Most of the produce I mentioned above is still available. I asked someone when the citrus went away and she said: “Oh, around the time the apricots come. May, I guess.” – March 18th, 2015
I took an Uber from the Oakland airport when I arrived since I’d been told that’s how the locals did it. I was a little unsettled – my editor had agreed to let me come out here, but as of yet, I still didn’t know what I was going to write about. As we made our way up MLK Boulevard–named for the famed civil rights leader–I looked out the window and noticed the mad variety of miraculous color streaming by my window. “Pardon me,” I said to my driver, a dapper gentleman in his mid 60s. “What are those – those flashes of yellow, and purple… and that absolutely spectacular vermillion?”
The fellow waited until we stopped at a light, then regarded me warily in the rearview mirror. “Those are flowers,” he said.
In a low, driver’s baritone he began to speculate as to what kind, but I was really too astonished to listen. Flowers! In March? That seemed very unlikely.
Arriving at my charming rented Berkeley bungalow I found I was oddly warm in my long underwear, Smartwool socks and Pendleton shirt and found myself changing into some lighter clothing. I heard some chickens clucking and was struck dumb when I looked out the window and saw them pecking through grass on the other side of a bamboo fence on the neighbor’s lawn. Grass? At this time of year? And those pink things with the petals – was I supposed to understand those were also flowers?
Now don’t get me wrong. This was not the first time I had ever seen flowers. But the flowers I knew tended to grow one by one – solitarily, if you will – instead of in social, bountiful bunches. Also, if March was in like a lion, out like a lamb, we were still in the lion phase, thank you very much! The flowers I knew about wouldn’t be out for weeks or even months.
My phone rang. My editor. My heart sank, because I knew he wanted to hear column ideas and so far, I had none.
I ignored it and went outside. Sun sparkled on Priuses. I walked down the block, where more of that miraculous sunlight came in dappled spots through the leaves of some kind of tree that I had never seen before or even dreamed existed because up until this moment in my life, there were only two things I had ever seen or heard of – bagels and snow.
Every one on the block was grilling vegetables. A woman with long gray braids approached me, carrying an earthenware bowl of asparagus. “This is delicious,” I crowed.
She started to tell me how they grew asparagus not very far from here. “Hang on,” I said, “Let me go get a pen.”
After my new friend and I had talked for a while, she asked gravely if I wanted to go to the place where she’d found this asparagus. Trying to hide my excitement, I said I would like that very much.
We walked in silence for a while. As we walked, I thought of the way the sunshine reflected off the asparagus’ olive-oil slick surface. I smiled and made a note to re-watch Under The Tuscan Sun. I finally had the courage to ask where we were headed. “We are going to Hopkins Street off San Pablo Avenue,” she said in reverent tones and I nodded, silently mouthing to myself those lovely, mysterious words, “San Pablo Avenue.”
I can hardly describe what I beheld upon my arrival. It was a very large space, with some of the items in rows, and but a large part of it, the part that interested me most, was the part where there were just big giant bins and trays and bushels filled with fresh fruits and vegetables. “This is absolutely amazing!” I said to my friend. She told me that we were in something called “a well-stocked produce department at a specialty grocery store,” and that California grew a large percentage of the world’s fruits and vegetables, much of it not far from here, in a place called the San Joaquin Valley.
I started to mouth these words then gasped. I was beginning to put two and two together. “Wait a minute,” I said, “does the San Joaquin Valley have anything to do with San Pablo Avenue?” She ignored this, but I was pretty sure I was on to something.
Back in my rented house, I was still struggling to come up with ideas. I heated some frozen peas and put them on a paper plate with a pad of margarine on top of them. I wrote “disgusting” on an index card and set it by the plate. Then I made some fresh peas (from the San Joaquin Valley/San Pablo Ave.) and put them in an earthenware bowl with some fresh creamery butter on top, and set in front of these another index card reading “Fresh/wonderful.” I stared at my creations, sensing I was at the edge of something really big that I didn’t for the life of me know how to crack wide open.
Just then, I noticed a bright stripe of sunshine on the wooden floor, and an instant later, my phone rang. My editor again. This time I answered breathlessly. “I know what I want to write about,” I said. “I want to write about how California is sunny. I mean it is way way sunnier than New York. Like way.”
“Ha!” he shouted. “I knew you’d come up with something! Funny story – at lunch, a colleague mentioned to me offhandedly that New York and the Bay Area were at totally different latitudes. So we were both figuring this out together. That’s how it works, Mark.”
I was just opening my mouth to respond when I realized I was looking at the strangest thing I’d ever seen in all my life. “Bob,” I said, almost not trusting my own voice, “You’re not going to believe this, but there’s a lemon tree outside my window.”
He let out a low whistle. “Well, our readers will definitely want to hear about that,” he said. “Okay. I have to close out a story about people who make cakes out of sugar, butter, eggs, flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Keep me posted.”
Later on some of my new neighbors came over and we grilled a lot of vegetables. I explained to them how our bagels were better because of our water and they explained to me how in a year they were all going to die in a massive drought. I said if that did indeed come to pass I would come and rescue their beautiful tomatoes, and they all seemed very grateful.
When they left I saw a few of them casting shy glances at me. “Do you think we can have some of those lemons?” one finally piped up. I must have looked a little apprehensive, because they laughed and said, “Oh, don’t worry, Mr. Bittman. Even if we take some, they’ll grow back.” I wanted to say this sounded a little far-fetched to me, but then again, who after the day I’d had, who was I to doubt a miracle?