“What is this?”
“Uh...oh. You just eat it…straight?”
Yes, there have been moments when I wonder why I do this. But a thousand columns later — can’t believe it! — I have to confess, I’m addicted.
And it was all total serendipity. If Carla and I hadn’t landed in the apartment across the patio from where the late, great Judith Moore was staying, this never would have happened. Me? A column? Impossible! A thousand columns? You, my friend, need to see a doctor.
For starters, I’ve never stuck at anything for more than five minutes. Besides, what did I know about food, except what fed my face, based on the principle, the most for the least? My tastes in nosh have always been totally catholic, small “c.” Like, universal. It takes a lot for me to really go, “Eieuww!” at anything. I wouldn’t know if there’s too much paprika in the pie if it hit me in the eye.
But Ms. Moore came across and said she wanted a “meat and potatoes” guy like…me! I mean, okay, I thought I was more Errol Flynn than Russell Crowe. Still, wow. She was the paper’s star writer and sometimes editor, who decided the Reader, as the, like, alternative paper in this one-paper town, needed to branch out from just covering the fashionable, expensive eateries that most of its readers probably couldn’t afford anyway. Eleanor Widmer (God rest her) was great, but naturally she wasn’t so much into rough parts of town, greasy spoons.
The other thing we agreed on was that most of the “real” food that ends up in five-star restaurants actually percolates up from the street, from the farm, from tribal lore, from the real world out there.
“So get close to that,” Judith said. “And remember, if you can’t afford a place, you’re eating above your station. Just go to the cheap places that you’re addicted to anyway, from what Carla tells me, and write about what happens. Don’t try to go all gastronomic and complaining about the chef adding too many pinches of salt or the vines not growing on the south-facing slope. Just talk about the food the rest of us can afford to eat.”
I thought Hmm... She’s right. It’s what I do anyway. And what a territory: here we are on the border, two entire civilizations for the price of one. Good excuse to cross the line….
Actually, I think it was a conspiracy between Judith and Carla. They had become kinda tight, and Carla thought it would be good for me to “do something respectable.” Ha! If only she knew.
“But how do you write about ordinary places?” I whined.
“Simple,” says Judith. “Just open your mouth, chew, swallow. Then open your pen. Words will follow.”
Yeah, right. Still, the result has been what you might call mind — and stomach — stretching. An Ed-ucation, you might say, heh-heh.
And fertile ground? Fact is, Baja and San Diego County are both in a continual state of ferment. And what I have discovered is that the easiest and coolest way to break in to other people’s lives is by, well, being there, breaking bread together. Or chopsticks. Or (in the case of Russian meals getting too fun), glasses in the fireplace. I’m getting hungry right now just thinking about it.
By heading out aboard the stretch limos (read: public transportation) of ’Diego, and checking out everyday chow and the people who chew it, I’ve dipped my tootsies in far more puddles than I ever would have and crossed paths with people living a thousand different lives. I have discovered a dozen different San Diegos, too, each doing its separate thing: Little Italy, Little Mogadishu, Little India, Little Saigon, Little Seoul, Little Vientiane, Little Manila, and, hey, Little Munich, as far as the beer revolution’s concerned. And others, like the Thais and Japanese and Chinese and French and Poles and Hungarians and Southerners and Texans and Canucks and Mexicans, are so everywhere, you can’t nail them to any one spot in town. But once and for all, I’ve learned that you can forget the image of ’Diego as bland fish-taco-Bud-Light surf city. I swear, when it comes to eating cheap, we live in the richest city on the continent.
Ed Bedford's first and last interview
Ed Bedford shares some of his experiences and philosophy in honor of his 1000th Tin Fork column, where he has spent two decades writing about "the real world out there" through the lens of San Diego's cheap eats.
My M.O.? At first, busting in to places could be kind of hard. I mean eating, drinking, fine, but finding out what was going on, I had to lock up my shy side and just bumble in. I developed a system that made sure I didn’t get any special treatment but allowed me to do more than just slip food into bags to take home later and analyze. (The late Naomi Wise did that. She had to. Her thing was serious foodie stuff. She was dealing with $200 meals and chefs with attitudes up the wazoo.) So, what I have always done is just go in, order stuff, get the food delivered in front of me, make sure I get the paying for everything squared away, and only then start talking, making a nuisance of myself. Because people are the most interesting part of food. I mean, this is ancient. That Arab desert-hospitality thing of inviting even your worst enemy to break bread with you if he’s hungry must defuse a thousand crises.
So, here are just a few of the stories from the first thousand. So hard to pluck. No special reason I’ve chosen these, except they give me a warm feeling in my stomach. They’re spread as far as the four corners of the county. Not that I have ever set out to do anything as grand as a survey. I have just gone out and seen where the bus takes me, kinda like a dandelion parachute takes to the breeze. We’re both into serendipity.
Like, I was stuck in Popotla, south of Rosarito (this has happened a lot), met this guy they affectionately called El Locochón (“crazy guy”), who had a sort of eatery in a broken-down remnant of a house right at the water. He said, “You hungry?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Wait here.” He ran down to a fishing boat coming in, grabbed a wiggling fish, bonked it on the head, turned a hubcap upside down, poured in some oil, lit a fire, cooked it, and sold me the most delicious fish dinner I have ever eaten.
See all 1000 Ed Bedford reviews at SDReader.com/Ed.