Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Why Rhode Island?

I'm often asked why I chose Rhode Island to make my home. For me the answer is simple, but to those that live here and have never traveled far from these sandy shores and rocky hills it must be unfathomable to move here from what they perceive as "paradise", California.
Too many times I'm caught describing Rhode Island as the California that existed long ago, but not that long ago that I don't remember how magical it used to be.  The valley I was born in was nicknamed, "The Valley of Heart's Delight". It was famous for it's orchards of Cherries, Apricots and Italian Plums. There were canning factories for the various fruits and vegetables that were grown there and shipped around the world. I remember going up in the hills in the Springtime and seeing nothing but a sea of pink and white blossoms coating the valley floor, like a fantasy land of pastel snow mixed with the fields of yellow mustard greens.
Santa Clara Valley with Spring Blossoms

The air was perfumed with those blossoms fresh with the dew speckled on them in the morning and drying with the sea breeze that would drift over from the nearby Santa Cruz mountains. My Mother would cart my Sister and I into her blue 1962 Chevy Nova and we'd sit in the front seat without seat belts, wondering what kind of candy we'd be able to pick out at the Saratoga Five and Dime store after we'd finished getting our groceries at the little Buy 'n Save market in town. The two butchers in the market were always laughing with their customers and one such morning I remember my Mother falling for their sign in the case next to the ground chuck that had scrawled on it, "For Sale - 1929 Henway - Mint Condition. Ask for Price". When she inquired to one of them, "What's the price for the 1929 Henway?" the butcher replied with a gleaming smile , "For you? About .39 cents a pound!" I still remember my Mother laughing at having been set-up by those two happy men. Neighbors would stop and say hello or wave from their cars as we continued on our errands.  We'd run into our friends as they tagged along with their mothers and promising to meet in the orchards near the house so that we could play hide 'n seek, climbing within their leafy branches. The mother hen and her two chicks.
Fast forward almost 20 years and the mere hint of a booming computer industry starting to arise and wake up the world. Who knew? I remember everyone crowded around a new handheld calculator, as if that was the most ingenious thing invented next to the electric light. And soon, one by one the orchards began to disappear and another canning plant moved or closed. When you drove into those hills in the Spring to see the blossoms all you saw were the burgeoning rooftops of semi-conductor facilities and strip malls in what is now known as Silicon Valley. Neighbors didn't have time for one another. Their lives became busier. People moved because the little home they bought for next to nothing in the early '50's was now worth close to a million. No one knew who their neighbors were and mega "McMansions" sprung up overnight on postage stamp-sized lots. "I've had enough!" was the motto for those of us who missed those blossoms and sweet perfumes that they created.
My ancestors on my Mother's side settled in New England back in the 1600's. The stories from my Mother and Father of Aunt Doris and Uncle Bud on "The Farm" in Gorham, Maine were idyllic to me. Coming out here as a boy and picking blueberries for my Aunt's famous pie to go with our "lobstah suppah" in the Summer and ice skating on the river at night with our flares poked into the ice in Winter. Riding in the sleigh with Uncle Bud to go cut our Christmas tree down in the back woods was something that I longed for, hoping that a life such as that might still exist somewhere, anywhere. New England always felt like home. The accents, the food and most importantly the people. Dry. Down to earth. And if they didn't like you, you knew it. No questions about that, Ayuh.
Nine years now living in my adopted state without a regret. I have relived some of those childhood memories in the food that I've made and the generous and warm people I've met. I believe we have the best of all worlds here in Rhode Island. Near to beautiful beaches and plentiful seafood. Just enough snow (okay, maybe too much at times) to make a snowman and bring out your warmest sweaters. But the season that can't be beat anywhere else in the world, hands down, is Fall. The turning of the leaves. That first smell from your neighbors chimney scenting the air on a crisp evening while walking my dog Bear.
My Boy Bear

The farms loaded with their harvests and festivals with corn mazes filled with laughing, face-painted children on a sugar high of popcorn balls, candy corn and caramel apples. The pumpkins, chrysanthemums and scarecrows decorating the yards getting ready for Halloween and that most sacred of New England holidays, Thanksgiving. Memories recalled and memories created one by one.
Most importantly it is the people I meet in the classes I teach that have become friends and adopted family that keep me here. I have found that world that California threw away. And, almost every class that I teach, I mention how important it is to patronize our farmers, eat local produce in season and dine at our incredible restaurants, foregoing the cookie cutter, pre-made "glop" that is served up in corporate-driven food chains.
One of the many farms that still exist in Rhode Island

Today I went strawberry and pea picking at a local farm in Johnston and discovered that I'm not cut out for "hard", field labor and am much better suited to my own gentle garden and cooktop. But tomorrow I'll post an inspiring recipe to celebrate the first days of Summer that I hope you'll enjoy.
As good 'ole Dorothy said as she clicked her heels three times,  "There's no place like home", and for me, my home is Rhode Island.

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