April 28, 2018

Eberle Vineyard
Eberle Vineyard, Paso Robles, 2000 (oil on canvas)

When I did this oil I thought I had been commissioned to do so by someone I knew at a local Paso Robles winery. That person told me that the local group that puts together their annual Zinfandel Wine Festival was looking for an artist to create a poster for the event. And then I guess sometime during the festival the painting would then be auctioned off. I was excited. I picked a pretty spectacular view of vineyards off a back patio of Eberle and I thought it a nice touch that it was like the viewer was standing at the railing, drinking a lovely dark red Zin while eating crackers and cheese. (Oh yeah, this originally had large hunk of cheese on the plate and not the pear.) I finished it quickly and proudly took it to the person who had told me about the event and poster. It seems that she had forgotten to mention that they wanted it to be a certain size, and this one was too small. And she also forgot to tell me that they wanted something that was a bit more commercial. (I guess the previous year’s poster had somebody running half naked through the vineyards.) I was extremely disappointed and of course with my “bent” sense of humor my imagination took me to a kind of ridiculous place. I imagined some kind of strip poker game where I added a glass of Zinfandel flying off the balcony and a pair of white “bun huggers” and a pink thong flying through the air just off the balcony of the winery. So what did I do? I went home and painted out the big cheese hunk and changed it to a lovely green pear. I sure showed them! I wasn’t about to defile the beautiful view of beautiful grape plants with obnoxious humans. Wasn’t it obvious that someone was there with a glass of Zinfandel and snacks? Too subtle I guess. Whatever…

Thank God my cousin’s daughter was getting married about that time and my mom arranged to buy it from me to give as a gift. I had it framed and dropped it off at my mom’s and she decided that she wanted to keep it. So, I gave her another painting of the J Lohr vineyards (same east side Paso vineyards view) for her to give to my cousin’s daughter. Funny how that all works out. And now that my mother has passed away, I have this amazing view hanging in my house and I get to enjoy the Eberle vineyards with my lone glass of wine, cheese and crackers and fruit without imagining anyone’s underwear flying off in the distance.

And what this view got me thinking about, besides my mom, is the life force that green plants use to produce beautiful fruits. (I get that the plants produce fruit to continue their own “life force,” but I am still in awe of the beautiful colors and shapes of fruits.) I love to wander through apple, apricot, plum or peach orchards when the tree limbs are heavy with fruit. The smell is intoxicating and the idea that people can eat these bright balls of red, green, orange and yellow is very appealing. And the inside of ripe fruit is just as beautiful as the outside. Years ago I read a book about a family farm that raised old-fashioned peaches in the Central Valley of California, 20 miles south of Fresno. The book is called Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm, and David Mas Masumoto wrote it. Mr. Masumoto attended a literary event in Grass Valley when my son was young and my mom and I went to hear him speak about the book and his family’s love of a particular peach called the Sun Crest Peach. Read it if you want to share one California girl’s passion for some of the fruit the state produces.

Food nourishes us, but is also sensual and beautiful. I love to go to the produce section of a grocery store or a farmer’s market to see piles of dark purple onions, stacks of green leafy lettuce or a brown paper sack with handles filled to overflowing with bright oranges just ready to be taken home and eaten. My dad loved to shop for navel oranges and he always knew how to pick out the sweetest and juiciest bright orange oranges imaginable. He would say that the best ones couldn’t have skins that are too thick and bumpy or too smooth and thin. And the brighter the color, the tastier it will be. He was always right! I guess the thin-skinned variety (Valencia oranges) makes better juice and the navel oranges are the best for eating directly. Of course the best navel oranges can always be found when they are in season, which is January to April here in California. And speaking of pears…oh yeah, back to the painting. My dad also loved Comice pears. The pear in this painting is not a Comice variety, I don’t remember that particular pear right now. When ripe they are squat light yellow/green balls of juice, with an almost white flesh inside that tastes amazing with chunks of sharp cheddar cheese. The skin can have a bright red blush, but it is thick and tough to eat, so this one needs to be peeled. Comice pear trees used to be found all over Santa Clara. Not so much anymore. This is a fall/winter fruit and comes in season the end of summer.

People have forgotten that fruits used to be available only when they were in season—without hothouses or any tricks to ripen fruit that’s been picked green at other times of the year. And I watch out for fruit that has been grown and flown in from some far away place, instead of coming from our own California soil and sun in it’s own time.

It seems that many people in my family have a variety of favorite fruit passions and subsequent stories. My son’s favorite Aunt Ruth says that the perfect strawberries come from Santa Maria, an hour south of Paso Robles. And she says that the perfect time of year for such berries is from April to early June. My ex husband’s family used to grow the best dry farmed watermelons imaginable out by the airport in Paso Robles—very near where this vineyard view is located. They are still grown by the families who live out in Estrella and they would tell you they are best when harvested in mid to late summer.

My mom’s dad died when I was about 2, so I only remember him in pictures and stories I’ve heard. My dad said that he loved to eat Bing cherries and that one afternoon my grandpa bought a couple pounds from a roadside stand near Mountain View. I guess he sat outside with a metal bowl on the back porch and ate all of them, one after another, laughing and spitting the pits into the bowl in a kind of rapid-fire action. Dad said it sounded like he was firing a machine gun out on the back porch. That story always made me smile as a kid. Of course as I got older and knew that eating too many stone fruit fruits could really make you sick. I got the impression that my grandpa was having such a good time; he could have cared less if he would feel terrible later. Oh, and Bing cherries are best in early June.

My mom loved Blenheim apricots. And a spherical chunky, tree-ripen Blenheim is a site to behold with that amazing light yellowish orange and outside skin and flesh, with the large and shiny brown inside pit. They’re in season mid summer. (That one you really need to be careful and not eat too many in one sitting, or you will be sick. Take if from me.) Southern California is the land of the avocado. For some it has an unpleasant squishy texture, but for the rest of us that soft light green and yellow flesh is amazing when spread liberally on a saltine cracker. Because it’s green, some think it’s maybe a vegetable, but because it has that huge pit it is considered a fruit. Mom said that when she was a girl in LA they frequently had a half avocado filled to overflowing with French dressing for a salad Feb through Sept, with summer being the best time to eat an avocado.

I already mentioned my dad’s love of oranges grown here in California. He also loved to eat vine-ripened tomatoes that came from our mid to late summer garden. My dad loved nothing more than walking out to the garden to check for ripe tomatoes. There he would pick a couple sun warmed crimson colored Early Girl or Better Boy tomatoes while my mom fried the bacon for the deliciously anticipated BLT sandwiches. This was a favorite lunch for them on any given day in the summer. Most years they planted Brandywine or Beefsteak tomatoes as well. They are quite a bit larger and fit nicely on a sandwich, but they would take a bit of time to get up to speed with production, and the flowers on the Early Girl and Better Boy plants set first and produced the bumper crop my mom and he would require for what seemed like their endless burgers and sandwiches. He would almost be in a swoon as he sliced the tomatoes and my mom drained the bacon and assembled the rest of the sandwich. It was always hard for me watch as he would sprinkle salt on the tomato slab, as though the salty bacon wasn’t enough. He put salt on lots of things I found questionable. My dad liked to sprinkle salt on cantaloupe and watermelon. And when I say sprinkle on salt he had this very noticeable and kind of ritualistic sprinkling technique. He brought the shaker way up in front of his face, extended his elbow (Maybe his pinky was extended too…) and he lightly jiggled his wrist to make the shaker go up and down as he carefully watched the shower of salt spread evenly over his food. Crazy what we remember.

Happy Birthday dad! (April 25th) I planted an Early Girl and Better Boy in my garden this year. Can’t wait for the tomatoes to ripen so I can make a BLT and think of you and mom. It is the memories of beautiful food and the people we associate with that food that nourish and sustain us. Right dad?

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