimsy.
I’ll be returning to the plants of my youth. The flora of New Jersey isn’t terribly different from that of Minnesota, and reacquainting myself with those old friends will take time, as reacquainting yourself with old friends should. It has already started: I found some wild plums near where I’m staying, in Stillwater.
And speaking of old friends, one of the reasons I am returning to Minnesota is because I have some old friends here, and getting to know them more closely after nearly 20 years away will be good. I am hoping to meet new friends here, too, as I settle into St. Paul life.
Make no mistake: I’ll return to California as a visitor. I am not forsaking my old state. But I am excited to start a new life in a place I love, with new challenges and opportunities. My food will change, as will what I write about — at least a little.
But I know what I am. As I wrote a year ago, I am a restless soul.
The road always calls. At least now I have a home base.