SANTA CRUZ: A LOT TO GIVE THANKS FOR
Thanksgiving, I am told, is quite a big deal amongst our former colonial cousins. I don’t know about that. The only thing I normally give thanks for is that, because of certain minor 18th Century skirmishes in far away places, I have the blessed good fortune not to be called Josh or Brad.
That not withstanding, these same persons with their cosmetically enhanced smiles and boobies also tell me that Thanksgiving is all about family.
Now that, I can understand. I am big on families. Not just my own small family, but my extended family of friends who come under the category of “would take a bullet for” rather than those I would not put out with my own urine if they were on fire.
That being the case, I am fortunate to have a rather large family dotted all over the globe and a family that has grown larger still since I began the EAT MY GLOBE trip. I have, however, never encountered a family like the one I met in Santa Cruz. But, I am most extraordinarily glad that I did.
One of the first, if indeed not the very first e-mail I received when I announced my intention to quit work and head out on the road was from a fellow food blogger and internet forum regular, Tana Butler. I knew little or nothing about her except that her posts were often very funny, intensely personal and accompanied by photographs that made mine look like the holiday snapshots they were.
I rather liked what I read particularly because, like me, she seemed to piss off as many people with her posts as she attracted. Bearing in mind there are people on these food boards who will get in a car and do half a day’s drive to find reasons to be pissed off at someone they never have and probably never will meet.
The e-mail offered the opportunity to come and visit for the Thanksgiving holiday where, I was promised I would be able to eat enough food that I would give thanks not to be in a coma the next day. How could I refuse?
It is a short drive from San Francisco to Santa Cruz. But, I still managed to scratch my car within thirty seconds of leaving the airport car park which I put down to a strange car with the wheel on the wrong side rather than bald stupidity.
I still let out a series of expletives that were hardly fitting with the holiday season, but, switched on the radio and listened to a bit of Stykx and Kansas until my brain stopped working and the pain subsided as I pointed my “Ford Focus or equivalent” towards Highway 1.
It’s a pleasant drive, longer than the inland route, but less crowded on the holiday and more scenic.
Tana had suggested a couple of possible hotels. All of whom were going to gouge me for the pleasure of a room and a “free” bowl of multi-coloured cereal in a Styrofoam bowl every morning. But, that is just another aspect of the holiday, I guess and as I pulled up outside The Hampton Inn, it seemed a harmless enough spot to rest my head for a few days. Hell, I even managed to unpack all my clothes from Big Red and to iron a shirt or two for the first time in two months.
I had swapped mails with Tana for well over six months and I knew that I would like her when we finally met. I was wrong. When we finally met, I did not like her. I adored her. There are few people in this world with whom you make an immediate connection. Tana was one of those few.
Sharp witted, funny, vulnerable, open-hearted, generous, spirited, she was, in the nicest way possible, mad as a bag of ferrets. From the moment she spouted her first words to me in person “I hope you are feeling strong, we have a 25lb turkey to carry” I knew that the next three days would prove to be one of the highlights of the whole EAT MY GLOBE trip. Thanks to her and her family, nuclear and extended, it was.
Santa Cruz is patently a weird place. It supports my theory that the West of every country attracts all the oddballs, kooks, waifs & strays and people who don’t fit in anywhere else. If that is true of San Francisco, then Santa Cruz obviously attracts the people who don’t even fit in there. It is gloriously mad and filled with an abundant energy that can only come from a place where there are too many group hugs for an uptight London boy to be altogether comfortable with. If ever a town should smell of incense, then Santa Cruz is it. I rather liked it although, for a while, I did feel like Sir David Attenborough discovering a new tribe.
First up, however, a trip to The Santa Cruz Farmer’s Market. Here, I differ from Tana. As her licence plate and her estimable website (www.smallfarms.tyepad.com) shows, Tana loves farms. Me? I love the stuff they produce but sometimes, the people who produce the goods can be well, how can I put this politely? I can’t, they can be thick as a Ghurka’s foreskin and should certainly never be allowed to speak to normal folk in a retail way. Too often, they act like they are doing you the favour by letting you buy their product and not the other way around. They may be passionate, dedicated and hard working, but they can also be ornery, rude and lacking in social skills.
The Santa Cruz market was better than many and much better than the one I was to visit and loathe in Berkeley, and the people there obviously adored Tana. But, when she suggested that we head off to collect the holiday turkey, I was more than ready, more than willing and more than able.
It was a big old bugger too. 25lbs gets you a lot of bird and, apparently, we were going to have two of them at the dinner. As Tana reeled off the items she and other people at the dinner were going to prepare, it soon became clear that staying away from the multi coloured cereal in the hotel would be a good strategy. We lugged it to the car and headed back to Tana’s home on the a few short blocks drive away.
As we approached, Tana spoke up
“ I was worried about asking you to come to my house. It’s not that fancy”
I made an overstated gesture of examining myself in the mirror and turned to Tana saying “as far as I can tell, I have not suddenly turned into The Queen Mother”
And, that was it. From that moment, Tana made me feel like her home was my home and I spent much of the next three days simply hanging out there, cooking and talking.
That first evening, we cooked one of my favourite meals of the whole trip. It was nothing fancy. In fact it could not have been anything more simple. Roast Chicken and mashed potato. But, in the comfort of a family home with a new friend and her family, including Husband, Bob and Tana’s irrepressible grandson, Logan, few meals have tasted better.
Given that we had a lot to do the next day, I headed off to bed early and was pretty much asleep before my head hit the pillow.
I awoke early and began to do some writing until Bob arrived to collect me for the day’s festivities. Tana was already hard at work. The bird was cleaned and ready for the oven, eggs were ready to be devilled and Tana was up to her elbows in stuffing.
There is only one thing for a good Bengali man to do when hard work is required. I sat down at the living room table and opened a bottle of wine. To be fair, I did a little work. A bit of chopping here, a little slicing and stirring there but, mostly, I just ate and drank and watched Tana get more and more nervous about the end result of her roasting and basting.
She need not have worried. The golden bird that emerged sizzling from the oven did her credit. So to did the roasted giblets, which I saved from being deposited in the trash and shared with Bob over a glass of something red.
It was, by now time to head over to the Thanksgiving Dinner venue at the beautiful home of Tana’s chum, Laura. When we arrived laden down with our own contributions we were greeted by nearly thirty other people, all of whom had brought food and wine.
It was a uniquely Santa Cruz affair. The women, Goddesses one and all, were very much in charge and the assembled throng all seemed to be linked to one another through a labyrinthine series of marriages and relationships that I never quite got my head around.
It would be easy, being a stranger in such circumstances, to be intimidated and awkward. But, I can say for certain that I felt immediately welcome and rapidly accepted into this crazy, mixed up, oddball extended family. More so than I can ever recall happening before. I made up my mind, as I sucked on the bone of a turkey wing, that I would, if at all possible, head to Santa Cruz every year for Thanksgiving, whether they wanted me to or not.
It was a magical evening. Guitars appeared, songs were sung and so much food devoured that I had to raid my special stash of extra strong Zantac on my return to the hotel.
Amidst it all, was Tana. Taking photographs here (all the good ones on this post come from her hands) cajoling Logan to eat there and making sure that everyone was well fed and enjoying themselves. Very much a person in her element.
By the time we rolled out of there at past midnight, I knew that my dreams would be accompanied by flowing meat sweats. But, it was worth it.
The next day, I wanted to say thank you to Tana and her family for all their help and generosity. There are few better ways of expressing your appreciation for people who love food than by cooking for them. In this case, as I often do, I offered to prepare some Indian food.
None of us thought we would have the appetite to eat much after the excess of the night before. But, as Tana and I shopped and then prepared a simple meal of dahl, chicken and breads, our hunger popped its head up from the bunker and we were soon happily chatting over another home cooked meal.
And that was my time in Santa Cruz.
It had been one of those leap of faith occasions. We had not known each other before I announced my trip and it could have been an awkward disaster. It was far from that. I made a host of new friends who I hope I shall know for a long time. I made friends with a small boy called Logan the thought of whose smile still makes me beam a few months later
and I met an extraordinary woman called Tana Butler whose strengths and weaknesses, passions and prejudices, successes and failings are dealt with more honestly than anyone else I have met on the trip.
Truly a human being and that alone is worth giving thanks for.