40 years ago I was a freshman at Mills College in the Bay Area. It was a tumultuous time- the hugely unpopular Vietnam War was being vociferously protested by students across the nation, and the whole social order was being shaken. UC Berkeley, just a short bus ride from my campus, was an epicenter for the protests, and then Governor Ronald Reagan sent the California National Guard to the campus on several occasions to quash protests.
I went to my share of protest here and there (usually on the calmer Mills and Stanford campuses), after all, I’ve always been a seeker of truth, justice and new experiences (seriously). In the spring of 1970, a new sort of demonstration was afoot-Earth Day. At my campus, like most others, students were walking around with copies of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which documented the detrimental effects of pesticides on the earth’s ecosystem (btw- that was a word that wasn’t even on our radar then). The year before, there had been a massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, and in the East, the Cuyahoga River had spontaneously caught fire from oil slick and debris on its surface. Earth Day, grew out of witnessing those and similar experiences. I, of course, had to check it out.
The Bay Area was then, as now, a great place for a budding foodie. There was a health food store nearby that sold a whole grain bread I loved, a deli across the street from campus that sold Sonoma Jack cheese from the nearby wine country, and a little produce store- not a huge super market- where I could pick up fresh asparagus and such. The Bay Area was also ground zero for an emerging breed of chefs, most notably Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, who were introducing us to a new way of eating. They began working with local gardeners and farmers to produce organic and locally grown produce, then exotic items which we take completely for granted today. When I graduated from Mills, I lived at a communal house in Berkeley where some of my housemates (though not me- I preferred the kitchen even then) raised chickens and grew organic produce in our backyard. It was a short walk from my house to the legendary People’s Park, where organic vegetable gardens were springing up. Historians mark that as the as the beginning of the “greening” of the counter culture, which changed the way we eat. And while farmer’s markets have existed as long as farmers have sold their produce, I think it’s safe to say that the modern resurgence in local urban farmer’s markets is a direct byproduct of this movement.
I had no idea then I would end up cooking professionally, but 25 years later, after working in the restaurant, hotel and catering industry in New York, I returned to the Bay Area to attend culinary school- btw, I lived right next door to the house with the organic garden of those early years.
Now, I regularly shop, for both my personal consumption and for parties I cater, at any of several local farmer’s market, and indeed, locally grown and organic produce have become a big trend in the catering business. I use a whole array of products we couldn’t even imagine then- fresh herbs, mesclun greens, fingerling potatoes and heirloom tomatoes. I roast yellow and pink, as well as red beets, and I experiment with items like multi- colored Swiss chard, frizzy red mustard, and Tuscan black kale.
Now that’s something I consider worthy of celebration. So I’m sharing with you some pics I took last week at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market, and a recipe using some of that great local produce- Asparagus with Heirloom Cherry Tomatoes, Basil and Garlic- a simple, yet delicious addition to an early summer buffet.
Ah- and here are a couple more sites if you want to read more about the origins of Earth Day.
Asparagus with Heirloom Cherry Tomatoes, Basil and Garlic
2 pounds asparagus
@ 1/4- 1/3 C. extra virgin olive oil
1 pint mixed heirloom cherry and pear tomatoes (I halve some of the larger ones)
@ 6 basil leaves, torn or snipped with kitchen shears
2 3 cloves of garlic, minced
Freshly ground black pepper
Trim the tough ends of asparagus spears, toss them in half the olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, then roast in a 375 degree oven, until just tender @7-8 minutes. Remove from the oven and arrange on a platter.
Heat the remaining olive oil in a large sauté pan. When the oil is hot, add the cherry tomatoes and sauté quickly until a few tomatoes just begin to burst. Then throw in the garlic and basil, and slat and pepper, if desired. Pour immediately over the plated asparagus.
Enjoy! And please visit my other blog: pain perdu